Overview | Preliminary Comments | Pedagogical Choices | Moving On | Conclusion | Bibliography

Pedagogical Choices: The Teaching Situation
A Streaming Video Discussion of The Teaching Situation  

By taking time to consider the entire teaching situation, including the available technology, I have been able to develop a powerful approach to teaching at a distance. The following chart indicates the four ingredients of the teaching situation that must be considered when an instructor uses technology in a distance education classroom: The curriculum, the discipline-specific pedagogies, the students, and the available technology.  

The Situation | The Curriculum | The Students | The Available Technologies | Determining an Approach | Preliminary Results 



The Situation  

In many cases, professors are asked to work with available technology, even if it is not what they feel is the optimal paradigm for their particular distance learning situation. Similarly, institutions across the country find themselves in situations where they are expected to offer distance educations courses before having had an having an opportunity to consider the range of possibilities and develop a plan of their own. 

At my institution, the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, distance education offerings are delivered using technology that the state-wide system has provided to component institutions—a network of two-way audio and two-way video connections among all University of Texas institutions, including some K-12 institutions in the state. 

I agreed to design and deliver two composition courses using this two-way interactive video and audio system. The courses I teach are offered to a combined audience of college students at the UTB/TSC campus and high school students from one or more area sites. The high school students take the courses through what is called "concurrent enrollment": they are concurrently high school and college students. 

Because the trend in distance education nationally is shifting from a focus on two-way video and audio to asynchronous web-based courses, I was not completely sure I wanted to teach composition courses using computer digital video equipment. Knowing that my colleagues in composition at institutions across the country have determined that Web-based composition courses work effectively for distance education, I hesitated—but only momentarily—for I have had experience creating powerful learning environment with less then optimal resources and I enjoy technological challenges. 

I pressed on for, in addition to my bias toward preserving some form of face-to-face teaching as distance learning becomes more common, I wanted to learn more about compressed digital video. Until we are thoroughly familiar with any given technology we can't even begin to think through the possibilities it affords. Further, I didn't want to say no to my Dean, who was interested in developing good relationships with the school systems in our area who had just gotten interactive video and audio classrooms set up in their schools and were searching for a sensible use of their new technology.

(See Notes on Teaching in an Interactive Environment.) 

 The Curriculum 

Composition I and Composition II are the courses that I have designed for Distance Learning. Composition I is a standard college writing course; composition II is a literature-based continuation of the first composition course. The department’s curricular guidelines stress critical reading in both courses and insist on a process-based approach to writing. That is, students do not just submit finished drafts; rather, teachers help students from the idea phase, through drafting and revising, to final editing. In addition, the department has a list of recommended texts. Within those guidelines, an instructor is free to develop an individualized approach to teaching. 

I had one other constraint:  I had to develop a syllabus that simultaneously matched the English Department's guidelines and the guidelines for English IV, for my high school students receive both college and high school credit for the course. For a complete explanation of the Composition I course curriculum see "Critical Literacy and the World Wide Web," the talk I gave at the Conference on Composition and Communication in April, 1998 (Rodrigues). 


The Students

In my classes are twenty-five University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College (UTB/TSC) students, approximately 30 high school students from San Benito, a town 15 miles north of Brownsville, and additional students from the Brownsville Independent School District (BISD).  Students at the university are primarily first generation college students. Students at the high school are honors students, and some have parents who have graduated from college, but others are first-generation students. 

Most students in these classes are Hispanic and for many of them English is a second language. Many students have never traveled outside the local area. Some students at the high school are likely to attend college in Texas; others hope to go to selective colleges across the country. The high schools students’ writing skills tend to be somewhat  better than the university students’ skills, for many students at UTB/TSC had not planned to go to college and thus did not work to capacity in high school. 

The Available Technologies  

I used the following tools to support my teaching. 

A Syllaweb. I used a "syllaweb" or online syllabus,  to support connectivity between classes--assignments, exams, reminders, even bibliographic support for the students who did not have access to our library was available to all students on the Web. 

Forum Software (Netforum). I tried to set up forums for collaboration between classes late in the Spring semester when the remote site students gained access to the Web. (One student from each group was asked to post to the web a summary of what his/her group talked about. One student from each group was asked to respond to at least one other group's posting between class sessions. Although there was little interaction during the few weeks we had the technology available, experimenting even for a short period was useful. I will require forum participation in Fall 1998.) 

The room itself. The room I teach in is an inside classroom about 40’ long and 60’ wide. 40 hexagonal tables and chairs can be arranged in a variety of formats: rows, rectangular tables, hexagonal "circular" groupings. There are two cameras, one in the front of the room and one in the rear of the room. Four ceiling-mounted microphones are strategically placed to enable students to talk without using a hand-held microphone. Two ceiling-mounted television cameras are located in the front of the room and two in the rear of the room. 

Most distance learning classrooms, such as the classroom at the University of San Diego, contain fixed seating, in rows, with no opportunity for students work in groups. I was indeed fortunate to have the arrangement I have described above. 

