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Lecture Capture on Trial

Villanova Law School's practice courtroom puts the faculty member playing judge in control of the courtroom, just like it is in real life. Advanced technology--plus a well designed system for managing that technology--helps put students in control of their presentations and hone their courtroom skills.

The best-known courtroom lawyers show well developed acting skills. They know how to move about the room, pace their dialog, and bring the audience--the judge, members of the jury, and others watching and participating in the proceedings--into the emotion of the case. The teaching of those acting skills isn't necessarily a big part of the curriculum for the typical law school. But a set of technology-laden practice courtrooms at Villanova University's School of Law is helping students improve how they come across. These courtrooms give students a chance to prepare for trial work by putting them into a setting where they can practice their advocacy skills in mock trials.

In fall 2009 Villanova Law School, a Philadelphia area school with about 750 full-time law students, opened a new home, twice the size of its previous building. Classrooms in the new structure are fairly state of the art, outfitted with video cameras, advanced audio gear, lecture capture software, dual screens, and other useful classroom components. However, the McGuinn Ceremonial Courtroom, used in trial advocacy courses, is the smartest of the smart--loaded with technology that includes three video cameras, bench and ceiling microphones, two projection screens to handle the presentation of "evidentiary displays," a sophisticated audio system that levels out the variable volume of speakers, and an assisted listening system for people who are hard of hearing.

Generations of Classroom Capture
This classroom, like the others, is hooked up to a centralized control center where media services staff can respond to instructor needs, handle recording of lectures, and manage operations of the video cameras. It also has its own control booth where staff can control media operations going on in the room.

This is an improvement over the old days about a decade ago, according to Assistant Dean for Academic Computing April Mara Barton, when faculty would operate their own handheld digital recording for capturing audio or a technician would be in the classroom, wheeling a big video camera around to videotape the proceedings.

"We only had one camera angle that was able to capture the student or whatever was going on in the classroom." The limitation in that type of setup, she said, was that the techie behind the camera wouldn't know exactly what the law professor acting as the judge would really want to capture in the room at any given moment.

Villanova University School of Laws lecture capture control system in action.
Villanova University School of Law's lecture capture control system in action.

With the deployment of multiple cameras in the room, each camera could capture a different perspective--that of the jury, the attorney, or the judge. And the camera controls--moving around, tilting, panning, and zooming--could be done from that central control center. But even then, Barton noted, "the professors had to talk to a techie or a media services person and explain to this third party exactly what they were trying to capture in the courtroom at different points in the exercise."

The point of the cameras in the first place is to record what's going on and then provide that recording to students to help them see and presumably make improvements on their performance. In the single-camera scenario everything would be saved to a miniDV. After the class the media person would have to do video editing to create multiple DVDs, one for each student involved in the trial. That approach was very labor intensive, Barton said. The multi-camera approach improved on that because each camera could focus on a single individual.

While that was certainly better than the rolling presence of the lone video camera in a previous iteration, it still wasn't always exactly what the instructor was hoping for. "The professor or judge knows exactly what they want to capture at any particular point in time," Barton said. "You prep the camera operator ahead of time--'Try to get this. Then if this happens, shoot over to that camera...'--but that person doesn't always know what's really happening."

What would be ideal, the thinking went, was to let professors control those camera views themselves. That way, when something spontaneous happened in the practice courtroom, the instructor would be able to capture it by shifting a camera in the appropriate direction and recording the proceedings.

Yet that too posed a challenge, Barton said. "It's hard to do two things at once--teach a class and direct the cameras."

The college called in control system solutions provider Control Concepts to see if it was even possible to design and build what it wanted. The same company had helped the university design the user interfaces that would be used on the Crestron classroom touchpanels in the new building. For the newest project, the idea was to give the professor full control of the cameras but make that control so simple, it could be handled even in the quick pace and commotion of classroom activities.

It's Complicated
According to Barton, the job of designing a simplification of the camera operations through a touchpanel wasn't simple itself. "There are a lot of connections behind the scenes going on," she said. "Those cameras need to have connections to centralized media control. They need to have connections to the judge's bench. There are a lot of routers behind the scenes, and wires and conduits that need to be there to make all this possible."

Although the original intention was to consider putting the simplified instructor camera control into each of Villanova's courtrooms, Crestron's price estimate put that idea on hold. "We had no sense going in how much this would cost," Barton pointed out. "We said, 'Let's be smart and integrate it into one courtroom to see how much it's being used. Maybe after a period of using it we can see how we can do it better or tweak it.'"

In fall of 2009 Crestron implemented the design it had engineered. As Barton described, the professor's bench features two windows, one acting as a video preview to display what could be recorded next as a set-up shot, and the other showing what is actually being recorded at the moment. The professor can start the preview display recording with a single push of a button.

"These are really sophisticated controls," she said. "But what we've done is completely simplified the interface through the Crestron touchpanels. These are video controls that in the past only experts understood how to use."

A one-page laminated "cheat sheet" provides instructions at the professor's bench. "It works very well," Barton added. "The touchpanels are so user friendly and intuitive that our professors haven't really found it to be a steep learning curve at all. They've welcomed the ability to have real-time access to the recording capability."

The sessions are recorded directly to DVD. When one student is finished with his or her work in the courtroom, the professor can pop out the disc and insert a new one as the next student's practice session begins. When class is done or as it's proceeding, the DVDs can be distributed to the appropriate students.

It's up to the student to watch the DVD on their own time, Barton said. "It really provides a whole different level of feedback. After watching a student's performance, I can tell them, 'Oh, your eye contact needs improvement. Your hand movements are distracting.' They'll hear me, but they may not change their behavior. You have to have that student watch himself or herself to really drive home the point. There's no convincing."

But she's convinced of the new system's value. Early in Barton's course on Administrative Practice, for example, the students practice testifying before Congress. "They do it early in the semester, and they do it at the end of the semester," she said. "This year for the first time, I was able to record performances at the beginning of the semester. I gave them my verbal feedback. The class gave their feedback. Then students went home and watched the video. They could see, 'I do play with my hair. I did stutter a lot or say um.'"

Barton described the improvement between those two sessions of testimony as "staggering." "I really attributed that to the fact that they could see themselves. They couldn't do that when I've taught the class in the past," she noted.

Also, she pointed out, the simplicity of the Crestron touch display panel encourages professors to try things in class they might not have bothered with before. "You don't want to impose on people's time for something that seems so labor intensive," she explained. "When you have the ability to do it yourself, you say, 'What the heck. I'll try this out.' Then you see the tangible results, and they're really terrific."

Barton envisions in the future implementing the technology into other classrooms to place video control firmly into the fingertips of faculty members in the other practice courtrooms.

But her vision doesn't end there. "I can see a future where students step into a 3D virtual world to give oral arguments. Rather than the courtroom looking like a classroom at Villanova Law School, it'll look like the Supreme Court. Or if they're giving a Senate hearing, it'll look like a Senate hearing room." With the right technology, she adds, "You don't have to explain what you want to somebody. You capture in real time exactly what you're looking for."

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