R. Reese, Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, Fall 1998

 

 

DISTANCE AND MEDIATED LEARNING: AN ESSAY FROM EXPERIENCE

Each quarter, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, broadcasts by microwave three freshman-level courses to participating high schools. Transmitted before and after school (7 a.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m.), the courses meet Monday through Thursday, for 50 minute sessions. The classes are taught from a special "wired classroom" by outstanding faculty. Students view the courses in their high school library, and can speak with the instructor by using a microphone. Although the teacher cannot see the students at the various schools, the interactive audio system provides a lively classroom environment. Testing is done at the respective high schools and homework. Is mailed directly to Cal Poly Pomona. Instructional technology and distance and mediated learning at Cal Poly Pomona is referred to as Polynet.

In the Spring Quarter of 1997 I taught an Introduction to American Government (PLS 201) course on Polynet (distance and mediated learning) at Cal Poly Pomona University. This experience was enriching and rewarding. However, it was also challenging. This paper will candidly highlight the strengths and weaknesses of distance and mediated learning from my personal experience with this pedagogical medium.

Some 15 Cal Poly Pomona students were enrolled in my political science course. These students convened at the classroom studio where the televised instructional broadcast was produced. They were a part of the set. In the studio, these students asked and answered questions by speaking into "wired" microphones. Speaking into these microphones enabled the students at a distance to hear their comments. There were also three television monitors in the studio. Two monitors were facing the students and one monitor was facing the instructor. Some 60 high school students from 16 different high schools enrolled in this course for advanced placement college credit. These students met in their respective libraries and had access to live lectures by way of a television monitor. These students were also able to ask questions and respond to questions by using the wired microphones.

CLASSROOM TEACHING TOOLS

1) POWER POINT PRESENTATIONS

Access to a computer and Microsoft Power Point software in the studio gave me an opportunity to put the outlines of each class in a power point format. This format enabled me to give the students a clear and concise overview of the lecture for that day. These power point outlines appeared on the television screen for the students.

2) CAMERA SCREEN

Whereas the power point presentations were prepared in advanced for the computer, the camera screen could zoom in and highlight anything that I wanted to write or draw. It gave me an opportunity to be more spontaneous. If I wanted to give my students a visual image of how "federalism" works I could draw it on a noted pad and the camera would zoom in on this drawing and it would appear on the television monitor for the students.

3) MAGNETIC CHALK BOARD

Access to a pointmaker magnetic chalk board enabled me to write on the television monitor. This tool has been made popular by many of the sports commentators in the U.S. For instance, the pointmaker allowed me to draw an ideological spectrum on the television screen. I could identify liberals being to the left of this continuum, moderates being positioned in the middle, and conservatives being positioned to the far right. The pointmaker gave me the ability to circle, erase, point with arrows, make distinctions and highlight by using different colors.

THE STRENGTHS OF DISTANCE AND MEDIATED LEARNING

There are several strengths of distance and mediated learning. Perhaps the biggest strength of this medium is its ability to instruct to students over distances. With this form of instruction, students do not have to be on a particular college campus to get access to a course being taught.

Greater access to courses usually creates a heterogeneous class roster. This diversity can lead to rich and lively dialogue in class sessions. Because the classrooms are wired with microphones, students can hear the questions and responses of their cohorts. The wired microphones enable the instructor to interact with students as if they were in the classroom.

The fact that the students are on the "air" when they speak prepares students to clearly articulate their thoughts. As the students become less inhibited about the exposure, they develop public speaking confidence.

Distance and mediated learning is beneficial to both the institution offering the course and the students taking the course. The institution benefits because increased access (usually) translates into increased enrollment, hence, increased revenues. The students benefit because of the easy access to the lectures. Logistically, they do not have to travel to campus. Hence, they save on gas and the hassles of parking.

Also, in the case of a specialize course such as Russian Literature, there might not be enough students on one campus to enroll in this class. However, students on other campuses might be interested in the same course. Distance and mediated learning instruction provides students with an opportunity to take specialize courses that, because of limited enrollment or lack of interest, might not be offered on their campus.

