Preliminary Comments: Preferred Modes for Distance Education
|Introduction | The Importance of Exploring Asynchronous
Interactive Video | Different Contexts,
If you were asked to recommend the best model for an Online English course offered at a distance, what would you suggest? Since most English courses currently offered rely largely on asynchronous delivery, you would probably design a course that used threaded conferencing software, e-mail, and listservs to complement whatever series of assignments you design. Or, you might also include, as some courses do, either required or optional synchronous visits to a MOO or a chat room.
Written conversations have become standard fare in English courses that use collaborative writing software; thus, the move to a combination of conferencing software and chat rooms or MOOs has been an exciting one for computers and composition specialists. The use of videoconferencing, however, has not interested the computers and writing community, in spite of a growing trend to explore orality in other distance learning communities, including K-12 education. As Edward Spodick notes, "the trend is very much towards combining synchronous and asynchronous media in an attempt to capitalize on the evident benefits of both modes." ("The Evolution of Distance Learning").
Most computers and
writing specialists privilege written conversation over
face-to-face interactions, and thus interactive video
conferencing has not
attracted much interest. As Dickie Selfe noted in a
private e-mail message, "there are a number of folks who do value f2f
interactions though most of them, . . . would not privilege a video mediated
interaction." Nor have computers and composition
specialists begun to explore interactive desktop video
conferencing, a growing medium for distance education
courses in corporate environments, that is being used in
combination with synchronous and asynchronous
conferencing tools. (For a sample of how video
conferencing is being used in corporate training, see
"Intranet training tool gets a road test," an
article on Chrysler Corporation's use of desktop video
Why should computers and composition scholars begin to explore mixed media distance education? After all, interactive video instruction seems to be just the kind of instruction composition specialists have been fleeing from. We have left the lecture-based classroom long ago and retreated to computer classrooms where we could immerse students in textual interactions using collaborative writing software. Further, many of us have been exposed to examples of interactive video courses that consisted of nothing other than lecturers talking live to classrooms of docile students. For example, I attended an interactive video lecture by a leading scholar from the Institute of Academic Technology: 500 participants huddled in one lecture hall to listen to Professor Charles Noblit discuss his innovative French software programs. There was time for only two questions at the end of the session. A videotape would have been superior, for we could have watched it at our convenience and in more comfortable surroundings.
Interactive video can be more productive. Face-to-face, small group discussion and interaction can help many students develop their language compentencies: some students seem to thrive on face-to-face interaction, and interactive video provides a semblance of physical togetherness. Further, as paired classes of students in interactive video courses have access to computers, the combination of oral and text-based pedagogies begin to multiply. Ultimately, each distance learning program and the mix of courses offered must be designed to meet the needs of the students the different courses serve.
As scholars search for the best combinations of software and writing tasks, they need to continually re-envision their teaching, asking, "What mix of technology and pedagogy is appropriate for my context?" As the technology changes, so the answer changes. And as the context shifts, so different solutions emerge. All elements of a teaching situation must be taken into account--not just the primary delivery media, but also the students, the curriculum, and the institution. Although face-to-face learning proved less effective than virtual learning for Jerald Schutte's students in parallel sections of a social statistics class, his teaching situation was unique to his environment (Shutte). Different contexts demand different combinations of technology and pedagogy.
When interactive video conferencing can be combined with the kinds of collaborative writing tools that computers and writing scholars have been using for years (and several current products have been marketed recently which do just that), two-way desktop video and audio will become a formidable medium. Whole class video conferencing may not be the best technology for teaching writing (the inherent problems in the medium have been noted by many faculty who have experienced it), but it provides a window into the possibilities of desktop videoconferencing sytems. Only by actively working with a technology can we fully understand its potential.
I will cover several aspects of teaching with technology in this paper:
My intent is to offer my own distance learning situation as an example of how teachers in any discipline can use available equipment to create locally viable pedagogies. It also reinforces the most important point faculty should keep in mind about teaching with technology: the teaching must continually be re-envisioned as new technologies emerge.
By starting with a theoretical approach to teaching, not with the technology, a teacher can modify and re-think possibilities as he or she becomes familiar with the potential of the technology in relationship to the teaching situation. I do not have the kind of equipment that you would drool over, the kind of equipment used in a parallel teaching situation described in a recent issue of THE Journal: "Each of the new distance learning facilities includes . .. specially designed microphones. . . [and] automated tracking camera systems. . . ." ("ParkerVision's Presenter and Student Camera Systems Aid Distance Learning Program in Medina County, Ohio")
Nor do I need this equipment to create powerful learning situations.
Overview | Preliminary Comments | Pedagogical Choices | Moving On | Conclusion | Bibliography