Faculty Development Videoconferences: What We Have Learned

Henry Hartman, Director, STARLINK R. Jan LeCroy Center for Educational Telecommunications and Bob Crook, Director, Satellite Services Dallas County Community College District Dallas, Texas

One of the major benefits of satellite videoconferencing is the opportunity for interaction -- viewers can call in and talk directly to panelists at the origination site, or in most cases they can send questions by fax or e-mail. However they interact, this ensures the program addresses their specific needs and interests, and helps the producers know when the audience is ìconnectingî with the program.

Another way that interactivity can affect, even improve, videoconferences is through the evaluation forms in participantsí print packets. Faculty who fill them out and submit them provide an invaluable service to the producing entities, who are eager to know when the programs are on target -- and when they are not.

This article is based on our experiences with R. Jan LeCroy Center for Educational Telecommunications, of the Dallas County Community College District (DCCCD). LeCroy Center is a recognized national leader in the production and implementation of college credit telecourses and other distance learning products and services.

The Center is home to Dallas Teleconferences, which creates, plans, produces and broadcasts live, interactive programs using satellite technology to reach national and international audiences.

In addition, itís part of STARLINK (State of Texas Academic Resources LINK), a satellite teleconferencing network that is an agency of the Texas Association of Community Colleges, and is co-managed by Austin Community College and the DCCCD.

Although Dallas Teleconferences has been producing videoconferences for three years and STARLINK for six, the 1995/96 academic year was the first time the two units teamed up to offer a series of five professional development videoconferences for college faculty and administrators nationwide. It was important to find out how well this videoconference series did -- or did not -- work in its first year.

Using evaluations provided to every site coordinator at the 1,000+ institutions in the U.S., Canada and Mexico that licensed the videoconferences, we learned a great deal about the ìhitsî and the ìmisses,î and what to do differently in future productions.

Recent Videoconference Topics

The videoconferences comprised the ìEducation Issues and Solutions Seriesî from Dallas Teleconferences, STARLINK and the PBS Adult Learning Satellite Service. The five videoconferences in the 1995/96 series were as follows:

 The Modem Connection:
Using Computers to Teach & Learn

September 28, 1995 (Dallas)

  • Focused on instructional design and importance of administrative support
  • Showcased computer-based courses at Rochester Institute of Technology, Virtual On-line University, New York University, and the DCCCD

Anger in the Classroom

November 9, 1995 (Dallas)

  • Examined reasons for studentsí anger at teachers
  • Offered solutions for coping with student anger, strategies for managing personal anger, and approaches for teachers working collectively

Educational Technology:
Whatís New & How You Can Use It

January 25, 1996 (STARLINK)

  • Provided faculty with fresh ideas on how to promote learning using educational technology
  • Used video examples from 15 colleges and universities to show different types of technology in action and how they have been integrated into existing curricula.

Coping With Changing Campus Culture

February 29, 1996 (Dallas)

  • Identified factors contributing to the new pressures of academic life and their effect on campus culture
  • Suggested ways to cope with stress on both a personal and institutional level
  • Winner of the 1996 Best Videoconference Award from National University Teleconferencing Network

Commercialization of the Info. Superhighway

April 18, 1996 (STARLINK)

  • Used a "Meet the Press" format featuring national leaders from business, education & government to tackle such issues as:
  • "Will the explosion of commercialization on the Internet and Web limit educatorsí access to online resources?"
  • "What is the National Information Infrastructure and where d'es higher education fit into it?"

From the evaluations returned through PBS and those sent directly to STARLINK from its member colleges, we learned that faculty viewers have definite ideas about what worked well and what should be improved in professional development videoconferences.

What Worked Well

Respondents said the following elements were the most effective in the first yearís videoconferences:

  • Topics were pertinent;
  • Panelists provided fresh perspectives;
  • Programs had practical value.

Pertinent Topics

Videoconferences must deal with issues that the audience cares about. Just as audience and purpose are the key elements in expository writing, they must also be the paramount considerations in shaping the messages in videoconferences.

