With more and more colleges offering videos of classroom

Online lectures create alternate classrooms

October 07, 2004|By Kavita Kumar | Kavita Kumar,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Professor Joe Kappock's fear of an empty classroom came half true last year when just 55 of the 90 students registered in his biochemistry class at Washington University in St. Louis showed up one day.

He had worried his morning-challenged students might make a habit of sleeping in instead of attending his 9 a.m. class, because they knew a camera in the back of the room was taping everything he said. And they could watch the tape whenever they wanted by clicking on the video online.

Most students still get something out of the arcane habit of attending class in person, he said. But for those who prefer to sleep instead, he shrugs.

"I don't like to preach to an empty room," he said, "but I'm there to do what students need me to do to best help them."

Those who skip class have always figured out ways to get by. But as more colleges and universities begin experimenting with streaming video and audio, some people are asking if there is a point to going to class these days. And sometimes, professors are asking the same thing.

"I will admit it has crossed my mind: Why not videotape it from home and stream it online?" Kappock said.

Streaming lectures online for the benefit of on-campus students has grown out of the technology used for distance learners at many universities. The quality varies from campus to campus, from basic no-frills tapes that look like home videos to some productions that rival the evening news.

Professors say they hope recorded lectures will improve learning by providing students with flexibility. Students can get material if they have to miss a class because of a religious holiday, a track meet, a medical school interview or the flu.

The tapes offer help for international students for whom English may not be their first language and for students who have trouble concentrating in class, educators say. Other students who do not quite grasp a concept the first time can watch that part of the lecture again.

Locally, schools such as the University of Maryland, College Park and Loyola College use streaming video and audio to provide students with access to lectures.

The University of Maryland has offered the service to students in its college of engineering since last year. Students log on to the school's Web site and access the lectures through a password.

According to engineering professor Ali Mosleh, students need permission to access lecture videos. Mosleh said the service is mainly designed for distance-learning students who pay an extra fee for the streaming video. He said most on-campus students don't use the service because they prefer to attend classes.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County does not use such technology, but officials there are considering it.

Most professors say the technology is a supplement rather than a substitute for class. But some administrators say it is also being used to help relieve crowding in big lecture classes at schools such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign or to help students who need to take two classes that meet at the same time.

For Benjamin Staffin, it was one long, slippery slope.

Waking up for his 9 a.m. computer science class two summers ago didn't jibe well with his nocturnal schedule, the University of Illinois junior said. Then he was sick one week and missed seven hours of class. He was not worried, because he had the streaming videos. But he did not show up the next week either, figuring he could watch them later. The lectures piled up -- fast.

"And now I have 14 hours of video to watch, and I'm completely in over my head," he recalled.

It spiraled down to a big fat "D" on his transcript. So he is taking the class over this semester. And he is going to try something new this year.

"My strategy is to go to class," he said.

Educators acknowledge recording classes might give some students incentive to stay home. But Patricia Phillips-Batoma, director of instructional computer for the University of Illinois' chemistry department, is not too worried.

Some students will always come to class -- regardless. And some students will skip class -- regardless.

Phillips-Batoma's department began experimenting with videotaped lectures last year in organic chemistry class. She said she was amazed by the amount of traffic on the server. The most popular time for students to click on it was at 3 a.m., usually the day before an exam.

So what do students get in class that they do not get online?

"My sparkling personality," said Gina Frey, laughing. Frey teaches one of the introductory chemistry classes at Washington University and is also the director of the school's teaching center.

"It's like watching a movie versus interacting with the people in the class," she said. "In my class, they talk back to me, they interact with each other. You don't get any of that on the videotape."

Washington University has been videotaping some large lectures since the early 1990s. Until about four years ago, students had to go to the library to view those tapes. Now, they are streamed online. About six classes are being taped this semester, mostly large, introductory lecture classes.

"We are very careful about how we tell students to use these videos. They are never a replacement for our classes," Frey said. "... It's not the best way, but it's better than no way, or having to rely on a friend's notes."

Ross Haselhorst, manager of the video communications center at the University of Missouri at Rolla, says streaming video is already becoming passe. The new thing is eCollaboration, where each student can see video as well as the professor's and other students' computer screens.

"Eventually, we see the possibility of no classrooms," he said.

Sun staff writer Bob Erle contributed to this article.

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