October 27, 1997
Volume 50, No. 10
While distance learning by computer has existed at Emory through the World Class program for about a year, learning via videoconferencing is new this semester. Oxford College joined the growing trend with a videoconferencing classroom installed in the library. Students can take classes on the Emory or Oxford campus without ever having to make the 80-mile round trip.
Distance learning for most schools is a means to save money, said Oxford Dean William Murdy, but for Oxford it is a way to expand the curriculum and enhance teaching. "We are committed to a philosophy that technology is a tool to enhance the faculty's effectiveness to teach and the students' ability to learn," he said. "It should never be allowed to diminish the human dimension of education-the teacher-student relationship-that is at the heart of the educational process."
The first offering is Russian 101, taught by Juliette Apkarian, associate professor and chair of the Department of Russian, Eurasian and East Asian Languages. The course was selected because it requires high standards of audio and video transmission to teach a non-Western language that does not use the Latin alphabet. Spectrum Technology Systems was contracted to create the Oxford facility, and they worked closely with Oxford Instructor Myra Frady and Librarian Kitty McNeill, as well as Apkarian, to custom design the system.
According to Apkarian, the hardest part of the whole project was finding a compatible location on the Atlanta campus. They found two possible sites, but structural problems eliminated both of them. An existing multimedia classroom used for the World Class program currently is pinch-hitting, but a twin to the Oxford site is expected to be installed in the technology center of the Woodruff Library.
Oxford's state-of-the-art classroom integrates video and audio conferencing, computer, VCR, laser disc and slide-to-video capability. Cameras in both classrooms allow the instructor and students on both ends to see each other. Gone are the days of disembodied voices asking questions-Apkarian touches the control panel, and the camera switches to show the student who is speaking. When both facilities are identical, classes will be able to use the "smart board," an electronic palette linked to the computer that shows what is written on the other classroom's video monitor. Smart board material can be downloaded to the computer network and printed by students. Each seat in the mini auditorium-style Oxford classroom has an electrical outlet and network connection for laptop computers.
Apkarian, who teaches one day a week from the Oxford classroom and the other four from Atlanta, is enjoying the pioneering effort and thinks her students are also. "They have been wonderfully helpful," she said. "Now they are so used to the technology that they are sometimes surprised when they are reminded what a pioneering effort this is. And through their feedback, they help guide the production side of the class more than they could in a traditional class."
Predictably, there have been a number of challenges to overcome, some with the technology but also issues such as office hours, incompatible campus class schedules and turning in homework. Apkarian has needed to modify some of her teaching techniques for videoconferencing but has been impressed with the quality of the technology and the willingness of the technology staff to make needed adjustments to microphones, cameras and other equipment. A technology facilitator (Deanna McCoy at Oxford, Wayne Morse in Atlanta) runs the equipment in the classroom without the instructor. They start the system, make volume adjustments and fax any assignments or quizzes to the instructor.
Recently, one of Apkarian's colleagues-who "avoided all things technological"-substituted for her and was impressed by the quality of the video and audio transmissions and how user-friendly the technology is.
Apkarian will lead faculty workshops in the spring to share the insights she has gained throughout this first semester and to introduce interested faculty to the technology. The workshops will be conducted in the videoconferencing classrooms for a true hands-on experience.
Enough ground has been covered during the course to gauge the students' performance against traditional first-year Russian students, and Apkarian said they are on par. The Oxford students are doing as well as their Atlanta counterparts, so they clearly have not suffered academically learning via videoconference.
Apkarian hopes to end the semester with a video link to a university in Moscow. She also hopes to get her two groups of students together, so they can see each other in person. "The students are intrigued by one another, and because they watch each other so closely on the video screen, there is a special rapport between them."
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