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A Meeting of the Minds
Denver University and C-SPAN reveal their political agenda

By Marisa E. Campbell / June 2003

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The august halls of Washington are filled with well-known movers and shakers that few us ever will ever know on a personal basis. But in the halls of Denver University, over 1,500 miles away, undergraduate students are speaking one-on-one with the likes of Bob Dole, Dee Dee Myers, and Newt Gingrich—via satellite from C-Span's Distance Learning studio in Washington D.C.

These students are part of a five-year experiment named the Amos B. Hostetter Distance Learning Program, which began early last year and is being funded by cable pioneer Amos B. Hostetter. The program uses resources from C-Span, Denver University (DU), and the Robert L. Johnson Distance Learning studio in the Cable Center, located on the campus of DU since 2001. It is the first such collaboration between a network and a university, and allows students from the Mile High City to get a behind-the-scenes look at the nation's capital. Students also learn about the role of television in political campaigns through C-Span's 40 year's worth of archives and take part in question-and-answer sessions with key people intimately involved in past and current presidencies. "The goal is to try to take what we C-Span and give it to students who would not normally have the chance to come to Washington, D.C.," says Steve Scully, C-Span's Senior Executive and Political Editor.

In the two-hour "Television and the Modern Presidency" class, students debate and exchange ideas among themselves and with Scully, their instructor. He has been teaching the class since the beginning of 2003 and uses connections he fostered during his years as a reporter covering the White House to line up a veritable who's who list of guests for his class.

Using a camera called a shot box, Scully lines up 10-25 pieces of video to illustrate political events. In one class he showed clips from Nixon's speech in the '50s as vice president and his subsequent speeches in the '60s, before and after he became president. That was followed by a discussion with Paul Duke, one of the reporters who covered the Watergate hearings from 1973-1974. On another day, the class spoke with Tori Clark, the assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, live from the Pentagon and discussed her job, the latest war with Iraq, being a journalist during wartime, and the U.S. military.

This kind of course—the most interactive type of teaching style in distance learning—is a new experience for many of the students at DU. Tracy Spade, a senior at DU who has actually visited the C-Span studio in Washington D.C., says that having such a wide array of guests in the class, from The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz to Former President Gerald Ford, is a wonderful way to learn about politics and the people behind it. And though she admits that it's often difficult to have "a real discussion" because only one person can speak at a time, "the advantages far exceed the disadvantages."

The class, says Scully, is a combination of history, public policy, social studies, and current events. For many of these students, whose memories of military conflict reach back only to the Persian Gulf War from 1990-1991, viewing video clips and listening to audio tapes teaches them about experiences—such as the Vietnam war—that had a huge impact on their parents. Students also learn to think critically about the use of television and its role in shaping public opinion; they also get the chance to use the best of today's technology to learn about the past and its affect on today's policies.

Not Just Another "Nightline"
Once the idea for the program was born, bringing it to life was a matter of bringing all parties together into one room. At C-Span's headquarters in Washington, D.C., an old storage room was given a fresh coat of brightly colored paint, some robotic cameras were installed, and a high speed, video-quality cogent line was implemented.

The cogent line provides superior quality images, much like a regular news program on TV. But in this instance, Ted Koppel is replaced by Scully and the audience are university students. The class and instructor exchange dialogue in real time, with three cameras aimed at varying angles on the class in the Cable Center and two cameras trained on Scully in his studio. There is no limit on the number of guests participating at one time from any location in the country, Scully says.

Branching Out
Scully hopes to see the class extend its reach. "Our intention is to bring in other schools around the country," he explains. "Eventually we might even be able to go overseas." Any such progress will be made slowly, however, since the program between C-Span and DU is only in its first year and must be perfected before being transferred to other schools.

Partnering with C-Span brings its own special requirements. They will be required to have the necessary infrastructure, just as DU did when the program began. This entails having the cogent line in place as well as a television-quality classroom—replete with colored walls and television-friendly microphones. Currently, the studio at the Cable Center is undergoing a facelift to make it more like a classroom while making it easier on the eye.

However, the possibility of some schools not being able to afford the infrastructure is real. There is talk of one day moving the class entirely online, which would be a way to reach those universities strapped for cash. But for now, until the kinks have been smoothed out, the program will remain as is—albeit with different guests each term. Come autumn, Hillary Clinton will join the ranks of Washington insiders who have taken part in Scully's classes.

And if all goes well, the classes with C-Span may someday be aired on that network, allowing viewers to contribute to the classes via email or by simply phoning in. What we have to remember when creating classes, Scully insists, is that "technology can enhance education tremendously," especially since students today are accustomed to it. His measure of success—as an educator—depends upon his students' understanding and appreciation for what they've learned and taken away from his classes. And judging by his students, who claim that they have a much better grasp of national events and can now carry on enlightened conversations about politics, Scully has succeeded beyond his wildest hopes.


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