TelEE: A Description of an Interactive Telecommunication Graduate Course


Effective application of telecommunication technologies provides new opportunities for extension and enhancement of teaching and learning. In addition, combinations of technologies such as e-mail, Web sites, and discussion networks are being used in many different class settings to help bridge physical distances.


“Recognizing that teaching via telecommunications is different from face-to-face teaching is the first step in preparing to teach effectively; the second step is to adapt teaching style, method and presentation to accommodate or compensate for the differences” (Lacy & Wolcott 1988).


Faculty from four North Carolina campuses have collaborated to design a graduate environmental education course. Entitled TelEE, the course uses the interactive communication environment, the North Carolina Research and Education Network (NC-REN). This network, NC-REN Interactive Video Services (, is a multi-site, multi-channel, interactive network connecting over 19 universities, medical schools and research organizations in North Carolina. The network operates three channels of analog video and audio, which are used for face-to-face communications in credit coursework, continuing education, collaborative conferences, interactive seminars and workshops. Additional video capability is achieved via compressed video on the NC-REN Internet Service. Together, the sites manage more than 50 interactive video facilities across NC-REN. The network interfaces with the North Carolina Information Highway.


All classes are videotaped, copied and shared with each site, and archived in the TelEE library for use by absentees. In addition, e-mail is used for faculty and student communication and clarification. A Web site and course homepage with syllabus is used for information transfer and course organization, and a Web forum is used to discuss topics, clarify presenters’ content, and answer specific student questions.


The description, planning and evaluation of this course add to the growing use of distance learning with associated technologies. The TelEE course is an example of a specific application of distance learning technology. In most cases, distance learning refers to the source of knowledge emanating from one faculty member on one campus to a receiving audience of students. Thus, there are potentially large economies of scale, i.e., one faculty member (single source of knowledge) to hundreds of students. TelEE teaches across a distance, but the emphasis is on the interaction of four campuses; thus there is an equality of knowledge sources. The ratio of faculty to students is similar to that of a seminar.



Need for the TelEE Course

The rationale for the initiation of this course is based on four premises:

1.          No environmental education course previously existed within the 16-campus University of North Carolina system.

2.          The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction decided that a third secondary science course in earth/environmental science would be required by fall 2000.

3.          The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction also decided that in-service teachers need professional development in order to be qualified to teach.

4.          The Office of Environmental Education, North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, has re-established environmental education as a priority in both formal and non-formal education within the state. The environmental education certification program emanating from this office has been a key factor.



Collaboration and Interaction

Scholars and proponents of interactive technologies claim that collaboration and interaction are important components of course design. These ingredients can help instructors avoid the pitfalls of technology courses that rely on information acquisition and repetition of rote answers, which reflect low-level learning (Dede 1996; Pea 1993; and Savard et. al. 1995). Pea (1993) argues that “combinations of new computer technologies that facilitate collaboration and communication among learners [and instructors] can support and enhance learning, particularly distance learning.” Dede (1996) claims that collaboration and interaction “provide a social context that reinforces and motivates learning.”


Science educators were interested in working together and combining their different areas of expertise. They were able to use the state of North Carolina’s interactive telecommunication system to extend each of their environmental education classrooms. Collaboration formed the backbone of the instructional preparation, course design and implementation. For this course to succeed, students must be actively engaged in the course topics, and be challenged to interact with faculty, guest presenters, and their classmates from a distance.



Collaborating on Instructional Course Design

Like any partnership striving for excellence, the formation of an intercampus collaboration is guided by at least three principles: a common intellectual challenge, complementary expertise, and personal liking (Mons et. al. 1998). In this case, the faculty were motivated by a desire to work together and, in the process, were able to complement and challenge each other in different areas of expertise. The represented disciplines included biological science, marine science, science education, elementary and middle grade education, and curriculum development. This collaborative effort contributed to a greater breadth of scope than any one individual could.


Planning is an essential component of collaboration. Two meetings of the faculty were required prior to the course to determine syllabus content, as well as the responsibilities of faculty at each site. During the course, communication via e-mail, fax and phone assisted in the planning process. Evaluation and refinement of future courses was conducted using interactive video telecommunication. These meetings were essential to allow input from each faculty member, and to make changes and adjustments that meet all needs.



