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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 online presence.

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.

The Project
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 Presentation
Player Window

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 content page.

Student Feedback
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 reach.

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, for example:

“I appreciate…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 courses.

Instant Replay
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.


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