Evaluations for ìCoping With Changing Campus Culture,î for example, confirmed that the program met a real need, one not being dealt with by institutions: ìÖpanelists discussed real issues that are impacting community colleges in particular, issues that are not being addressed at my institution with full faculty involvement.î That comment spoke directly to the main reasons we chose the topic for a videoconference.

Indeed, the cover story for its ìAmericaís Best Collegesî issue in 1994, U.S. News and World Report examined a huge increase in the demand for counseling services by students at colleges and universities. When the LeCroy Centerís ìteleconference topics committeeî (comprised of staff from Dallas Teleconferences, STARLINK, and the marketing, production and instructional services departments) met, we discussed that article, but with a different ìspin.î The group decided that if students were feeling increased stress, changes in campus life in the 1990ís were enough to cause faculty and staff to experience more stress also.

Initially, the intent of ìCoping With Changing Campus Cultureî was to showcase activities underway at higher education institutions that are designed to help their employees cope with such strains as financial pressures, the impact of technology on teaching and learning, and the challenges of serving new and different student populations. However, after two weeks of research, we had not found any such discrete programs, so the decision was made to emphasize the ìcopingî angle. We would use the videoconference to help those at colleges and universities first recognize the problem, and then have the panelists teach faculty to develop personal coping skills. From the comments and ratings on evaluations, it appears that program proved quite pertinent to faculty in the audience.

Fresh Perspectives

Faculty who watch professional development videoconferences are most often looking for new ideas, innovative approaches, and presenters who can articulate and demonstrate topics and concepts effectively. In short, they want to be able to evaluate significant ideas and to hear from thoughtful professionals to which they normally donít have access.

A multi-step process is used to assure that worthwhile topics are chosen for the videoconferences that STARLINK produces for the series (and for those it produces primarily for its member colleges).

A needs assessment is conducted via mail annually among the member colleges. For the 1996 academic year, educational technology was at the top of the list and, therefore, was chosen to be a part of the series.

The next step was to assemble a content committee of educational technology leaders from throughout the state. This group met a number of times, determining that colleges would be best served with examples of how other colleges throughout the country were integrating educational technology into their curriculums. Thus, the ìEducational Technology: Whatís New and How Can You Use Itî videoconference was built around 15 video examples and epitomized the concept of ìmoving ideas, not people.î

In addition, the content committee felt it was important to make national experts accessible to individual colleges, so this became another priority of the research phase. After several months, two experts were chosen to be live presenters. Combining a number of video examples with live experts in this videoconference proved exciting to participants.

Practical Value

One of the best ways to tell that a program matters to viewers -- that it has real-world value and helps them do their jobs better -- is when they want to share its information with their students and co-workers.

One viewer of  ìAnger In The Classroomî said ìI will discuss anger in my courses tomorrow.î Another said ìIíll share what I have learned with my department colleagues.î And a viewer of ìEducational Technologyî said ì75% of the attendees were facultyÖ [who] will use the tape at two division meetings.î These are positive signs that the programs had a realistic point of view and helped faculty in concrete ways.

What Needs Improvement

While positive comments are helpful, we have learned the most from evaluations and comments that suggest ways to make videoconferences more useful:

  • Focus more on ìhow to,î less on ìwhyî;
  • Improve participantsí print packets;
  • Have someone at the local viewing sites provide activities that supplement and enrich the satellite-delivered program.

More ìHow-Toî
By nature, videoconferences tend to be general. They must appeal to faculty who teach at hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide; they are usually contained within 90-120 minutes; and the viewers are from many varied teaching disciplines. Even so, viewers say they want us to spend less program time on theory and more on practical applications.

Given the broad range of audience interests, our approach has often been to provide a good explanation of the broad issues, theories and concepts of a topic, and then let each faculty member extrapolate that information and apply it to their specific teaching discipline or situation.