WEAKNESSES OF DISTANCE AND MEDIATED LEARNING

The major weakness of distance and mediated learning is that the instructor can not see the students. Moreover, the instructor can not gauge the facial expressions or the body language of the students. For instance, instructors often look to students for cues when the subject matter is boring or confusing. The mere look of confusion on the face of students will prompt (good) instructors to reiterate or to simplify a concept. When students are bored in a traditional classroom, the professor can change the subject, speed up the tempo, use an interesting anecdote, or let the class out early. Furthermore, some classroom chemistry is necessarily lost because of the distance.

The evaluation of the students can be cumbersome in this medium. In my course, students took their exams at their respective sites. Supervisors proxied the exam. Exams, papers, and homework assignments were sent directly to the college campus. The problem was that the courier only delivered the mail once a week. If students had assignments due on Monday, I did not received these assignments until the courier delivered them to me on Friday afternoon. The delay between students doing an assignment and getting feedback on an assignment was a real problem. Students need to be able to get prompt feedback on their assignments. This allows them to make the necessary adjustments in their approach and study efforts.

SUGGESTIONS FOR MAKING WEAKNESSES INTO STRENGTHS

Instructors should work harder to try to establish chemistry in the distance and mediated learning environment. The instructor should work hard to learn the names and personalities of the faceless students. In this experience, characteristics and personalities substitute for the physical presence of the student. For instance, in a political science course, the instructor could work to find out who is liberal, who is conservative, who is a President Clinton fan, and who dislikes the President. This would not be an effort to make judgements about the students but to merely add some definition to the personalities of the different students in the class. Many weaknesses of distance and mediated learning can be neutralized by establishing classroom chemistry. This can be done by employing cooperative and interactive learning techniques.

Chemistry can also be developed in the distance and mediated learning environment by taking time out of the normal lecture to get to know the students who are "out there." For instance, I asked my students to share with the class their background, hobbies, and ambitions. I asked the students if I telephoned them on a Saturday at 4 p.m. what would I find them doing.

To make the distance and mediated learning experience less impersonal, students in the studio should be able to see their peers at the different sites. In this course, students did not have this capability. The cost of setting television cameras at each site might not be feasible. However, two-way video taping would be ideal. In the absence of two-way video taping the instructor could get the classes at each site to take site photos. These photos could be shown periodically when there is a response coming from that site.

Also, students should be able to familiarize themselves with their cohorts at the very beginning of the course. This could be done by creating a "Book of Bios." This book will consist of a picture and a one page description of the students' background, interests, and ambitions.

To expedite the grading and communication process outside of the classroom the instructor can develop a home page in which the students have access. Up to date grades on assignments can be posted according to the students' identification number on this home page. Students could also be allowed to can fax their assignments to the instructor or students could email their assignments to the instructor (including exams) in an effort to speed up the grading and communication process.

The instructor can also develop a "chat room" in which students can access through the internet. The "chat room" would allow students to study, ask questions, and dialogue with each other about relevant classroom issues. "Chat rooms" would also help to create chemistry among the class.

Conference calls are an effective way of having discussions and reviews with students at different sites. In an attempt to personalize this experience, I used conference calls to discuss paper topics and review exams with the students at the various sites. Unlike the classroom environment, I was able to address the questions of each individual student. Less outgoing students also felt more comfortable speaking in this fashion.

DEVELOPING COOPERATION AMONG STUDENTS

In an attempt to incorporate cooperative learning principles in the distance and mediated learning classroom, the students took group quizzes. The class was divided into groups according to their respective sites. They took a quiz with 20 questions on it. The groups received one scantron sheet on which to mark. These group quizzes allowed students to debate and negotiate the right answers to a particular question. In the process, they learned the rationale for what other students thought about a certain issue and they had the opportunity to articulate what they thought. After the class reconvened, we discussed the correct answers. This was an exciting learning exercise. The group which scored the highest received extra credit points.

Students were also required to complete a group project. There were approximately five students in each group. The end result of the group project was a five chapter book for each group. Each student was responsible for one chapter in the group's book. Students researched such broad subjects as: Presidential Administrations, Federalism, Social Movements, and Interest Groups. Each student in the group had a focal point. In the group focusing on Presidential Administrations, one student articulated the achievements of Franklin D. Roosevelt, while others in the group focused on the highlights of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. At the end of these group projects students orally presented to the class, in a panel discussion format, the significant issues found in their research. The instructor acted as the moderator of these various panel discussions.

