From “From Boardroom to Classroom” — Students at Yale University enrolled in elementary Bengali meet four days a week in a campus classroom, just like they would for any other course, but there is one big difference: their instructor is almost 300 miles away, in Ithaca, N.Y.

Yale, Cornell University, and Columbia University, backed by a two-year, $1.2 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, have launched a pilot program to conduct classes in uncommonly taught languages, including Indonesian, Yoruba, and Zulu, across the different campuses using videoconferencing technology. In doing so, they’re reviving not only language programs on the brink of extinction, but also a familiar concept in distance education. At a time when asynchronous instruction reaching hundreds of thousands of students is increasingly common, these universities are returning to a mode of distance learning geared toward small classes in which students all meet at the same time.

“It’s been a while since videoconferencing has been in education,” Dick Feldman, director of Cornell’s Language Resource Center.

The project evolved after a round of federal budget cuts in 2011 essentially gutted foreign language programs across the country, taking 47 percent of the budget for National Resource Centers, hubs of foreign language and cultural study. The language directors at the three universities, who knew each other through other collaborations, realized as the cuts began to hit their campuses that they had an opportunity to join forces and preserve some of the rarely taught languages.

“We each had a fair number of languages and it seemed like we also shared the stress of continuing to support our languages because of the federal government cutbacks to NRCs,” Feldman said. “It seemed like we were a good fit to share languages.”

At the core of the program is the idea that languages – and not just Spanish, French, and Latin – are important, but not financially feasible if only two or three students are interested. By joining forces, the three universities hope to leverage the languages they don’t all have, affording students more options, and to deepen existing programs by, for example, facilitating collaboration between instructors of the same language at different institutions.

“The ability to sustain languages with very low enrollments, though morally and intellectually desirable, was financially going to be brutal in the short term and dubious in the long term,” said Walter Cohen, Senior Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences at Cornell.  “We thought distance learning might be a way of sharing resources.”

Fundamental to the program is the use of videoconferencing – not pre-recorded lectures, the modus operandi for massive open online courses, and not webcam video, which is static and is designed to show just one person. Videoconferencing involves higher-quality cameras, larger lenses, and faster compression for sending the video signal, allowing for two-way interaction. It’s a concept often found in the boardroom and occasionally in the K-12 classroom, but still rarely in higher education.

Videoconferencing makes the experience similar to a face-to-face class. Students go to the same video-outfitted classroom every day and sit around a table, but on one wall, instead of a blackboard, there’s a screen showing the teacher and the students at the other campus. There are also computers at the back of the room equipped with cameras, so students can do pair work with their counterparts at the other university. The universities are also introducing tablets and touch-screens, which will allow the teacher to demonstrate scripts and share them with both classrooms, and they use document cameras so students can submit written work in real time.  In some classes, they’ve even come up with ways for students hundreds of miles apart to perform skits together, as they might in a regular language class.

Videoconferencing also works particularly well for small classes, Cohen said. These languages classes are capped at 14 or 15 students across all institutions, so the students and the instructor can interact and the class can be tailored to students’ needs.

“It’s not a good model for lecture courses,” Cohen said. “There, you run into the obvious problems, and you might as well videotape it.”

The technology, which includes large, flexible cameras and other hardware, requires an initial investment from the universities, some of which was subsidized by the Mellon grant. Cohen points out, though, that the cost of adding new technology to one or two classrooms is cheaper than hiring a professor or lecturer. And, he says, if the concept doesn’t prove viable for language instruction, it’s likely those classrooms will be useful for something else.

“It seems to me like [the language pilot] could be a practice run for other things,” Cohen said. “Even in large graduate programs, like English or history, individual sub-areas can be very poorly covered. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing if graduate seminars could be taught in such a way that in relatively small fields, say Turkish history, if you have two people at one school and three at another, you could have a nice seminar.”

One college in Wisconsin has already seen videoconference seminars run successfully, and has recently upped the ante in the realm of two-way distance education.

Moraine Park Technical College’s three campuses are each about 30 miles apart, and in the early ’90s the college began looking for a way to offer classes at all three locations with instructors at one location. It settled on videoconferencing, but at the time the program was limited by technology, and administrators found the virtual classes had a lot of downtime because of user error – the system was too complicated for instructors to use effectively.

In fall 2010, though, the college introduced TelePresence, a technology from Cisco Systems that makes participants feel like they’re all seated at the same table. The idea has gained the most attention in corporate boardrooms.

“The people at the other location appear to be the same size, there’s no delay at all when they speak to you, and when somebody speaks from one side of the room their voice comes from that side of the room,” said Pete Rettler, a campus administrator for Moraine Park who also oversees distance education. The college worked with CDW-G to develop the strategy.

TelePresence and other videoconferencing techniques – the college only has one room on each campus set up for TelePresence, so it still uses more traditional videoconference technology in other classrooms – allow Moraine Park to offer courses that a single campus might not have demand for, similar to the language program at Cornell, Columbia, and Yale. The classes are also more satisfying to Moraine Park’s students than online classes might be, according to Rettler.

“The average age of a student at Moraine Park is 36 or 37, so a lot of those students don’t want to do online learning or even blended learning,” he said.  “There are a lot of students who still want that face-to-face experience, and it’s hard to argue that TelePresence isn’t face-to-face.”