But participants comment theyíd like more specific guidance. Regarding the ìAnger In The Classroomî teleconference, one viewer requested ìmore ëhow-toí for classroom managementÖmore practical tips, maybe even a dramatization of how to handle some situations.î A viewer of the ìEducational Technologyî program spoke directly: ìTake us step-by-step into how to make a typical lesson for a class.î

In other words, the ìhow-toî is more important than the ìwhy.î If there is time for only one or the other, theyíll be able to derive all the ìwhyî they need once theyíve gotten the details of ìhow.î

Faculty also want a narrower focus to programs, with more in-depth information on how they can implement the activities and approaches highlighted. After ìThe Modem Connection,î a viewer said ìinstead of four example schools, Iíd prefer fewer with more depth (explanation and illustration).î A viewer of ìEducational Technologyî was even more succinct: ìtoo many items in a short period of time.î In other words, streamline the program content, have fewer major concepts, and give more details about them. 

Improve Participantsí Print Packets

Participant print packets are created for every videoconference. A packet is usually a maximum of 25 pages consisting of such elements as a title page, table of contents, program agenda, information on calling in or sending a fax to ask a question, biographies of the presenters and moderator, a bibliography, and material related to program content. This material can be summaries of major topics, a reproduction of the graphics or presentation used by a presenter, or a topical outline.

Packets also include information about upcoming videoconferences, about the LeCroy Center or STARLINK, and an evaluation form. We send the master copy of the packet to the Adult Learning Satellite Service, which adds some information and sends it to site coordinators at each downlink site.

We have been preparing the print packets as a supplement, intended as a general resource to use before, after and during the videoconference. But in evaluations, viewers have told us that a packetís primary value is to serve as an outline and viewing aid during the program: they want the print packets to facilitate their viewing. Comments such as ìhandout should be sequenced according to the presentationî and ìmore organization of handout so [I] could put notes in relative areas w/o flipping aroundî supported this contention.

Another request was for the packet to minimize the need for note taking. A viewer of  ìAnger In The Classroomî wrote ìI would have liked a handout of the specific strategies that were bulleted on the screen.î From now on, we will design the print packets to track more closely with the program, and we will make the packet a direct reinforcement of program content by doing such things as including the graphics that are shown on the video screen.

Local Activities

Thereís a saying in politics that ìall politics is local.î So too are all effective videoconferences. Good technical quality at the origination point is inconsequential if there are audio or video problems at the receive site. The same is true for program content. Pertinent topics, fresh perspectives and practical value are never more meaningful to the viewer than when the television program is reinforced with an engaging, relevant local discussion or other activity at the receiving site.

The site coordinator is key in this regard. As the term suggests, a site coordinator is the person who plans for the downlink, oversees any physical needs, makes copies of and distributes the print packets and, most importantly, arranges for any local activities around the videoconference.

As producers, we include suggestions for local activities in the information sent to site coordinators several weeks prior to the event. These can involve bringing in local people who are experts on the topic to add depth and to relate the information to the local setting, arranging for college faculty or administrators to lead a discussion before and/or after the program about how the information applies to that institution, or similar activities. When local arrangements or activities are missing, the viewers are the ones who miss out.

An evaluation for ìThe Modem Connectionî said ìa person from (instructional technology) to discuss local capacity would helpî while a viewer of  ìCoping With Changing Campus Cultureî wished their site had organized an ìextended discussion to see how relevant this was to us.î

We at the program-origination end have no way of directly influencing what happens at a downlink site before or after a videoconference. But we can include local activities within the body of the program, and we can provide good suggestions for local activities to site coordinators and encourage their use more strongly. Local arrangements and activities -- when handled well -- can be a vital component of a videoconference.

Looking Ahead

The first year of the videoconferencing series from Dallas Teleconferences, STARLINK and PBS was quite successful. More than 1,000 colleges and universities downlinked the programs; evaluations from viewers and from site coordinators were positive; and one program won a national award for best videoconference of the year.

