Remote-controlled learning

Interaction: In Howard County's first distance-learning class, students and teacher communicate as easily as if they were in the same room.

March 15, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Three afternoons a week at Atholton High School in Columbia, six students sit in a room and watch television.

For this they receive four college credits.

It might seem strange, but it isn't when one considers that on the other side of the TV camera is a math professor at Howard Community College, teaching the fundamentals of statistics -- a college-level course usually reserved for undergraduate freshmen and sophomores.

This is not a public access channel broadcast of a class that the Atholton students just observe. In this case, the teacher can see and hear them, answer their questions, notice if they look confused and quiet them when they chatter.

These five juniors and one senior are participating in the first fully interactive distance learning classroom in Howard County.

Atholton Principal Connie Lewis set up the class last month after two years of planning. It works this way:

Using fiber-optic technology, television cameras and monitors installed in the high school classroom and the college class give the professor and the students real-time views of each other. Both rooms are equipped with microphones and speakers, linked to the Internet and hooked with fax machines and high-tech overhead projectors called "document viewers."

All the equipment was donated by Bell Atlantic.

An instructional assistant at Atholton controls the cameras' perspectives so Professor Consuelo Stewart can see the entire class of six, one student in particular or the document viewer. The assistant also is present during tests and quizzes.

Distance learning in this fashion has several advantages, Lewis said.

Without the technology, the students wouldn't be able to take a course such as statistics, which isn't normally offered at the high school level. Lewis said she couldn't afford a teacher for such a small number of interested students.

The distance-learning class seems to be working so well that Lewis is planning to offer two more advanced math classes and an Asian history class next year. Some will be taught at HCC, some at Towson University.

Students in the class are enthusiastic about being the county's initial distance learners.

"I'm excited because I'm getting college credits out of the way," said junior Jen Overall, 17. "I think it's just a really cool opportunity. Even though it is kind of freaky when [instructional assistant Carolyn Malczewski] zooms in on you and there's a big fat picture of your face staring at you."

Junior Scott Tsikerdanos, 17, said the class has fun with the cameras, hamming it up from time to time. But when serious discussion is under way, the students hardly notice the cameras or their faces on screen.

"It was a little hard to adapt to the fact that the teacher's not there," Scott said. "But now I don't even think about it."

Because HCC is a few miles away, if a student needs one-on-one attention, he or she can drop by during Stewart's office hours, Jen said.

Stewart, who has been a professor at HCC for nine years and an educator more than 20, said the experience is exciting, challenging and difficult.

"This is worse than chewing gum and trying to walk at the same time," she said with a laugh, noting that she has to remember to adjust the camera when she moves around the room and also has to divide her attention between her college students who are in the classroom with her and the high school students on TV.

"But the most important thing I miss is the contact with my students," Stewart said before a recent class. "I try to understand them, know what they're interested in. I like to see their faces and gestures so I know I'm doing a good job."

To make her feel better at the end of one review session, junior Trevor Elliott placed a sheet of paper on the document handler and asked instructional assistant Malczewski to zoom in on it.

The paper, signed by all the Atholton students, said: "Thank you, Ms. Stewart."

Blushing, Stewart took a little bow.

Roll credits.

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