Promoting Group Investigation in a Graduate-Level ITV Classroom: Reflections and Recommendations

##AUTHORSPLIT##<--->In “Teaching via ITV: Taking Instructional Design to the Next Level” (T.H.E. Journal, April 1999), Karen Jarrett Thoms presented a set of visual literacy and instructional design guidelines based on her experiences teaching an ITV course at St. Cloud State University. The purpose of this article is to build on Thoms’ suggestions by presenting one instructor’s reflections on teaching three graduate-level seminars via ITV at Washington State University (WSU) and then proposing several recommendations for the development of “second generation” ITV classrooms that support interactive, participatory teaching styles.


ITV Instruction in Higher Education

The use of interactive television (ITV) in higher education is growing rapidly. Universities as well as four- and two-year colleges are expanding their ITV course offerings to meet the needs of adult learners whose employment, family obligations, and geographic location make on-campus attendance difficult (Semrau and Boyer 1994; Lyons, MacBrayne and Johnson 1994). In addition, ITV is seen as a way of reducing costs, while creating greater access to higher education, especially for students in rural areas (Pool 1996).


In spite of this growth, research on ITV courses has been limited largely to assessments of students’ achievement and satisfaction (Biner, Dean and Mellinger 1994; Magiera 1994; Pugh and Siantz 1995). In addition, a few researchers have examined faculty satisfaction with ITV classrooms and their perceptions of its effectiveness (Barrett et al 1995; Gehlauf et al 1991; Kendall and Oaks 1992; Nahl 1993; Sedlak and Cartwright 1997). For example, Kendall and Oaks found that “lecture, case study, and question/answer strategies were judged to be as effective ... as in the traditional classroom. In contrast, a significant percentage of [ITV] instructors said group discussion, seminar, Socratic, and question/answer strategies were less effective.” And finally, at least one study has examined the impact of ITV instruction on students’ satisfaction with ITV classrooms; Silvernail and Johnson (1992) found that students rate ITV systems and instructors separately, regardless of instructional style.


Studies of faculty satisfaction with ITV notwithstanding, there are very few self-reports of how faculty perceive and adjust to the unique challenges of using highly interactive, inquiry-oriented methods in an ITV environment. Given this dearth of research, Moore and Kearsley (1996) state that “research, especially of an experimental kind, is urgently needed concerning ... techniques of facilitating interaction [in an ITV environment].”



WSU, a Research 1 land-grant university in the Northwest, uses a two-way audio-video microwave system (the Washington Higher Education Telecommunication System [WHETS]) to deliver courses to several sites around the state, including three branch campuses and two community colleges. Currently, WSU delivers about 70 ITV courses per semester, and more than 30 classrooms on campus are capable of sending and receiving over the system. Technical, academic, and support coordination for ITV courses is provided through WSU’s Educational Telecommunications and Technology Center.


Among the extensive forms of support WSU provides WHETS instructors is an Instructor’s Handbook. This handbook presents a comprehensive and useful set of instructional tips, including suggestions from other faculty who have taught on WHETS. To help instructors adjust to a new classroom environment, WHETS conducts workshops to introduce them to teaching in an electronic classroom.


Instructors also receive support from site coordinators and operator/facilitators at the various WHETS locations. Site coordinators, for example, assisted the instructor with students’ course registrations, book orders, placing reading materials on reserve at off-campus locations, distributing handouts, and arranging for occasional on-site visits to the other WHETS locations. The instructor worked with operator/facilitators on determining optimum student seating arrangements, using overhead transparencies, and overcoming occasional aberrations in sound and video quality.


In addition, a technical evaluation of WHETS is given to students at each site during the fifth week of class. Soon after the evaluation, the instructor receives a printout of the results from each site, and this information can be used to make adjustments if needed. At the end of the semester, instructors complete an evaluation of their experiences teaching on WHETS. This information is used to improve the WHETS instructional delivery system and to revise the Instructor’s Handbook.


The Author’s Teaching Style

The instructor taught three graduate-level education courses via ITV during 1997-1998. The first course, Curriculum Implementation, was taught in fall of 1997 to students in an ITV classroom on campus and to students in an ITV classroom at a community college 200 miles away. In a similar manner, the second course, Basic Principles of Curriculum Design, was taught in spring of 1998 to on-campus students and to students located at a remote ITV site 250 miles away. Lastly, during the summer of 1998, the author taught Improvement of Instruction to on-campus students and to students at two remote ITV sites.


