Extending Our Educational Dollars


Class Styles

Classes taught remotely by a “Master Instructors”, aided in discussion and testing by teaching aides, can be fruitful because of the depth of knowledge and speaking skills of the professor.  However, there is also a “disconnect” between teacher and student, because the lecturer might never even be physically present on campus, or for that matter, neither might the student.  This format creates more of an environment of an “online college”, which is probably more suited to adults already working in their chosen career than young college students still developing in their maturity.  Also, mentorships and letters of recommendation are not typically forthcoming.  This format can be highly successful, though, when it targets very specialized areas.   For instance, in a Public Health program, a special course on disease control, as practiced in various geographic regions of the world, might better be assigned to a team of Master Instructors with expertise in each region.

In fact, although the hybridized instruction would be the most effective format for an online program, that doesn’t mean an excellent program precludes fully online coursework.  There are reasons to offer an online-only class. For instance, departments who have suffered major budget cuts might no longer offer several courses once required of a major, making it difficult for a student currently committed to the major to matriculate to graduation.  At this time, a large number of students find themselves in this predicament.

Some students have had to become creative, coalescing classes at external institutions with the major’s required curriculum at their own institution. This solution is the sign of a student who “thinks outside the box”, and could have a potentially successful career in front of them; however, there can be high costs associated with it.  For instance, if the two colleges have no agreement between themselves, the student is probably obliged to pay for the external courses on top of full-time tuition costs the student incurs.  The college can help a student avoid this by recording master lectures in the subject area, and  administering standard exams.  Or, they can enter into agreements with other colleges, sharing their remote courses without cost to students enrolled in the partner institution.  Because multiple institutions may buy into a particular course, the design and curriculum of that course must be well engineered, especially in a quickly-changing field like technology or medicine.

Considerations and Observations

In particular, certain courses can eventually attain historical importance well beyond the task at hand.  Certainly few young students, today, can understand the effects of the Cold War from a personal perspective.  Documentaries patched from older news programs are often more effective than any current presentation.   The same holds for today’s lectures.  Whether in chemistry, political science, or sign language, they are tomorrow’s history lessons.

Other factors must be taken into consideration.  Students can record a lecture that is live-streamed, whether that is intended by the school or not.  The ability to refer to the lecture, for instance, during an assignment or test taken away from the classroom, can give a student advantage over others.

Students can watch a lecture on their data phone, and many probably will.   Although a quiet bedroom and a laptop is more conducive to learning, many students juggle family, jobs, commuting, and school.  Therefore, “attending” a course on a train or in a parked car while waiting for another class is to be expected in today’s students.  As a result, the small resolution of the screen of a phone should be taken into account when filming lectures.  In particular, equations or text printed on the board should be videotaped with care, so that the content is clearly visible on a small screen.

Rather than a general classroom scene with the professor writing on the board, a truly universal online course will present well-timed close-ups of the speaker and the board, as well as clips that give students time to write down the information. Pre-printed class notes look elegant, but student interaction is important, especially when little other interaction is possible. These techniques require editing, as opposed to real-time recording, but the potential for learning is greater.  In fact, if a college is teaching courses that include video editing, creating an online program can provide practice for the students as either projects or internships.

Another kind of course involves students viewing a video of a computer screen as an external voice explains the material shown.  This format is especially prevalent in computer training courses. The display can be a PowerPoint presentation, a screen whose moving cursor is demonstrating steps in a process, video of a dramatic or live event, or photos.  Products as simple (and free) as Wink, or more complex and pricey like Adobe Captivate can produce these videos easily.

It is important to note that computer screens should only be videotaped with screen capture software.  Screen refresh rates on a computer screen can interfere with both the ambient fluorescent lighting’s phase and the video recorder’s refresh rate, creating wavy scenes which are practically unwatchable, if not unreadable, in almost any resolution.

Creating coursework on the Internet creates another headache, which is best avoided with careful selection of media:  with new interpretations by media companies of “fair use” of songs, books and videos, copyright infringements may come up often.  For that reason, it is important to talk to legal advisors about protections, including yearly contracts with media firms to mitigate accidental infringement.  An image on a PowerPoint presentation that has been shown in the classroom for years without incident can create unexpected problems on the internet, even when password-protected among students.  In fact, a password will not prevent others from accessing content, since students who are logged in can potentially share material.

Another issue is bandwidth.  It is prudent for schools to find ways to produce videos with lower bandwidth requirements, which means lower resolution.  This runs contrary to the original suggestion to create high resolution video so that a white board might be more visible.  For this reason, the conflicting requirements are best addressed with the written material on the white board produced digitally on a computer and captured.  However, if a school’s capabilities have not reached that degree of sophistication yet, it is important that the white board be viewed as a close-up.

Finally, hacking is a major problem, and online test materials would rate a high probability of attacks.  In reality, this just reflects yet another reason why online assessment is not optimal, and is better handled in the classroom.

© 2012 Laurie Mena


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