Course Design: Campus Responsibilities and Assessment

The design of the course incorporates many of the state and national science and environmental education requirements. For example, the TelEE course addresses the critical need for science teachers to learn essential science content through the perspectives and methods of inquiry recommended in the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council 1996). The TelEE course is designed as an evening graduate course with individual site autonomy. Each campus (East Carolina University, North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina-Charlotte, and University of North Carolina-Wilmington) has its own course number and title. The class meets once a week from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. The target audience includes teachers, environmental educators, people returning to the work force, pre-service teachers in K-12 programs, educators, and doctoral students in educational research.


Each faculty member is responsible for the assessment criteria of his or her own students. Journals, critiques of Web sites, critiques of environmental education curricula, reviews of books written by nationally recognized environmentalists, development of environmental education activities, and a mid-term examination were among some of the student products assessed by the faculty.


The course is designed to introduce three concepts: 1) environmental science; 2) teaching strategies, demonstrations, and pedagogy; and 3) environmental resources. The multi-campus aspects provide some of the most qualified scientists and researchers to present the content. Environmental education professionals from organizations such as parks and nature centers provide additional information, resources and insightful discussions for course topics. Through the telecommunications capabilities, students are able to meet people and discuss ideas with leaders in environmental science and environmental education whom they otherwise may never have met. The course faculty presents a conceptual overview of the pedagogy of teaching methods and resources to be transferred to the classroom. The faculty at each site are responsible for the planning and execution of three to four of the total 15 sessions. Selecting, contacting and scheduling the guest speakers, as well as distributing course materials to students at all sites are the responsibilities of the site faculty.


The course meets for three hours. The first two hours employ the distance learning video telecommunication network with all four campuses participating simultaneously. Students are encouraged to interact with presenters, faculty and other students during this time. The third hour is different at each site. It is devoted to meeting the needs of individual faculty and students at each site.


Students participate in faculty-designed hands-on activities over the distance learning network. These activities have included water quality monitoring tests, remote sensing simulations, paper simulations on habitat fragmentation, and Geographic Information Systems exercises. Some activities were demonstrated at one campus and observed by the others. Several activities were conducted simultaneously by all four classes, and the results were discussed over the Web.


Sometime during the semester, it is valuable to set up a common meeting opportunity for students from all sites to meet face-to-face. A session at the North Carolina Science Teacher’s Convention was arranged as an optional meeting for students in the TelEE class. After students interact with other students at different sites via video, it is extraordinary for the students actually to meet face-to-face. One student commented: “At the North Carolina Science Teachers Convention, the informal connections were exciting. Seeing the faculty and participants as real people, and being able to talk one-on-one was great.”



Presentation Methods Vary Within the Course

In 1997, two presentations were in the form of a panel. For example, one panel included administrators from the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources, NC Department of Public Instruction, and the UNC system. Other sessions featured well-known experts. The author of an environmental science textbook, Dr. William Cunningham, University of Minnesota, described the need for international environmental science knowledge, and requested feedback from each college campus. Another session included both the administrator and the educator. The Director of the NC Zoo, in a prerecorded 30-minute video, presented an overview of endangered species. The NC Zoo’s Curator of Education demonstrated activities supporting the director’s presentation. In other sessions, scientists focused on such topics as air quality, marine science, wetlands, land use, waste management, habitat integrity and water quality. Education specialists from other state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and NC Parks, taught practical classroom activities that enhanced the technical presentations.


Creating an Interactive Communication Environment

It is a challenge for both faculty and students to communicate “across the distance” with each other. Therefore, the teaching methodology was designed to engage students actively in the topics. The course design encourages an intellectual dialogue of geographically diverse scientists, science educators, and students from around the state. Students can compare urban development or water quality issues of Charlotte (a large city in the Piedmont) to those of Greenville (a smaller city in the Coastal Plain). Interactive video and the Web were implemented to accommodate working participants.


Students were asked to continue the dialogue and to post additional questions on the Web during the week. Further interaction and dialogue through the course homepage included weekly-generated faculty questions and announcements. Further interaction requires planning and faculty involvement. Students submitted resources on specific topics that they found on the Web. They could respond to other student or faculty Internet discussions, initiate questions, or request assistance on certain topics.



Summary and Conclusions

Preliminary observations concerning the TelEE course are that it met many of both the academic and technological expectations. It has been a successful three-year pilot program. Many of the lessons that were learned in 1997, 1998, and 1999 will be integrated into the fall 2000 course. The faculty now has greater knowledge concerning group interactions using telecommunications. Speakers can be better prepared, and delivery can be improved. One doctoral student commented, “I have the feeling this course will offer much to learn each time it is offered, as the topics are so deep and the students so varied in perspective and experience.”


