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Special Annual Awards

2008 Campus Technology Innovators: Interactive, Remote Learning

2008 Campus Technology Innovators

FURMAN'S VIRTUAL TOUR development team (left to right): Academic Computing Specialists Wade Shepherd and Cort Haldaman, and Instructional Development Consultants Diane Boyd and Mike Winiski.

Innovator: Furman University

One history professor experiments with technology to transport his students through space and time, and interact with them as he guides them through remarkable field trips they may never have been able to experience otherwise.

So much to see, so little time. From a logistical perspective, field trips for departments with limited resources can be challenging. Such was the driving force behind Tripping Virtually (Interactive Field Experiences in Urban History), a new IT effort at Furman University (SC) involving technologists from a number of departments, to enable student field trips that are transporting interactive experiences-- without ever leaving campus.

The results of the project are inspiring. This April, from their classrooms in Greenville, SC, Furman students participated in virtual walking tours of historical sites in cities such as Boston and New York. As their professor wandered the streets of these cities hundreds of miles away, students followed along in real time via images, audio, and geocoded displays courtesy of Google Maps. Later, with the help of Camtasia Studio from TechSmith, the students were able to access the archived tours for study purposes.

Professor T. Lloyd Benson (the Walter Kenneth Mattison Professor of History) needed only a few months to develop his unique curriculum. Eager to create a fully interactive virtual field trip complete with integrated mapping from a remote location, Benson set out in early 2007 to find technologies that could do the job.

With the help of colleagues in the school's Computing and Information Services department and the Center for Teaching & Engaged Learning, Benson selected a nucleus of off-the-shelf technologies such as the HP iPAQ hw6940 Mobile Messenger with built-in GPS, as well as technologies, products, and services from NEC, Verizon, Vonage, AT&T Wireless, Apache, IBM, Shure, Da-Lite, and JBL. Total price tag: $1,000.

Thanks to SAILOR, Harford advisers were able to see 8 percent more students in the spring 2008 semester than in the previous fall.

Once the equipment and tools were in place, Benson wrote a Python script in Keyhole Markup Language (KML) that would read location information embedded in the uploaded images, transfer those images to Google Maps and Google Earth, and create a dynamic web gallery that displayed the images in an interactive geographic context. This enabled students to see images of exactly what their professor was seeing as he moved around. (Benson also made this script available to other educators who wished to duplicate the configuration.)

The immediacy of these tours was striking. Instead of sitting and watching a slide show, students became involved in directing the tour-- on numerous occasions telling Benson where to go and what to do. However, since both wireless cell phone and GPS technologies were used, the class also learned that in order for these technologies to work, users must be sure signals are strong. At one point, for example, Benson passed a courthouse that was jamming cell phone signals and he was briefly lost to his class.

The real-time nature of these lessons won students over quickly. According to Benson, students noted in subsequent surveys that the experience enriched their learning through real-time interactions with a tour guide, and that the cities "came to life." The students also said that as a result of the live, "you are there" lessons, they had a better sense of historical/ spatial connections.

Wade Shepherd, director of the university's Computing and Information Services department, says Benson plans to broaden this curriculum and incorporate it in future classes so more of his students can collaborate with him and with undergraduates in travel/study abroad programs. Farther down the road, he envisions a situation where students at different schools can swap tours.

"We think the fact that this can be done with inexpensive tools totaling about $1,000 will make this approach an easily adoptable solution for all kinds of similar projects and even for inter-institutional and K-12 collaborations," says Shepherd.

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