Based on the program evaluations, we have concluded, however, that while these videoconferences were well regarded as professional development activities, faculty want specific improvements in both the programs and the print materials.

This input has greatly influenced the production design of videoconferences for the 1996-97 ìIssues and Solutions in Higher Education Series:î

Critical Thinking: Required Learning for the 21st Century

November 7, 1996 (STARLINK)

This videoconference presents a lively, pragmatic dissection of critical thinking and its uses in the classroom. Two national leaders in critical thinking, Drs, Robert Ennis and Gerald Nosich, answer questions, and provide current thinking on the subject. Rather than get bogged down in theory or various schools of thought, these presenters guide participants through the various elements of critical thinking, suggest ways to use it to transform their teaching, and model teaching strategies across the curriculum.

Dancing on the Edge of Chaos

December 5, 1996 (Dallas)

John Cleveland, co-director of the Center for Continuous Improvement at Grand Rapids Community College, uses a workshop format to explain why "the edge of chaos" is where higher education should be and why learning how to deal with it will give colleges and universities their best chance to grow and prosper. He uses the latest insights in science, learning theory and organizational theory to help viewers make sense of education in the ë90ís. In response to desire for local activities, the program includes a segment in which audience members work alone and in small groups at local sites.

Exposing the Naked Truth: Use and Abuse of the Internet

January 23, 1997 (Dallas)

Panelists explore the problems and controversies colleges and universities face when they provide Internet access to faculty, staff and students. Scenarios of such problems as pornography, privacy, institutional liability, harassment and freedom of speech are examined and discussed in depth by a panel including Dr. Frank Connolly, professor of Computer Science and Information Systems at American University and head of the American Association for Higher Educationís effort on ethics and technology, Dr. Virginia Rezmierski, University of Michigan and Chair of the National Task Force on Privacy and the Handling of Student Issues, and Steven McDonald, associate legal counsel at Ohio State University and a specialist in media and cyberspace law. Panelists deal with the "how-toís," not the "whyís," of confronting these issues. This topic was suggested on an evaluation from last year.

Educational Technology ë97: Anything, Anytime, Anywhere, With Anyone

February 27, 1997 (STARLINK)

Dr. Diana Oblinger, Academic Program Manager of the Institute for Academic Technology at the University of North Carolina, hosts a follow-up to her highly successful ë96 videoconference. From requests off last yearís evaluations, this program focuses on the "how to" of multimedia. Oblinger walks viewers through the steps of converting one or two example courses to a more interactive, multimedia format.

Accreditation on Trial: Who Needs It?

April 24, 1997 (Dallas)

This videoconference uses a format like that of a congressional hearing to explore the role of accreditation and credentialing in todayís world of technology-based instruction, distance education, and the fast-moving demands of business. Higher education specialist Michael Goldstein of the Washington, D.C. law firm Dow, Lohnes & Albertson, leads the session. Panelists include Dr. James Rogers, executive director of the Commission on Colleges, of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools; and Bill Long, executive director of training and employee development at Hughes Training, Inc. Securing panelists from law and business, as well as higher education, attempts to ensure the practical, real-world value of this program.

Reality Check

Videoconferences, in order to be successful, must present information that matters and must do so in a manner that is engaging. They must deal with issues from the ìreal world,î and they must affect the viewers intellectually, emotionally or both.

Evaluations from viewers are the best way for producers to know what works and what d'esnít -- and why. Along with call-in questions, faxes and e-mail, evaluations from viewers are another way to make videoconferences a truly interactive educational experience -- program producers and viewers learning from each other.

For more on the 96-97 ìIssues and Solutions in Higher Education Series,î contact PBS at 1-800-257-2578.

Henry Hartman is director of STARLINK at R. Jan LeCroy Center for Educational Telecommunications at Dallas County Community College District, Texas. E-mail: [email protected] 

Bob Crook is director of Satellite Services for Dallas County Community College District, Texas. E-mail: [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.