The faculty must consider the implications of research in science education while using interactive telecommunication to teach. Many questions remain and must be included in the research agenda. Is there a way to assure that this approach, combining science education and technology, meets the needs of the students? Will students self-select this type of course? How will the multi-campus collaboration be maintained and rewarded? Are there other impacts that the faculty have not yet identified? How d'es this method of delivery compare to other more traditional methods?


Faculty members from each of the collaborative institutions are convinced that this method of teaching and learning deserves continuing work and effort, and look forward to improving future TelEE offerings.



Dr. Lundie Spence is an environmental educator with North Carolina Sea Grant at North Carolina University.

E-mail: [email protected]


Dr. Harriett Stubbs is a Research Associate Professor at North Carolina State University, and is director of the SCI-LINK Environmental Programs. Her research interests encompass professional development for educators and scientific information dissemination.

E-mail: [email protected]


Dr. Richard A. Huber is an Associate Professor of Science Education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

E-mail: [email protected]


Keys to Success

1.      The location of the distance learning works best when the studio is easily accessible to students and presenters.

2.      The course is most successful when the class occupies the same room for the entire three hours.

3.      The greatest bonding and communication occurred in the rooms that had a boardroom arrangement. These “round-table” formats enabled students and faculty to see each other equally. As Comeaux (1995) asserts, “the distance learning networks of the future need to be designed to enhance the communication and learning process in the classroom.” The round-table designs enhanced interaction. The traditional classroom styles (all chairs facing forward) had built-in boundaries — students looked at the backs of the heads of those sitting in front of them; therefore, eye contact with each other was difficult. This was especially problematic when a student responded to another student in the same room. In such situations, the individual would have to face forward and, in effect, address the camera rather than follow the more natural inclination to establish eye contact with each other. This was necessary so that the camera could focus on the student speaking and the microphone could pick up his or her voice.

4.      Studio site technicians need to maintain tight close-ups of presenters. The closer the camera can focus on the presenter, the greater the perceived eye contact between speaker and audience. This seemed to help increase presenter/participant interaction. When the camera backed off for a full-body view, the students seemed to lose interest. Involving technicians in the class objectives helps facilitate the verbal interactions between students and presenters by following the interaction with the cameras. This process works best when the individual who wants to speak or ask a question identifies his or her site and name so the technician can quickly focus the camera. Two or more times during the two-hour session, we asked the technicians to create a split or four-way screen, so all students at every site could see themselves and feel part of the program.

5.      To help facilitate interaction, students and faculty wear large-print nametags. When a student who is responding or initiating a question states his or her name and site, it provides a clue to the NC-REN central technicians to focus on that student quickly. Over the length of the course, student shyness with the camera and television monitor was reduced. Students noted in their evaluations that commercial television watching is very passive, so it takes some adjustment to engage actively with a TV monitor. “It is somewhat awkward, because you treat it like a TV instead of a two-way device, and it is hard to get comfortable talking to a TV,” commented one student. Another pointed out: “It is also a little socially uncomfortable, in that it is hard to know whose turn it is [to talk] or how to know when you can break in.”

6.      Make sure all involved are orientated to the technology. To encourage interaction across the distance and among four different sites, faculty members tried to create a comfortable interpersonal communication environment to help students “demystify the technology” so that they felt more comfortable with the cameras and the microphones.

7.      Invited presenters needed information, ways to present materials, how to interact with the four sites, and appropriate attire that photographs well. In addition, a varied presentation format could be used, including the graphic camera (similar to an overhead projector), slides and/or video clips for greater interest of the students. One speaker who possibly commanded the greatest attention of the audience used the graphics camera in a very personal interaction with the students, noting their opinions and verbally bringing each site into some type of intimate engagement. Camera close-ups of the speaker’s head and shoulders allowed eye contact, and close-ups focused the attention of the viewers. The speaker encouraged the participants to speak with him and with other participants. He engaged each site by asking questions. Questions addressed to specific sites generally worked best. For example: “ECU, is acid rain a problem in your region?” The speaker practiced “wait-time” after each question and used it to his advantage, just looking straight ahead until someone in the audience answered.



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This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.