Teaching in High Def at Liberal Arts Colleges

June 19, 2013 § 1 Comment

How do liberal arts colleges reconcile traditional high touch pedagogy with the growing prevalence of virtual communication technologies and, if so, what kinds of value can these technologies bring to the liberal arts business model? High definition (aka HD or high def) videoconferencing holds out the promise of virtually replicating face-to-face interaction. Cisco coined the term “telepresence” to describe this phenomenon, and many liberal arts colleges have turned to this technology as more fitting to the liberal arts experience and pedagogy than lower fidelity options like skype or desktop videoconferencing.  NITLE has been experimenting in this area for several years, and today held an event, “Teaching in High Definition” via HD videoconferencing to showcase two language instructors who have been teaching in this medium for the last academic year.

Language instructors in particular find HD videoconferencing attractive because the sound and video clarity allows for both the oral and visual communication that is so vital to learning a foreign language. The lack of time lag and the synchronicity of audio and video mean students can match what they are hearing with movements of the face and mouth.  It surpasses traditional video conferencing in much the same way that HD TVs surpass analog televisions. In theory then, HD videoconferencing seems like an ideal solution for sharing language instruction across campuses as well as for globalizing the classroom with international speakers or dialogues.

Both the Texas Language Consortium (TLC) and the Daemen College’s Virtual Language Learning Project (a pilot project for the CIEL, the Consortium for Innovative Environments in Learning) aim at increasing opportunities for students to learn world languages. In the academic year 2012-2013, TLC used multipoint HD videoconferencing to offer German, French, Chinese and Spanish across five campuses to students that would not otherwise have it.  In the same year, Daemen College tested the effectiveness of point-to-point HD videoconferencing for teaching language in 8 classes of multiple levels and topics. They hope to use this technology for teaching less commonly taught languages across CIEL.

Silke Feltz, an instructor of English and German at Schreiner University (part of TLC) and Melissa Fiori, an associated professor of Modern Languages at Daemen College shared their experiences teaching in this environment. Their presentations gave the audience the chance to hear about the actual practice of pedagogy in this environment.  Does it fulfill its promise and how must pedagogy change?

Both Feltz and Fiori were clearly comfortable in front of the camera, but I was struck by how much more there was to teaching in HD than the mere presence of videoconferencing technology itself. In fact, several questions from the audience focused on methods to create social presence for the instructor and to increase the amount of interaction between instructor and students, as well as between fellow students. Feltz used a camera that automatically tracked her movements while teaching and described walking towards the camera to increase her social presence with remote students. She also helped connect local and remote students by putting them on camera when she approached them. Class time, however, was only part of the picture. She scheduled extra-curricular activities, including movie viewings and book clubs, which were done in small groups on each campus, and held office hours via skype. She even drove to other campuses to meet her remote students face-to-face.  While HD videoconferencing offers the possibility of high quality real time interaction during class time, it seems that the instructor has to find other ways to replicate all the other face-to-face activities typical of a residential liberal arts college. Feltz noted that teaching via videoconferencing was not harder than face-to-face but it was different and required advance planning to work through logistical issues.

Similarly Fiori supplemented her video interaction with other tools. Students used online textbook resources and the Blackboard learning management system outside of class, and used Adobe connect in the classroom for one-on-one textual interaction (chat, shared documents, etc.) with Fiori and each other. In this way, students were interacting via multiple channels at once—audio, video, and text. She stressed the importance of back-up plans and additional exercises when managing this much technology in the classroom.

Both Feltz and Fiori vouched for the success of teaching this way. Not only did their students have access to instruction they might not otherwise receive, but they also developed fluencies with multiple technologies.  Students of both instructors were enthusiastic about learning this way.  In practice, then, it seems that teaching in high def can fulfill its promise for liberal arts colleges but it is also important to remember that instructors may need additional training and support to teach in this way. Fiori, with degrees in second language acquisition and experience teaching with technology, was already trained. Feltz spoke of the importance of an extensive collaborative support infrastructure for the TLC including provosts, registrars, administrative assistants, and technologists.

These early experiments in HD are important in demonstrating the possibilities of the medium for liberal arts colleges and its feasibility for the liberal arts high-touch model of instruction. They also provide valuable lessons learned for other institutions considering HD videoconferencing as a way to supplement the curriculum.  Still such technologies come with a substantial price tag. Currently, they are adding value to an existing local curriculum and aggregating demand for less commonly taught courses, but to truly capitalize on the HD investment institutions would need to increase the number of courses offered this way.

Other blog posts I’ve written on intercampus teaching:

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