The peripheral technologies.  In addition, there is a computer control unit that controls the classroom cameras, a camera mounted on the ceiling in both the front and the rear of the room, two monitors in the front of the room and two in the back of the room, the computer display--with access to the Web or to other files on the computer-- and a whiteboard.

Determining an Approach--Mirror Instruction 

Unlike many professors who resort to lecture-based approaches to teaching, I was determined to create an interactive classroom environment—one which would allow  students to work interactively in groups during class meetings. The training models I had been provided by the University of Texas system were useful in helping me understand the principles of Distance Education and several sessions learning how to use the equipment gave me enough confidence to plunge in. But from there on in I was on my own. The lecture methods used by the few faculty already teaching with compressed video just wouldn't enable me to provide students with opportunities to collaborate with one another.  

How Composition Research Helped Me Determine My Needs 

Many instructors assume that lecturing is almost essential for a two-way video/two-way audio classroom. Somehow, with a television camera in front of them, the assumption is that they must lecture most of the class period. Since years of research in composition have demonstrated that lecturing about writing doesn’t help students become better writers, I was determined not to give up the best practices that I had developed for traditional classroom and computer classroom instruction. Distance teaching should attempt to be as good, or come close to approximating,  the quality of on-site instruction. I wanted to use the same techniques that work well in a face to face classroom and I wanted to develop an equally good rapport with students at all sites. 

Composition research has demonstrated the urgency of giving students time in class to move through various phases of the writing processes that experienced writers go through naturally. Telling students how to write an essay does not help students learn how to do the actually writing. Students need to have opportunities to practice various writing strategies and, occasionally, to begin working on their assignments with the teacher present. Teaching composiiton successfully is hard enough in a traditional classroom (a computer classroom is ideal), but it seemed nearly impossible in a compressed video situation. What would I do? 

What Others Have Done 

Through background research on the Internet, I discovered that most faculty teaching with compressed video find it to be a limited medium. As Woodruff and Reed note, "While compressed video holds great promise for expanding the classroom experience, it also amplifies poor teaching styles and strategies." With this in mind, instructors considering use of compressed video will need to understand and work with the advantages and constraints of the medium to ensure a quality telelearning experience" (Reed and Woodruff). I was determined  to do my best. 

What I Decided to Do: Mirror Pedagogy 

I began with the classroom itself and thought about how it might help me carry out the kind of interactive method of teaching writing that I was accustomed to using in the past. I wanted students to sit in groups at tables so that they could brainstorm ideas together, read and respond to one another's drafts, and discuss issues related to course readings. I wanted students to have opportunities to talk to one another. Fortunately, the tables in the classroom to which I was assigned are movable and can be formed into hexagonal groupings. I decided to move them so that students would be able to talk or share drafts for awhile then swivel their chairs just slightly to move from small group to whole class activity.  Even if I had to stand at the podium some of the time (as in the picture below), I could use that time to set up writing and discussion activities rather than to lecture. 



As I discover problems or issues I want to address, I can talk to students at both sites from the middle of my classroom. Students at the remote site see me mixed in with my students. The effect is that of a mirror: On one side, my students are working at tables while I circulate; on the television screen, students at the remote sit

A major breakthrough in my thinking came when I discovered that the camera control unit allowed me to switch the camera from the view of me at the podium to a view of my entire classroom (pictured in the imageThe technician at the remote site created a similar view of the remote classroom. That seemingly simple decision—based on learning what buttons to push to switch the camera to auxiliary view—was key to the pedagogy I developed. I call this approach "mirror instruction."  

Mirror Pedagogy  works like this: I change the camera to show a view of the whole class. When I give students a group task, I leave the podium area and walk around the room, as shown in the picture below.  Students at the remote site can see me helping students on their writing or on their group discussion tasks.  

As I discover problems or issues I want to address, I can talk to students at both sites from the middle of my classroom. Students at the remote site see me mixed in with my students. The effect is that of a mirror: On one side, my students are working at tables while I circulate; on the television screen, students at the remote site (or sites, depending on whether there are one or more remote groups of students) work at tables while the teacher assigned to work with them circulates. (If I hadn't begun to use the auxiliary camera, I would have been confined to the podium. And if the remote site can only see the podium view, then whenever I leave the podium it appears that I have abandoned the classroom!)

When I walk around  the classroom at my site, the teacher and students at the remote site (or sites) can gaze into the camera and see reflected back a version of themselves. I want the remote students to see that my students are doing exactly what they are doing. I want the remote students to gaze into the camera (mirror) and see the same kind of learning activitiy taking place on my end that is (or should be) taking place at their site. Similarly, I want my students to see that the students at the remote sites are engaged in group work, too.  

As I notice difficulties students are having with a given assignment, I can alert the other students to the problem. Without being able to peer over at least some of  his or her  students' shoulders as they write, a composition teacher has no window into students' writing processes. And since every new topic and every new writing situation is different, canned composition courses simply do not work.  The spontaneity of real-time interaction is invaluable.  

