As institutions of higher learning have sought to meet the needs of geographically distributed learners, various instructional models have evolved to meet changing requirements for delivery. The integration of supporting technologies into traditional classroom environments is at the heart of the Distributed Education Classroom model adopted by the Information Networking Institute (INI) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), a model that employs the familiar and efficient pedagogy of classroom instruction and facilitates synchronous delivery to and from partner institutions across the country and around the world.
Imagine walking into a classroom and being given a grocery bag to wear on your head (paper or cloth, please…we don’t want to imagine plastic). Some may have holes through which you may see and/or hear, but all will in some way impede your ability to interact with those around you. Knowing what we know from our own classroom experiences and the volumes of research on the topic, the ability to engage and interact is key to the effectiveness of instruction in a traditional classroom setting.
Add an additional virtual classroom or two in a synchronous, distributed education model, and ‘face-to-face’ is combined with ‘face-to-technology.’ With this addition, the challenge of engagement and promoting interactivity assumes a new dimension that requires thoughtful technical accommodation and support. Inattentiveness to the nuances of technology is nearly the equivalent of the grocery bag.
While distributed education classroom technology rests largely on the technologies that are central to standard video conferencing, the functional requirements of a classroom that is designed to both originate and receive instructional events operates at a higher level of complexity.
Challenge #1; Solution #1
The first challenge is to ensure that all participants both local and remote can see and hear one another sufficiently to facilitate interaction. Visual and aural cueing is an essential element of classroom interaction and audiovisual systems need to be of sufficient quality to support it. Teaching venues are generally much larger spaces than your average video conferencing room, so greater attention also needs to be given to issues of microphone coverage, acoustics, viewing angle and distance to displays and so on.
There is also an element of inclusion that transcends the mechanics of the event. If an off-site student is recognized and acknowledged, they develop a greater sense of belonging, attachment and loyalty to the home institution. Happy students eventually become happy alumni.