Project Spotlight

Video Collaboration Broadens Learning at Birmingham-Southern College

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With an average class size of 16 students and a student-to-faculty ratio of 13:1, Birmingham-Southern College offers a focused learning environment that lets each student get the most from his or her time on campus. But in line with the emerging trend of blended learning in education, we have also enhanced that environment with video conferencing — bringing a broader learning experience to our students. The program has been so successful that we've been asked to lead a development program for similar technology for a nearby high school.

BSC is a four-year, private liberal arts institution founded in 1856. Located three miles from downtown Birmingham, AL, on 192 acres, we have 1,300 students from 33 states and 19 countries. BSC also is a member of the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS), a consortium of 16 liberal arts colleges and universities that works to develop educational opportunities for all of our students.

Staying Competitive

In late 2012, BSC's provost received an e-mail from an ACS colleague inquiring about the school's use of video collaboration technology in the classroom. This e-mail prompted us to realize that video collaboration would be necessary for our college to stay competitive with larger schools.

We needed a classroom that could connect to our ACS partners across the South, as well as to resources across the globe. We wanted to build a new kind of teaching environment — one that used cutting-edge technology to provide the most interactive, engaging experiences possible.

We called in Cisco, Polycom and Lifesize to offer demonstrations. Lifesize impressed us specifically for its easy implementation. It took less than five minutes to set up the product demonstration, and we knew that ease-of-use would be a great benefit to both faculty members and students. After all, the IT department should not have to intervene every time a professor wants to make a video call.

Implementation

Since adopting video conferencing in our Blended Learning Classroom, BSC has hosted a number of virtual events, including inviting a remote environmental expert to speak to a science class as well as linking classrooms across the ACS consortium. In the future, we plan to extend the technology to even more disciplines and experiment with new learning techniques, such as "flipping the classroom" and incorporating streaming and recording.

We've also integrated video conferencing with data sharing from a Windows 7 computer. In this configuration, students can see the professor and his or her presentation, even if they are hundreds of miles away in another lecture hall. It's not hearing a voice behind a PowerPoint presentation. Remote participants can see both sides of the lesson: the speaker and the computer. It's a much more lifelike scenario.

We're also enthusiastic about having students use video technology for other off-campus learning, such as our January Exploration Term, which encourages students to travel to another country or complete a research paper or independent creative project. As students travel around the world, they can use video on their laptops or mobile devices and call into their class in real time to share experiences. After all, why read a research report about someone's travels when you can see it in crystal-clear HD?

BSC administration and students both understand the strong potential for video learning in education. So much so, we already have plans to build an additional four Blended Learning Classrooms across campus.

Improving HS Graduation Rates

Just a year after we launched our videoconferencing classroom solution, we were approached to design and build a blended learning classroom environment for Locust Fork High School in rural Blount County, AL. The initiative was funded through a grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham.

The classroom connects our college and high school students, with an aim to improve graduation rates in Blount County. In a partnership with BSC, Locust Fork High, the Blount County Board of Education and the Blount County Education Foundation, BSC students will have the chance to mentor younger students. On-campus speakers will be broadcast live to the high school. College and career preparatory lectures, and online interaction between faculty and staff from each school, are also part of the initiative.

The Locust Fork classroom opened at the beginning of this school year, and students seem inspired by these new digital lessons — one of which included a virtual "field trip" to visit the Sistine Chapel. Following the field trip, several students did independent study on other works by Michelangelo and other major artists of the period.

Having video technology in the classroom is a big deal for our small liberal arts college. The ability to take our classes on trips around the world and offer experiences that they would have never been able to take part in otherwise is a strong differentiator for our school. We truly believe we are pioneering the expanded use of video in both secondary school and higher education.

About the Author

Jesse McKneely is assistant vice president for information technology at Birmingham-Southern College.

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