An Example of Mirror Pedagogy 

Let me give a specific example of how mirror pedagogy works. On days when we are discussing an essay,  I begin by asking students to write in their journal on a topic related to the reading--generally a provocative question such as the following  question, based on an editorial  about affirmative action in the UT campus newspaper:  "Should the professor at UT Austin who made derogatory comments about Hispanics in his law classes be asked to resign?"  I circulate as the students at both sites  write.  Interestingly, it took courage to "allow" students  to write during class,  for  with a television hookup, the assumption is that there should always be sound.  But since I know that it is good pedagogy for each writer to think on paper before sharing ideas with others, I did what my background in composition theory prompted me to do. I moved away from the center of the classroom and facilitated the activities. 

After students have time to gather their own thoughts on paper,  I ask students to talk in small groups about their response to the prompt. Finally, I move to the podium so that I can use the control unit to switch the camera to views of students as they report on their group's conversation or ask questions of one another. When students at the remote site question students at my site, I keep the camera on the students' faces so that I can emphasize what is happening: students are talking to students, not just responding to  the teacher.  In the picture below, students at the remote site do not see me. They see the student pictured in the monitor on the left.  Students at the local site see me, of course, but they also see the students at the remote site who are talking to the student at my site.  In the picture on the right monitor, below, the student in the middle of the screen is talking. In this case, the technician at the remote site has not zoomed in as close as I would have liked, but my point is still this: students are talking to students. I am listening. 



Preliminary Results 

In my Distance Learning classroom, mirror pedagogy has enabled me to adapt the workshop environment I have used for years in both computer classroom or traditional classroom situations to a distance education format. I can't walk around the distance room and gain insights into the students' problems and writing plans, but I can walk around my own classroom.  

Student like having partner classes. After both terms, I asked them the following questions: If you had to do it over again, would you take a course with a DE component? Out of 75 students in the Fall and 55 students in the Spring, only three said no. Overwhelmingly, strongly agreed with this statement: "I liked taking a course with a partner class through Interactive Television."  

There were a few surprises: In the Fall, my local students felt that I spent too much time with the distance students. In the Spring semester, the balance was somewhat reversed, with the local students' evaluations being higher than those of the distance students. There were a few ambiguities: the students who said that they didn't like talking on camera indicated that the most important reason for taking the course was that you had a chance to talk with students who were different from you. To talk with these students required developing the confidence to speak on camera. 

There were problems, too. In addition to the technical problems (lines being disconnected, images freezing on screen, etc.), students couldn't easily see the texts we were talking about because the television monitors in our classrooms weren't big enough (see picture above).  I was fortunate, however to have a wonderfully supportive technical staff to help me get through the technical difficulties and to help me develop ways to enhance the quality of my interactions with students. 

The  greatest problem was the lack of connectedness between sites. Students enjoyed having a partner class, but regretted not having an opportunity to get to know one another better. Because the partner classes didn't have full Web access until late in the year, I wasn't able to use e-mail to interact with students at the remote sites. Nor was I able to use the forum I developed for this course in more than a minimal way.  I wanted it to serve as a way for groups to know what other groups had talked about during class conversations (which were oral). I wanted one person from each group to report the reactions/consensus/dissensus of the group to the forum and I wanted students from the partner classes to respond to at least one group at the other site, but I didn't require it and they really didn't have easy Web access last year. Thus it didn't happen, except on a few occasions. 

Overall, though, this course has helped me in the following ways: 

  • I've begun to develop a sense of how to lead several classes in discussions with one another in ways that put the students on camera. (See Notes on How to Lead Discussions)
  • I've been able to develop some video skills that I will be able to use in similar teaching environments.  After showing a frame or two of background points, I switch the camera to me so that students don't just have a disembodied voice talking to them. Or, I send a slide with my key points as a picture-in-a-picture so that they can both see me talk and see the points at the same time.
  • I've renewed my ability to explain some content items that I'd neglected before. My facilitator-style of teaching has kept me from honing my presentation skills, which sometimes are needed. I've been able to shift to lecturer mode when appropriate, to explain and illustrate concepts such as coherence in paragraphs. I can explain and show these better in a live presentation on screen than I could in the traditional classroom. In the television classroom, I have tools such as an Elmo document camera and Powerpoint that work far better than the chalkboard ever did. 
  • The experience has made me more committed to the need to blend the available technologies in the best ways. This year I have begun to use Netforum to connec when students will be able to use conferencing software for sharing drafts and discussing ideas in writing. I am sure that having more written communication will also help students get to know each other better across sites, one of the key drawbacks of this course.
  • The experience gave me a chance to develop my first class web pages (which students at the remote sites only were able to access late in the Spring 1998 semester). Again, working with the technology available to me at the time allowed me to make a smooth transition to the technology I plan to use when I begin teaching in the Fall.


Overview | Preliminary Comments | Pedagogical Choices | Moving On | Conclusion | Bibliography