Giving Online Humanities Instruction a Human Face
Digital video plays a key role in the online learning experience by
giving instructors a clearer presence and personality.
Online courses have come a long way toward providing a seamless connection
to the learning environment and a positive experience for the learner in the
virtual classroom. Now, digital video technology helps personalize the instructor’s
Digital video technology is transforming multimedia content on the Internet
and adding exciting possibilities to online education. More powerful compression
algorithms, broadening bandwidth capabilities, and inexpensive multimedia tools
now make video delivery far more feasible for serious distance educators who
want to maximize content delivery options. At Southern Utah University, we have
created a general education humanities course for delivery over the Internet
that includes video-on-demand capability that provides students with more than
150 mini-lectures in support of the course material.
One of the most obvious weaknesses of distance education is the lack of human
contact between students and instructors. Nowhere is this more pronounced than
in an online humanities course where “what makes us human” is the
focus of the curriculum. Both instructors and students miss the opportunity
to interact on a personal level when instruction takes place via Web sites,
worksheets, and proctored exams.
The human element is vital when teaching art, architecture, music,
philosophy, or literature, especially in a survey course.
One way to bring the human element of humanities instruction into distance
education is to open the students to the spontaneous intensity and humor of
the “live” lecture. The visual and aural impact of a knowledgeable
and passionate instructor offers a host of learning opportunities not found
in print-based distance education programs. With this in mind, we worked with
an instructor known for his innovative and invigorating teaching style to create
an online course that could bring a human face to online humanities instruction.
Lectures for the entire course were recorded live during the semester prior
to developing the Internet course. Editing the recorded lectures into 5-10 minute
mini lectures and securing still images to illustrate them all was very time
consuming. The faculty instructor worked with a team of three student assistants
to create the illustrated mini lectures. Development of the Internet course
was funded in part with grants from the Utah Education Network (UEN) and the
Utah Higher Education Technology Initiative (HETI).
The innovative structure and delivery of the course is made possible by SMIL,
Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (pronounced “smile.”),
a powerful Web multimedia tool. Recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium
(W3C) it allows for the creation of time-based multimedia delivery over the
Web. SMIL is based on XML and allows developers to mix many types of media together
and to synchronize them to a timeline.
Our humanities course for the Internet uses these capabilities to deliver video
in concert with still images to create an illustrated video lecture format that
is opening up new possibilities for our online instruction. The simultaneous
streaming of multiple media is the key feature of SMIL that we used to create
the illustrated lecture format of the class. We chose RealNetworks technology
as our encoding/streaming system, which proved to be solid and reliable. The
RealNetworks Player is designed to be SMIL-compatible and to take full advantage
of SMIL multiple media streams.
Layout and the Player Window
The SMIL layout tag allows the player window to be customized, including the
creation of multiple regions, each capable of displaying a different stream.
Our mini lectures use a simple rectangular window divided into three separate
regions: a video region, a menu region, and a slide region.
The video and menu regions take up the left side of the window with the video
region immediately above the menu region. The video region displays the instructor
in a tight shot, as well as any visuals he uses during the TV broadcast of the
class. These visual supplements include such things as computer images, overheads,
and use of the white board. The menu region lies just below the video window
and is a simple point-and-click menu for navigating through the current lesson.
The slide region is the largest window and lies to the right of the other two.
The slide region displays still images that illustrate what the instructor is
discussing. The images are tied to the timeline of the video lecture using SMIL,
which precisely synchronizes the images and lecture. Standard video controls—play,
stop, pause, fast forward, and rewind—below the video window allow students
to control the flow of the presentation.
The first group of students to take the video-enhanced online course found the
video to be engaging and personal, and they reacted very positively to the instructor’s
excitement and enthusiasm for the subject matter. But, students tended to rely
too much on the video, which is meant to supplement and interact with the course
reading assignments not replace them.
Streaming Media vs. CD-ROM
One draw back of Internet multimedia is the high bandwidth required for quality
streaming. In our first full semester we suggested that students have access
to a T1 connection or faster. The students with fast connections (T1, DSL, and
ISDN) received the streaming lectures with few problems, but several students
using 56K dial-up services had mixed success receiving the video stream. As
a regional university in the western U.S. we are very mindful of students who
live in out-of-the-way places and we are anxious to provide those students with
the same educational opportunities as their urban classmates. In order to counter
the problems of limited bandwidth and slower connection speeds faced by many
distance students we created a CD-ROM alternative to streaming media.
The course has an optional set of six CDs available to students who request
them. The CDs contain all of the media files necessary to watch the multimedia
presentations. To maintain consistency and user friendliness, the CD-ROM is
accessed via the course Web site, just as the streaming media are. When students
are completing a lesson and reach the lecture portion, they have the option
of viewing the media presentation via streaming technology or from the CD in
their local computer.
The CD option is made possible through WebCT, which is our campus online course
management tool. The latest version of WebCT supports CD-ROM video integration
directly into the course content module. With the appropriate CD in the local
drive, students can link to the media presentation directly from the course
Student evaluation of the course has been very positive. The media presentations
allow the course content to address a much broader range of learning styles,
and we believe that the enthusiastic student response reflects this broader
As a new course (and a new format), our standard teacher evaluation for distance
courses d'es not directly address media content. So, most of our feedback specific
to the new technology comes from unsolicited comments received by the instructor,
your energetic and enthusiastic teaching style. I
really enjoyed your course.”
“The important thing is that I learned immensely
it really shows
that you love what you do and that you care about each student.”
We are very encouraged by the initial student reactions, and we are beginning
a more objective, survey-based study of the effects and contributions that streaming
video-on-demand, digital lectures, and multimedia content have on Web-based
We are pleased with success of the project to date and the positive response
of students to the video lecture presentations. Though the recorded videos do
not replace face-to-face discussion, feedback indicates that the video vignettes
do add a personal and humanizing element. The instructor’s teaching style
is able to convey excitement and passion for the humanities in a way that is
captivating and contagious and that would be impossible through handouts or
Web sites no matter how skillfully they are created. The human element is vital
when teaching art, architecture, music, philosophy, or literature, especially
in a survey course. The subsequent interaction between students and teacher
are richer and more meaningful when the e-mails and electronic discussions are
tied to a real person, a face, and personality they are familiar with through
watching the recorded lecture presentations.
Web Lecture: Electronic Presentations in Web-Based
January 2000: 18-23.
"SMIL:Multimedia Rides the XML Wave,"
16.8 (March 2003): 22-24.
Guimaraes, Nuno, Teresa Chambel, and Jose Bidarra.
Cognitive Maps to Hypervideo: Supporting Flexible and Rich Learner-Centered
Environments," Interactive Multimedia Electronic Journal of
"Incorporating Streaming Audio into Online Courses," Distance
Education Report 6.7
(April 2002): 7.
"LSU Expands Distance Learning Program through
Online Learning Solution," T.H.E. Journal 29.6
"Models of Distance Higher Education:
Fully Automated or Partially Human," Educational Technology
Van Horn, Royal.
"Digital Video: Get With It!," Phi
Delta Kappan 82.10