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Turn off the cameras--I'll take a traditional classroom

By Joseph A. Konstan / October 2001

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I admit it: I do everything I can to avoid teaching "distance learning" classes. As a computer scientist, and a technology supporter, I guess I should be ashamed—but I'm not. Too often, technology shapes and dictates our delivery and the experience we create for students. This is especially true of online learning technology, which doesn't support the learning experiences I want to foster. For these technologies to improve, those who develop them must pay far more attention to the ways in which teachers teach and students learn. Then, and only then, will I be eager to try this medium again.

The University of Minnesota has a wealth of distance learning support. Over the years, I've used ever-improving instructional television rooms with human operators, multiple cameras (including one facing the students and an overhead camera that magnifies all sorts of artifacts), computer hookups, and two-way audio. In our typical setting, we hold classes in one of these rooms, with a large "physically present" set of students, while a number of students spread around the state join in at their workplaces or community education centers. In many ways, this is an extremely well-designed environment for lecturing—but that is precisely the problem.

Group Dynamics

The most effective way I know to teach my user-interface design course is through hands-on experience. Sometimes I demonstrate a technique and have students critique and discuss it. Often I have students work in groups on a task while I walk around and look for difficulties—stopping the class from time to time with questions or hints. Much of the time is spent having students work in groups on their term projects—I've found few strategies more effective than having students read about a technique (for example, heuristic evaluation), hear a few minutes of my comments on the technique, observe a short demonstration (by me or other students), work on it in groups, and then debrief each other as we discuss what challenges the groups faced, and what successes they had.

This is easy in a traditional classroom. I have always been able to send groups into halls and lounges, if needed, to find space to work together. I wander from group to group, finding out how they are doing, offering help, and planning the debriefing discussion. I instantly see students' reactions: comprehension, confusion, or even indifference.

Why can't I do this in a "distance learning" classroom? First, the setup we have makes groupwork nearly impossible. The point of such a setup is to have students at many remote sites. Without extraordinary effort and restrictions, many students won't have anyone to work with. The technology doesn't allow the network to be split into work groups!

Even if I were able to get students into groups at each site, more problems remain. Feedback from remote sites is poor. In most cases, there isn't even a still-image capture system to allow remote groups to show their sketches and charts. True remote video is rarely available, which rules out both watching the remote groups to offer help during group work and monitoring them during discussions and lectures. And it's impossible to observe groups casually.

Round Peg, Square Hole

I've heard of great promise in instructional technology, but so far all of the gains I've seen have come in the form of general-purpose technologies. Having course Web sites and discussion boards is great. Online testing and grading systems aren't. Why? Because they try to change the way I test and grade to match the system. Not only do they encourage multiple-choice, or at least text-only, answers, but they encourage grading systems based on cumulative points. What if I want students to be able to draw pictures? What if I want to be able to reward progress when there is continual effort? Again, must we submit to the tyranny of technology?

An analogy comes to mind. I loathe drive-thru windows at fast food restaurants (not that I'm too thrilled with the restaurant, but the drive-thru is worse). Why? Because easy things to do inside become hard at the window. The awkward microphone makes it harder to place a special order (please give me extra lemon and two packets of sweetener), and until a few recent developments, impossible to tell whether it was being followed. The drive-thru doesn't let you see whether the food has been sitting forever or is fresh, and it makes you feel rude checking your order while people wait behind you. Some may find the convenience worthwhile. Some people always order #3, and are happy with it. But I would rather take it a little slower and get what I want. The same applies to the way I teach class.

The Right Tools for the Job

What would it take for me to get excited about online learning? I'd like to see collaboration technology that allows groups to work with real-time video and shared artifacts. I want the ability, as the instructor, to configure these groups and monitor them, observing or joining in. I need a view of telepresent students that allows me to watch them during class so I know when they are confused or when they are bursting with something to say. And I must have a system that allows groups to present to the entire class, showing the range of artifacts they create to illustrate the work they've done. When you have all of that ready—please give me a call.

My message to developers of distance learning and instructional computing technologies is simple: Follow the user-centered design practices that human-computer interaction specialists teach. Follow me around for a semester to see how important it is to have groupwork and direct observation. Watch how a lecturer reads the class as the class is listening and learning. Collect the artifacts that make up a class. Then, don't sacrifice any of these capabilities until you can propose something that surpasses them. Teaching more isn't teaching better.


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