The courses were designed as participatory, inquiry-oriented seminars. Since students in these courses are typically mature adults with extensive professional experiences and expertise in addressing educational issues, they are expected to become involved in seminar activities and to make thoughtful, relevant contributions to class discussions.


A Typical Class in a Traditional Setting

During a typical class meeting in a “traditional” setting, the instructor alternates between short (about 20-30 minutes) mini-lectures, during which he uses an overhead projector and moves about the room to maintain students’ interest and emphasize key concepts, and short (again, about 20-30 minutes) discussions or conversations, during which he is seated in a circle or semi-circle with students. Typically, the instructor facilitates at least one small-group activity during a three-hour seminar. The groups of students may be given various themes to discuss, and the instructor would circulate among the groups, listening to the discussions and making occasional comments.


Problems Encountered

In a traditional classroom environment, facilitating group investigation is challenging. In an ITV classroom such as that presented in Figure 1, it is even more difficult. Instructors must “deal with the challenges of providing quality education to off-site students through seemingly impersonal means of communicating” (Pool 1996). While using a group investigation style of teaching, the instructor experienced four salient challenges, each of which is documented briefly in the following sections:


·         Coping with a rigid, inflexible teaching environment.


·         Creating classroom “community” and group cohesiveness.


  • Encouraging student involvement and thoughtfulness.


·         Responding to technical difficulties.


A Rigid, Inflexible Teaching Environment

On several occasions, the first author heard other faculty members, students, and WHETS personnel describe WHETS classrooms as designed for the “talking head” or the “sage on the stage.” To the extent that an instructor’s preferred style of teaching deviates from the aforementioned approach, he or she will experience frustration while teaching in an environment similar to the currently available WHETS classrooms. The absence of flexible, moveable seating is an enormous impediment to using a group investigation model of teaching.


Classroom “Community” and Group Cohesiveness

When asked what they miss most while teaching on WHETS, WSU instructors highlighted several difficulties, each of which is vital to the creation of community and group cohesiveness:


·         Personal contact, having the students all in the same room, seeing their responsiveness ... student interaction/dialogue.


·         Having to remain stationary ... not being able to move among the students.


·         Occasional trouble hearing students at other sites (Instructor’s Handbook).


ITV classrooms are unique in that students, as well as instructors, must continually be aware of the challenges of communicating in such an environment. For example, the instructor frequently had to remind students to speak directly into a microphone so students at the remote site could hear, or vice versa. Or, he frequently had to ask students to preface their comments/questions with their name, so students at the other site could identify the speaker. In an ITV environment, an instructor may find his/her diligent, sensitive efforts to facilitate effective communication “undermined” by the unwitting behaviors of individual students — for example, speaking softly, not speaking directly into a microphone, making distracting movements, etc. As a result, factors that diminish the effectiveness of an ITV course can be beyond an instructor’s ability to control or influence. Clearly, these factors go beyond the contextual ambiguities that have always been among the challenges of teaching in a traditional classroom.


Student Involvement and Thoughtfulness

In a traditional classroom environment, encouraging students to become involved thoughtfully in discussions can be challenging; in an ITV classroom, it can be even more difficult. The level of intimacy, affect, cohesion, group identity, and intellectual rigor possible when members of a group interact at a single location is greater than the level that can be developed at a remote ITV site. For example, in one ITV course he taught, the instructor had several “average” students at a remote site. In a traditional classroom, he could have used a wider range of behaviors to engage these students. In the ITV setting, however, his options were significantly limited; thus he felt that remote-site students, at times, came to their site at a community college to “watch television.” In defense of these students, however, he should point out that he experienced just the reverse on three occasions when he traveled to the community college site and taught the course from that location. Students at the ITV classroom on the main campus occasionally gave the impression that they were “watching television.” These observations are a powerful reminder of how communication is enhanced immeasurably by direct, face-to-face interactions and how deeply ingrained the behavior of “watching television” is in our culture.


Responding to Technical Difficulties

Technical difficulties while teaching in a WHETS classroom, the instructor found, were infrequent; however, when they occurred, they brought teaching and learning activities to an abrupt halt. Occasional degradations in sound and/or video quality (lasting only a few minutes, usually) were the most common equipment- and transmission-related problems encountered. On one occasion, for example, while teaching from a remote site “back” to the ITV classroom on the main campus, a power surge completely eliminated the audio signal between the two sites for about 12 minutes. That evening, two pairs of students at the main campus site were to give short presentations. While the WHETS technical staff worked on solving the problem, the instructor tried to figure out how to re-schedule the students’ presentations, with only two remaining class sessions. Meanwhile, the students at the main campus site practiced their pantomime skills and made block-letter signs in an effort, perhaps, to convince the instructor that they could still press ahead with their presentations!