The technology does not come cheap. Rettler said it cost about $150,000 to outfit one 14-seat classroom, and the college currently has two 14-seat rooms and one six-seat room set up for TelePresence. That $150,000 does not include costs for necessary infrastructure upgrades, either.

Still, Rettler sees it as a good investment and an efficient way to offer classes. He’s not sure how to quantify the return on investment, but said it does make for a good marketing tool, and he’s convinced it’s a good educational tool.

Moraine Park’s next step is to partner with four-year colleges to allow Moraine Park students who earn their associate degree to take classes toward a four-year degree from a campus near home. Several colleges already have the technology, Rettler said, so it’s a matter of coordinating credit and scheduling, which isn’t always easy.

Scheduling has been one of the main hiccups at Cornell, Columbia, and Yale, too, as each university has different vacations and different start times, so coordinating students on different campuses can be tough. The other challenge, Feldman said, is recruiting students, but he and his counterparts on the other campuses are discussing ways to reach out to those who might be interested.

As for long-term development, Feldman sees the program as a very specialized – and conservative – niche in the education technology landscape, and Cohen emphasizes that the model, if it works, would only work for seminar-style courses. Still, both believe the project has potential.

“If in foreign languages and other areas we find a way to provide better education at the undergraduate or graduate level, or for that matter faculty collaboration across campuses, than that seems like a great thing to me,” Cohen said.


From “Engaging students with techie devices” — Electronic tablets, high-definition video screens — even a computer workstation mounted onto a treadmill — these are some examples of new technologies boosting active-learning strategies on college campuses.

SCALE-UP (Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs) is an approach to teaching classes, both small and large, that has been adapted by more than 50 colleges and universities across the country.

Based on a classroom configuration that seats the pupils in small groups around tables with several laptops, the idea is to get students working together and to give them an opportunity to immediately explore concepts presented in the lecture. And the instructor, instead of being stationed at a lectern in the front, moves around the classroom to further engage the students in discussion.

At Carthage College in Kenosha, several physics classes are presented through an approach inspired by the SCALE-UP model, explained Jean M. Quashnock, PhD, professor and chair of the physics and astronomy department. The college’s studio physics format combines lecture and lab in two-hour classes that meet three times a week; the 24 students sit in groups of four.

“There is more of an emphasis on hands-on learning, and less of an emphasis on lecturing,” he said. Research has shown that students synthesize the material better this way, he added.

iPads as textbooks 

Electronic tablets, such as iPads, present many options for teaching. At the Milwaukee Area Technical College, students rely on iPads in the machine shops to reference information while working on the machines.

Instructor Tom Olson says using the iPads (which remain in the room for class-use only) is more efficient than looking through handbooks. Students also have access to the entire curriculum online, and can research the Internet for additional information, such as instructive videos.

“The students are learning quicker,” he said. “This also helps students get comfortable with technology if they had not worked with computers previously.”

Olson added that local companies are looking at ways to become “paperless shops,” and electronic tablets are one way to accomplish that. “The machining environment is not the friendliest environment for electronic devices, but we protect the iPads with OtterBoxes and haven’t had a single problem.”

Teaching goes high definition  

Many colleges with multiple campuses offer courses via video conferencing. TelePresence is an upgraded, video conferencing technology, designed by Cisco, to give participants at different sites the feeling that they are together in the same room.

Moraine Park Technical College has one TelePresence room on each campus in West Bend, Fond du Lac and Beaver Dam. In these classrooms, students sit at a conference-style table and face large video screens, which show the students at the other locations, sitting in identical conference rooms.

With the immersive nature of the high-definition video and audio technology, and the use of identical furniture and wall paint in the rooms, TelePresence makes it appear that the students at the other campuses are sitting right by you, noted Peter Rettler, West Bend and online campus and community partner for the college.

“Students report that within 15 minutes, they don’t feel like they are in different rooms,” he said.

Video conferencing enables students to more conveniently take classes, Rettler explained. A course that has a small number of students enrolled at each campus can be offered at each site through interactive video conferencing, rather than requiring the students to travel to a distant campus.

With TelePresence, there is the opportunity to connect to hundreds of schools worldwide, and to connect with experts in a subject matter, noted Brian Carlson, interim manager of teaching and learning technology at MATC.

MATC, which currently uses another form of video conferencing at its campuses, plans to begin using TelePresence in fall 2012 or spring 2013. “Each campus will have one TelePresence room,” Carlson said.

New ways to work

At Milwaukee School of Engineering, industrial engineering students can try out a new idea for working on a computer while walking. The Steelcase Walkstation has an adjustable-height, electric work surface incorporated into the design of a low-speed treadmill.

“It’s a demonstration device. The Walkstation is a way to get a worker moving so he or she is not sedentary all day. The student using it can slowly walk while studying, doing research or writing a paper,” said Charlene Yauch, PhD, associate professor and program director of the MSOE industrial engineering program.

Also in that lab, the Steelcase Media:scape helps make working as a group more convenient. Media:scape enables up to six laptops to be connected to one large screen, so students do not have to huddle around a small laptop screen.

But it’s not always technology that makes learning more engaging. The MSOE Industrial Engineering Process Innovation Lab has a lounge area that includes two couches. “I had envisioned the students just relaxing on the couches,” Yauch said, “but they actually love to do work while sitting on the couches, so it’s become more of a workspace too.”

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