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The Medium Rescues the Message

The Media Arts Academy at Los Angeles Valley College is a leader in bringing both the teaching and the application of new media into the classroom. With an emphasis on technical expertise, the program has trained many professionals in the news and entertainment industries. Recently, LAVC began using video conferencing not only to deliver a course in media studies, but as the medium for a collaboration involving students, faculty, and institutions in two countries.

Alan Sacks, an Emmy Award-winning director and producer and chairman of the Media Arts Academy, teaches a course called “Mind, Media, and Society.” Although Sacks has always taught the course at the school’s Van Nuys, Calif., campus, a scheduling conflict prevented him from being able to do that last year, because the film he was working on was shooting in Toronto. (The film, The Color of Friendship, later won an Emmy Award.)

Not wanting to forgo teaching his LAVC course during filming, Sacks sought a partner in Canada to help him teach his Van Nuys students using distance-learning technologies. The collaborator he found—Derrick de Kerckhove, director of the University of Toronto’s McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology—was not only willing to work with Sacks, but wanted his own graduate students to participate in the course.

Sacks and de Kerckhove redesigned the course to bring together media experts and critics from both the United States and Canada in a series of joint lectures delivered via video conferencing.

For three weeks, Sacks taught his course in real time from a studio at the University of Toronto. Using a Tandberg 6000 video-conferencing system, he could see and communicate with his students directly. Says Sacks: “At first, students were focused on the technology, but within five minutes, the TV screen disappeared for them and we were talking as though I was right there in the room.”

Sacks, who had attended campus seminars on the use of video-conferencing equipment, says he was able to use the cameras to zoom in on particular students, comment on whether they were attending to the discussion or doodling, and address them individually or in groups. In addition to conversing as though they were in the same room, he and his students were also able to pass hard-copy documents and software back and forth using the system’s built-in document camera and scan converter.

Lou Albert, director of staff development at LAVC, notes that although the school had used video conferencing in spot applications in the past, Sacks’ course was the first time the technology had been applied to several class sessions over a period of weeks.

“It was a unique experience,” he says. “The technology is so good now that students and faculty forgot it was there, and they talked as if they were all together.” Albert points to developments in video-conferencing hardware that improve transmission speeds to virtually eliminate audio delays and technology that allows users to connect multiple endpoints at one time.

De Kerckhove notes that his university has used video-conferencing tools since 1994. “I have offered many of my courses to and from afar, in Europe, the U.S., and Japan,” he says. “It is an ideal format to support face-to-face contacts when the real thing is not available. The voice quality is usually quite good, and that is what counts.”

The advantages, de Kerckhove says, outweigh the disadvantages. “The course can be given to and from wherever there is a connection,” he notes. “We often get access to world stars for free because it is fun for them, and they do not have to travel to Canada or the U.S. to be heard.”

He adds: “Their contributions can also be—and usually are—archived. We can then use the contents of the archives to create a final compendium with all the best material, a good exercise for would-be filmmakers. This year, we are introducing a new twist, which is to ask students on both sides to manage lighting and sets and sound.”

But he notes that the technology is not perfect: “The disadvantages are that the technology is still a bit shaky, with sudden drops, [it’s] not reliable everywhere, and the image remains sketchy.”

In the Toronto/LAVC class, de Kerckhove became the primary instructor. His students participated in lectures, researched guest speakers before their appearances, and took turns introducing them to their classmates. McLuhan students also collaborated with LAVC students on projects.

Despite the difference in their levels of education and experience, Sacks says, the students worked well together. “It was beneficial to the LAVC students to hear the views of the graduate students,” he notes. “Many of my students are preprofessional and focused on the technology more than the theory. The McLuhan students encouraged them to think about things on a different level, and vice versa.”

In the fall semester of 2001, Sacks and de Kerckhove repeated the course, this time focusing on how audiovisual and networked media represent and influence the way individuals think. Guest lecturers included animators Robin King and Donovan Keith; John Gierland, author of Digital Babylon; and Ted Nelson, who came up with the concept of hypertext.

For more information, contact Lou Albert at [email protected].

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