The “Second Generation” ITV Classroom

The criteria for evaluating the appropriateness of ITV classrooms should be the degree to which their design makes the technical and operational aspects of the ITV classroom as unobtrusive as possible. Accordingly, the final section of this paper presents: 1) a set of guidelines for the development of what might be called “second generation” ITV classrooms and 2) a detailed model for how such classrooms should be equipped.


The following criteria have been identified as critical attributes for design of the “second generation” ITV classroom. These considerations are based on an analysis of 14 years of development, evaluation, and change of the WHETS system at Washington State University. Figure 2 presents the essential elements and design considerations that should apply to construction of new or remodeled space for ITV classrooms.



Currently, WHETS instructional classrooms accommodate 30-40 students. The industry guideline of providing 25 square feet or more per student should be adhered to for all new structures. This area provides accommodation for classroom furniture, cameras, monitors and the teaching console. Instructional facilities used for studio or laboratory classes must be larger to accommodate equipment, laboratory apparatus and special considerations such as wet labs and storage. While traditional classrooms as well as ITV classrooms have been designed to “golden rectangle” proportions, it can be advantageous to avoid a “front” or “back” for the room. One should not be afraid to experiment with non-traditional shapes such as pentagons, trapezoids or the inclusion of alcoves for furniture storage. In addition, non-parallel walls can help control audio reverberation.


Room Color

The color and “feel” of a room can be very important to the learning environment. However, this quality needs to be balanced against the technical requirements of the medium. For example, flesh tones should be avoided for both room and clothing colors. Blues are flattering to skin tones when viewed on monitors. High contrast color combinations should also be avoided. “Busy” patterns and rough textures should also be avoided, since they distract from the foreground and cause unwanted patterns in video images. Hard surfaces should also be avoided, as they contribute to audio problems. Floors should be carpeted to help absorb sound and reduce noise from footfalls and moving furniture. Carpeting is especially important when students move about the room into breakout groups or to make presentations.



Chairs, instructional tables, learning centers, and other teaching apparatus should be chosen for maximum movement and flexibility. Chairs should be upholstered and designed for comfort and ease of movement. Wheels or casters on furniture facilitate efficient movement and flexible formats. Bright paint, chrome surfaces, and highly reflective items should be avoided. Tables should seat 3-5 students, and should be at least 24” deep to accommodate students’ books and materials. Tables should also be capable of being joined for learning groups of different sizes. All furniture should be capable of being folded and stacked for placement against walls or removal from the facility altogether when group activities require extra space. Storage closets or alcoves should also be considered in designing the ITV classroom.


The flexible use of white boards can enhance the learning experience. As an alternative, “smart” boards are now available that transmit written information to remote sites via a data channel. Additionally, information written on the board can be saved electronically for later transmission or the generation of notes to document the session.



The flexible movement of classroom furniture requires sound transmission that is independent of table-mounted microphones that require hard-wire permanent mounts. Interactive audio delivery in the second-generation classroom is facilitated by a ceiling microphone system that covers the entire classroom. Overhead microphone systems require careful design and must be integrated into the mechanical plan so that lighting, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) and fire suppression systems don’t interfere. Also, low HVAC noise is crucial for making such a system work. While overhead microphones work, one should realize that the resultant sound quality will not equal that obtained with table microphones or other microphones within a couple of feet of the speaker. Lastly, the instructor should have a wireless microphone system to enable movement throughout all areas of the classroom.



The ideal noise c'efficient (NC) for a classroom is between NC 25-35. Experience has verified that an upper ceiling of NC 35 is the allowable maximum to insure effective audio. For ceiling mounted microphones, the NC should be 25, which is a relatively “quiet” room. Sound treatment on the walls, floors, and ceilings is needed to minimize adverse reverberant conditions.


Outside sound must be eliminated to the maximum degree possible to facilitate the interactive nature of in-room instruction. This argues for interior rooms well away from traffic and mechanical room noise. Increasingly, ITV classrooms are constructed with dense sound-blocking materials in both ceiling and walls. Commercial grade carpeting is also highly desirable for its ability to reduce adverse sound and for the contribution it makes to the visual ambiance of the classroom.


Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning

In order to meet the above noise c'efficient of NC 25-30, the HVAC must be low velocity, with sound absorption material in the ducts. Also, designers of ITV classrooms should be aware that there is a heat gain in an ITV classroom from additional lights and electronics. Since students occupy ITV classrooms for up to three hours at a time, at intense levels of concentration, the room should have temperature and humidity controls that allow for complete changes of air on a cycle consistent with normal classroom conditions.



ITV classrooms have special lighting needs. First, there needs to be enough light for television cameras to work properly. Secondly, light shining directly on video monitors degrades the image and causes reflections. Finally, light aimed straight down causes shadows under the eyes and poor definition on faces. Therefore, indirect bounced lighting can help provide even, diffused light on faces and objects and prevent reflections from monitor faces. Recessed parabolic fluorescent fixtures meet conditions one and two but not three; however, they are a reasonable compromise in retrofitting existing spaces. Warm white fluorescent tubes have proven to be effective in providing ample lumens as well as color balance for the cameras.


Lighting also needs to be provided expressly for the instructor at primary teaching locations in the room. Track lighting configured in a spotlight format equipped with halogen bulbs has proven effective for modeling and definition of the instructor’s image. Controllable back lighting on the instructor should also be provided to enhance definition and separate the instructor from the background. Also, it is important that lighting systems be adjustable to avoid spilling light directly onto monitors. Since ITV classrooms may not be used exclusively for instruction, but also for viewing video materials, films or for teleconferencing, it is desirable to provide for light dimming capability.



Traditionally, ITV classrooms have been equipped with direct-view and rear-projection monitors. The disadvantages of direct-view monitors have been their size limitations of 35-inch-wide faces that reflect light, and their awkward size and weight. Rear-projection monitors are bulky, have poor off-axis viewing and limited resolution, and their performance is degraded by high levels of ambient light. New high-resolution plasma displays, on the other hand, offer large display areas, yet are as thin as 4 inches. In addition to displaying television signals, plasma displays are also capable of projecting computer images. Plasma displays can be wall mounted or placed on mobile stands. While the current cost of plasma displays is high — around $8,000 for a 40-inch unit — costs should come down as high definition television (HDTV) drives consumer demand for the displays.


Mobility is important, particularly if monitors are needed to support individual groups of learners in separate activities conducted within the classroom. With their compact design, plasma displays meet this mobility criterion. Monitors should be placed approximately 50 to 60 inches above a flat floor to ensure a comfortable viewing height that d'es not require learners to tilt their heads back while taking notes or viewing both the table level and monitors.


Raceways (Wireways)

Obviously, in an “electronic” classroom, raceways are critical to its optimal function. A myriad of wires weave their way among cameras, monitors, and microphones in an ITV classroom and in the nearby control room. In new construction, it is advisable to use access flooring for wiring in both the classroom and control room. Wiring in this manner allows for easy rearranging of facilities if new equipment or pedagogies dictate changes in the future.


Plenum ceilings add significantly to costs since they require plenum-rated cables or pulling all cables in through conduit. Good engineering practices should always be followed so that video, audio, and data circuits are separate, thus avoiding the possibility of cross-talk. For example, ladder trays are a convenient method of providing separation and a neat installation that will allow easy revision and upgrading in the future.



As mentioned earlier, the trend to offer higher education programs via ITV will continue to expand (Spille, Stewart and Sullivan 1997; Stewart 1995). It is the authors’ hope, then, that the guidelines presented in this article will hasten the creation of ITV classrooms that reflect our realization that “the key to developing and maintaining a quality learning environment rests in the relationships that surround the video monitor in the classroom ... and with the technology itself” (Freddolino 1996).



Forrest W. Parkay is Professor of Educational Leadership at Washington State University (WSU). He was a Visiting Fulbright Scholar in Thailand, 1996-97. During that time he established partnerships between WSU and two Thai universities. Parkay is the author or co-author of numerous books and articles, including Curriculum Planning: A Contemporary Approach (Allyn and Bacon, 2000) and Becoming a Teacher (Allyn and Bacon, 1998).


E-mail: [email protected]


Merrill M. Oaks is Professor of Teaching and Learning and former Director of Technology Education at Washington State University. His most recent publication is “Technological Literacy: A Twenty-First Century Imperative” in Curriculum Planning: A Contemporary Approach.


E-mail: [email protected]


Donald C. Peters is Project Manager, Educational Telecommunications and Technology, at Washington State University. WSU was identified by Yahoo Internet as the number one public and number seven overall “most wired college” in the country for 1999. Forbes magazine included WSU in its top 20 list of cyber-universities in America for use of the latest technology for distance education.


E-mail: [email protected]




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This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.