First, an anecdote
My first experience with distance education happened as a freshman in college. One of my business classes was a “hybrid learning environment”. This meant our class had two sections of students—one in-person and one remote. The remote class section was based in Hawaii, and they joined us over a video conferencing system.
At first, I wasn’t sure about this hybrid learning environment. But in the end, our professor was able to give both class sections equal attention. The remote students asked questions, got input, and presented to the class just as naturally as the rest of us. At no time did the arrangement seem forced, unnatural, or difficult.
It was enjoyable to have a whole other classroom virtually present. And while video conferencing didn’t reduce the underlying envy we all felt towards the remote section (as if school is somehow more fun in Hawaii, right?), it did allow for an engaging learning experience that would have otherwise been impossible.
What sticks out to me now is how normal this seemed. I assumed this was a standard practice for distance learning. Later, I found out I was wrong. Very wrong.
After my sophomore year, I transferred to another university. I took quite a few distance education courses at my new school in Houston, but they were nothing like the “hybrid” environment I’d had before. Looking back, it was still worth it to take those classes—even if only because commuting in Houston traffic is terrible.
My new university’s distance-learning courses were far from engaging. There was no virtual classroom complete with a live professor and classmates. Instead, I was stuck streaming decades-old lectures of varying signal quality, many hosted on Youtube—which left me feeling, well… Cheated? Maybe. Disappointed, for sure.
I can’t help but wonder why my school didn’t just use video conferencing.
The Distance Learners Cometh
Our society is constantly evolving, and campus life evolves with it. Today, distance learning is reshaping the challenges and opportunities for universities. We’ve got the numbers to prove it. According to the U.S. Department of Education, twenty-seven percent of college students in 2013 were enrolled in at least one distance education course, and thirteen percent were enrolled exclusively in distance education courses.
The percentage of college students exclusively enrolled in distance education is only expected to rise. Already, there are too many distance learning students to ignore. They are given a second-rate learning experience all too often.
The Root of the Problem
Why do universities give distance learning so little attention? Virtual classes don’t have to constrict human interaction, and they shouldn’t. Students depend on collaboration, engagement, and feedback. By not including these elements, universities dilute the education experience for distance learners.
My professors in all my distance classes were great, and so was the material they taught. Ultimately, I did fine in their courses. But those courses didn’t feel like real class. I couldn’t ask questions, give input, or get feedback from fellow classmates on my thinking. An unintuitive, impersonal web-based message board facilitated all communication among classmates. It was, and I believe this is a technical term, a drag.
Distance learning provides greater access to education, which of course is great. Really, really great. But if the quality suffers, that access will mean a less engaging environment—often for the students who most need to be engaged. The problem is finding a way to keep access and maintain quality.
Enter Our Hero
Video conferencing is an easy, low-cost, and effective way to provide the access universities. It isn’t just a good solution for distance learning, either. It’s a powerful tool to drive student engagement, and it only takes thinking outside the box a little bit to see how.
Every university wants to create remarkable learning experiences, and distance education is one area that universities can’t afford to fall behind. If my university had used video conferencing technology, I’d be bragging about it. I would encourage every student of theirs to take distance classes. They didn’t use video conferencing, but I hope they do one day—and not just so I can brag that I’ve had a hand in education reform.
And one more anecdote
One of my favorite memories a college class happened in my senior-level creative writing course. Our professor got in touch with an award-winning author whose work we had been reading in class. To our surprise, she agreed to give a guest lecture over Skype.
I remember the day well. Our professor fiddling with the computer as he tried to connect. All of us, his students, watching with a little impatience as we waited, most of us sitting cross-legged on the floor so our guest could see us all. Needless to say, it wasn’t the best set up for video conferencing in that classroom.
Still, it was one of the best learning experiences I’ve ever had. Meeting an expert—asking her questions, hearing her advice—that brought our coursework to life. My classmates and I talked about that day through the rest of the year. It still sticks out in my mind as a perfect example of how a simple video conference can change a lot.
Using Video Conferencing to Drive Learning
I’ve seen firsthand how video conferencing enhances learning, both for distance education and in-person classrooms. I’ve also seen how a lack of the right tools can hinder the learning process.
Maybe I have a romanticized, idealistic view of education, but I can’t help it. I truly think universities should be hubs of academic innovation. Call me crazy, but I think I’m not alone.
Innovation means thinking outside the box to find new solutions, and that isn’t easy. But innovation starts with adopting modern, readily available solutions when you can. And you can.
Video conferencing can enhance education in many ways. I’ll leave you with a few of my favorites. I’m sure those of you scoring at home can think of even more.
Creating a virtual classroom environment
Poorly designed bulletin boards, message apps, and email are poor substitutions for in-class participation. Video conferencing allows for face-to-face discussion with classmates, which is a better solution than prerecorded lectures. Video
Labs and demos
Instead of take-home labs or recorded demonstrations, why not demonstrate to remote students live? Not only will this allow for crucial feedback for improving instructions materials, it will create a more engaging experience. When students are more engaged, they learn better and enjoy class more.
Connecting class sections
Video collaboration between different sections brings more students together, meaning more ideas, better understanding, and a better use of instructor time. It might not be the best solution for every course, but many freshman-level survey courses are packed with students as it is. Video conferencing could make it easier for universities to teach common subjects on a larger scale.
Student-driven study groups
Education happens outside of the classroom too. Students can use video conferencing to study together easily no matter where they live. Instead of requiring group discussion to be relegated to a bulletin board, video conferencing can both facilitate discussion and capture it for instructor review.
Office hours for commuters
Face time with professors is a vital part of education that is difficult for distance learners to experience. When a face-to-face conversation is needed, video conferencing is an effective solution for instructors and students. Instead of spending hours in traffic, students can meet with professors instantly, share their work, and receive immediate feedback.
Unique learning experiences
I know from personal experience that a guest lecture through video conference can be a powerful learning experience. With video conferencing, it’s easy for instructors to get input from experts outside the class. But universities can also use video conferencing to create other unique virtual learning experiences. Classes can take virtual field trips, for example. Imagine senior-level Spanish students practicing conversation with a class in Spain, biology students virtually exploring research facilities across the nation, or international business majors on a virtual tour of a finance company based in Dubai.
I don’t think these ideas are pie-in-the-sky. They’re just a few of the many possibilities video conferencing provides. Whether the goal is improving engagement for distance learners or creating better experiences in a traditional environment, universities should consider video conferencing technology. Few tools are so cost-effective and easy to implement. Even fewer provide such immediate results.
It’s important for universities to work with experts when choosing AV for the classroom. All too often, the wrong technology is used, and the student experience suffers. Schools should bring in AV experts early on to prevent that from happening.
How early on? As soon as possible, before systems are specified and purchased. That’s the only way to ensure proper facilities and budget planning. Don’t pay a lot of money only to be stuck with a poor AV set up. Inadequate cameras, poor angles, bad mic arrangement, wrong lighting—these are all common and avoidable. AV integrators, like Synergy, are experts in creating solutions that work, and work well.
Do you have any ideas for ways universities can use video conferencing to enhance education? I want to hear them! Let me know in the comments, and as always, thanks for reading!
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