January 24, 2000
Volume 52, No. 18
Technology Focus: Bringing the community online
Last fall I taught a class called "The Nature of Community: Toward a Literacy of Place." It was a cross-listed, seminar-style course with a roster of 16 students. It was like many offerings with one important distinction: the students attending the class were equally distributed between two sites 45 miles apart.
The distance learning initiative between Emory and Oxford began in earnest two years ago. Juliette Apkarian inaugurated the classroom by teaching a Russian class in Fall 1997. Since then the Russian and East Asian Languages and Cultures Department has been a major user of the videoconferencing facility, but other departments have used it as well.
In proposing my class, I had two thoughts in mind. First, as the individual responsible for guiding the Information Technology Division in its relationship with Emory's faculty, I thought it would be helpful to know what it was really like to teach in a videoconferenced setting. Second, I was intrigued as to whether a class that met virtually could form a community, and if so, how that community would differ from traditional classes.
So what is videoconferenced teaching like? Rather like hosting a virtual talk show; participants are trying to connect through the sometimes discomforting gaze of the camera. Woodruff Library's videoconferencing room features three distinct cameras and four separate monitors, and my colleague Scott Sawyer adjusted camera angles as students spoke up. At Oxford, Deanna McCoy did the same.
Trying to encourage dialogue, I kept one eye on the Oxford monitor, looking for students who wanted to chime in, and the other on the Atlanta classroom. It took some getting used to, but eventually I knew where to look and how to move between cameras. Needless to say, Oprah has little to fear.
My class would have been impossible without Scott's and Deanna's assistance, but managing technology is not the only concern; there are the ordinary classroom dynamics that make any course a challenge, and these may be amplified by the technology. If it is difficult to achieve lively discussion within one classroom, how do you build conversation between two? One classroom can sometimes dominate the discussion and determine the flow of conversation. Regardless of how prepared I thought I was, I learned something new about videoconferencing in every single meeting.
How did the technology fare? Overall, the Woodruff facility and the companion room at Hoke O'Kelley Memorial Library performed very well. There were two network outages during the course, and with no video signal, the class could not meet. There was also a day when the audio signal was noticeably faster than the video signal, a day my students memorialized as "silent movie" day.
Given the obvious complexity of managing two classrooms in addition to the technology, you might ask, why videoconference at all? The answer grows out of my second preoccupation in creating this course-the nature of community. Two remarkable things happened during the semester. First, students who would not ordinarily meet because of geographical separation assembled and became friends and intellectual colleagues. This was especially interesting given that the Atlanta students gave the Oxford students a sense of what could be available to them their junior and senior years. In my limited experience, this mentoring dynamic is rare in a classroom.
The second striking development was the kinds of conversation videoconferencing enabled. We had discussions about the differences between community on the two campuses, between the city and the country, and between a large campus and a small one, and the strength of the dialogue was always grounded in the reality of the place where the comment originated. In this way videoconferencing shows not only that communities can assemble, but also meet and address a question in its native complexity--even if they've never gathered before.
As with any class, I was exhausted by the end of the semester. But I would not trade the videoconferenced class I had for a traditional meeting--there was so much energy uncovered in the discussions between the two campuses.
If any faculty member would like to see the videoconferencing facility, please contact Scott Sawyer at 404-727-0156. I would also be glad to answer any questions and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 404-727-6662.
Alan Cattier is manager of teaching and research services for ITD.