Thursday, April 14, 2005
IM and distant students or distance teaching (more) ::

Both Davide (a distant distance student at an institution that I won't name) and Danny Zacharias (of Deinde) offered prompt and extensive comment on my piece on "Instant Messaging and the Distant Student", both contributions provoke further reflection - which is what blogging is all about for me... (I am only responding late like this because I am in the midst of a flood of marking, and have also a presentation, a videoed sermon and an article due over the next few weeks, as well as trying to finish version 1.0 of Amos!)

Davide starts his "Instant Messaging and distant degrees (or students) " with some comments on the deplorable lack of interaction between teachers and students in the old (20th century) "external degree" model. He characterises this as an "absolute lack of interaction with teachers" and he notes "This is fairly demotivating"! I am not at all surprised - there is nothing (even for a died in the wool shy introvert like me) like discussion for that "iron sharpens iron" effect that is vital to generating and developing new ideas and ways of thinking/acting that are at the heart of education.

Davide is right that few of us can aspire to the full richness described by Gregory in his eulogy to his teacher Origen, but I am not convinced that he was right to add "especially with external students" to my mind, a student is a student is a student, whether distant or in the same room they have similar needs and rights. The sort of regime that the old "external" model imposed which does indeed merit Davide's description: "'un esamificio' (a place where you go just to be examined, get your marks, and eventually your degree)".

But distant study ought not to be like that. Danny says he "giggle[s] with glee and awe at the things we can do nowadays" with technology. Computer mediated communication means that (at least text and picture) information can be exchanged almost with disregard to distance, and audio and video are easier and cheaper than ever and (if some time delays and one way communication are acceptable) can also enrich learning for most distant students. Danny's suggestion that:
A teacher can either sit down at his/her desk and tape their lecture or have their live classes taped, then have it available for digital download or web-streaming.
Would not quite work here, very few of my students have anything faster than 56K dialup connections, but when the student is likely to be time shifting anyway (as Danny notes, though he seems to feel teachers will disapprove of this! Why?) there are other slower but less demanding means of transmission (like DVD and VHS).

Danny goes on to describe an attempt to use such technology to allow a distant student to participate in an onsite class:
There is a student in a whole other province who is taking an OT class here at Acadia. Every Monday he sits at his computer and watches a live webcast of the class lectures and discussion. Not only does he get to watch a live webcast from his home, but he is also linked through MSN messenger to a volunteer student in the class, so that if he has any questions or comments, he can type them in and have his volunteer partner ask them on his behalf.
I cringe as I read this, and read on:
While I agree that just having the technology to do this is amazing I am somewhat put off by it, and other students are as well. Here are the reasons: 1) it takes an A/V technician every class to set up the camera and webcast, so the school is paying for this A/V person to be there. 2) It causes distraction on the rare occasion when the camera or computer malfunctions. 3) It is even more distracting when the teacher has to stop to change the batteries in his wireless microphone, etc. 4) when other students had something to say, they would have to speak really loudly for the camera to pick it up, or the teacher would have to repeat it. 5) The webcast has an 8 second delay, so whenever the distant student has a comment or question, it comes late. I can only imagine how much more frustrating it will be if the distant student is a slow typer or an opinionated and chatty person.
Because it echoes too closely my own experience trying to include a distant student (via Skype) orally into an onsite tutorial. My conclusion from that experience, and from what Danny writes, is that one should not usually try to mix distant and onsite like this, but rather get onsite students to behave like distant students, as they do already with discussion forums and the like... So, for me no more Skype additions to an onsite tutorial, but perhaps another go at the chat session, for students wherever they are situated.

And, on that Davide had some really good advice, such sessions need:

clear scope: that is, if it is used not just to voice one's mood;

there should be, if not a moderator, at least a commonly held view of what the goals are, and of the topic being discussed; this requires of course organization.

And there should also be some clarity on roles and pre-requisites

This sounds right, it fits (again all to well) what was wrong with my first attempt, and suggests ways for me to develop the idea before I try again!

So thank you both for some really useful and stimulating thoughts, I do envy Arcadia its technology, but I will continue to see what low-tech high-tech can do to enrich my, and my students', learning experiences over the coming weeks!

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