This experience gave the students in the studio the same access as the instructor had to the available technology. They could use power point presentations, display outlines for the zoom camera to highlight, and they could use the magnetic pointmaker chalkboard.

USING INTERACTIVE LEARNING TECHNIQUES

Students were encouraged to actively engage the course materials throughout the course. However, Thursdays were specifically designated for "Questions and Answers" session. These Q & A sessions were used to review the week's lectures.

For instance, at the beginning of a Q & A session, each student was randomly given a question to ask their peers. The question would state: "I would like to ask Rashawn from the Ganesha site--What was the New Deal?" If Rashawn could not answer this question she had to call on one of her cohorts at another site, compelling her to be familiar with her peers at other sites.

Some days students had "True or False" sessions. Powerpoint allowed me to put a statement regarding lecture notes on the screen. A student was called upon to answer whether this statement was true or false. Other students were allowed to agree or disagree with their answer.

FORUMS AND GUEST SPEAKERS

A series of guest speakers came to speak to the "Polynet" students. Students from the Claremont Graduate School of Public Policy and Economics gave guest lectures and participated in forums and debates on such issues as the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Affirmative Action. The mayor of Pomona, California also came to speak to the "Polynet" students.

The various forums and guest lectures were excellent venues to hear graduate students and experts discuss, argue and debate salient issues. "Polynet" students were given the opportunity to ask questions, respond to questions, and to participate in the dialogue of the forums. All of these events were video taped. With the permission of the panelists, other instructors will be able to use these videos for their classes in the future.

STUDENT EVALUATIONS

Students were encouraged to evaluate this course and to compare this experience with the traditional classroom experience. The following represents the array of responses given by the students about their distance and mediated learning experience:

1) WHAT WERE THE WEAKNESSES OF THE DISTANCE AND MEDIATED LEARNING EXPERIENCE?

Student in the Studio: The breakdown of equipment persisted in causing poor communication.

Student in the Studio: It's difficult to have classroom discussions because of problems communicating to the students who are not in the studio. We can't see them and sometimes we can barely hear them.

Student at a Distance: Sometimes we were not as attentive as we should have been. The instructor could not see us so sometimes we "goofed off."

Student at a Distance: The biggest weakness was the many technological problems. Sometimes we could not hear the instructor clearly. Sometimes we could not see the instructor...the screen would freeze.

2) WHAT WERE THE STRENGTHS OF DISTANCE AND MEDIATED LEARNING?

Student in the Studio: You are able to reach more students with a particular subject that might not be available to that school.

Student in the Studio: We got an opportunity to hear a variety of opinions in our classroom discussions. We got the experience of a big class without the class physically being overcrowded.

Student at a Distance: I have taken other courses through "Polynet" and I think the strengths of the course revolve around the instructor. This course was great because the instructor made it interactive.

Student at a Distance: I like this class a little better because their isn't as much supervision and pressure that you would find in a regular class. We could relax and learn.

3) COMPARE THIS FORM OF INSTRUCTION TO YOUR REGULAR CLASS. WHICH DO YOU PREFER?

Student in the Studio: I find this type of class interesting. It takes some of the boredom out of class. Although I get very nervous when I have to speak in front of the camera. I don't mind either form of instruction.

Student in the Studio: Personally, I would prefer a regular class, because you can develop a better relationship with the instructor. In Polynet, technological difficulties often interrupted classroom learning.

Student at a Distance: I prefer having class in a classroom environment. Distance and mediated learning takes away from classroom learning. On the other hand, I have had a great experience with "Polynet."

Student at a Distance: It really doesn't matter to me as long as the teacher interacts with the students.

 

SUMMARY

The majority of the students in this “Polynet” course had a positive experience. There are definite strengths and weaknesses of the distance and mediated experience. The student evaluations capture what really matters, the students' perceptions about this form of instruction. By using interactive learning techniques in the distance and mediated learning environment the instructor can neutralize some of the weaknesses of this experience. However, the instructor has to make a concerted effort to create an interactive, cooperative, and active learning environment. As many of the students mentioned in their evaluations, this form of instruction is what the intructor makes it.