UC MagazineUniversity of CincinnatiUC Magazine

UC Magazine

The evolving UC classroom

by Mary Niehaus

The days of the "sage on the stage" are fading from the University of Cincinnati. Blackboard-framed professors no longer stand and lecture at length to note-scribbling students.

Technology-supported teaching and learning models are becoming the norm on campus and in UC "classrooms" around the globe.

A murmur of drums, flutes and tiny bells welcomes students to a class in Middle Eastern history. Large-screen video images meld into one another: mounds of swirling sand, ancient monuments, vendors of fragrant sesame and roast lamb, bearded men casting nets in a shimmering sea and women silently drowning in yards of dark cloth.

Having set the mood, the professor introduces a video interview with a woman wearing the traditional burka, who surprises the class when she speaks of what she likes about the Islamic elevation of women, how women feel so protected in her culture. Typically, the students react with disbelief or outrage.

"The video is only three minutes long, but it is the spark that triggers a lot of discussion in that classroom," says Malcolm Montgomery of Instructional and Research Computing (IRC) at the University of Cincinnati. "It's a spark that never would have kindled in a lecture. To see people talk about their culture from a personal perspective opens up students' minds and encourages them to step out of their particular parochial point of view."

Elizabeth Frierson is showing the video in one of the university's 160 electronic classrooms, at a console that contains a computer with pen, stylus tools and Internet access; a document camera; an overhead projector; controls to raise and lower desk height, window shades, projector screens and lighting levels; and disk drives for VHS, DVD, CD and floppy. Old media horrors, such as projectors that don't arrive on time, are no longer an issue, says Montgomery, who plans the electronic classrooms on West Campus and oversees design, installation and service.

"My favorite instructors are the ones who use the technology very creatively," he says. "After the burka video, Dr. Frierson takes the students to related Web sites -- sort of teases them -- to show them what they might find in art history or where to view more video clips, then gives them assignments to pursue on their own.

"Teaching still has a lot to do with a gifted instructor or lecturer talking, drawing students out, getting them to participate -- all those kinds of human interactions, which is one reason people come to classes rather than taking them on the Web. Those interactions are fostered by having this equipment in the room."

To increase faculty members' comfort level, a simple electronic touch-screen replaces multiple remote controls at the console. "There's so much that instructors want to do that we try to hide the complexity," Montgomery says. "We present the question, 'What would you like to do?' If I'd like to show what's on the PC screen, I press the PC button, and that's what we'll get. No cables to plug and unplug, no multiple switches."

Malcolm Montgomery, at the document camera, shows how professors can greet students by name on their first day using illustrated online class lists. To the electronic classroom planner's left are a touch screen to control AV equipment, a built-in PC screen and two small monitors for far-site and near-site video (See near-site monitor, upper left). A distance learning camera and a far-site video screen are also visible in this College of Business classroom. photo/Lisa Ventre

Malcolm Montgomery, at the document camera, shows how professors can greet students by name on their first day using illustrated online class lists. Photo/Lisa Ventre

Even UC professors who don't enjoy the luxury of a fully electronic classroom have access to a useful online tool that's changing the way classes are taught. Introduced through a pilot program in autumn 2000, Blackboard software gives instructors a multi-featured way to communicate with students, both in and out of class.

Among the items on a Blackboard Web site are the professor's office hours, the course syllabus, lecture outlines, supplementary handouts, streaming video, links to Web sources and reserved library materials. Instructors can post questions for student discussion or extra credit, online tests and a digital drop-box for submitting assignments.

Because Blackboard provides lists of students' names, photos and e-mail addresses, instructors can easily send reminders about missing assignments. If desired, Blackboard can be set up to grade tests, then automatically insert the figures in an electronic grade book. Such administrative shortcuts make it possible for students to check their grades or class standing at any time.

Paul Foster, IRC applications analyst, says that the program's advantages -- and student demands -- have convinced about 1,400 faculty members. "Students like having all their class materials together on Blackboard," he confirms. "About 78 percent of them have at least one course with content on Blackboard."

Faculty who may have initially been attracted to the program's administrative value quickly see the instructional potential. "For example, if you're teaching geology, explaining plate tectonics is hard to do with slides," Foster says. "We can show instructors how to create animations and drop them into Blackboard.

"Once they realize what can be accomplished, faculty begin asking for more sophisticated materials. They're thinking outside the box now, telling us: 'Here's what I want to accomplish.' I firmly believe all of it is possible, if they are patient."

Veteran UC biology professor Carl Huether is someone who enjoys discovering the possibilities that electronic media bring to the classroom. "If I see a good article in the New York Times, either I can spend an hour summarizing it for students in PowerPoint, trying to present it meaningfully, or I can get a three-minute segment of Dan Rather speaking about it on the national news.

"There's no question that I can get much more discussion from students after I show a short video than after a similar lecture. Video is very powerful."

In addition, Huether believes there are some solid advantages to using PowerPoint software to support classroom lectures. "It forces instructors to be better organized," he says. "We have to really think through what the class period is going to look like and how we want the class to flow.

"I also print out copies of my PowerPoint lecture for the class, so that if there is a relatively complicated slide, I know that the students don't have to spend any time copying it down in class. They can concentrate on trying to understand the point I am explaining."

When graduate assistant Bethany Vice asked Huether's students for their opinions, one admitted that in other classes she tends to "zone out" after about 15 minutes of the same activity. "Because her attention span is not very long, she appreciates the way we break up the class period into group time, lecture, group time, video and so on," Vice explains. "All the experts are telling us that variety is key, and engaging students actively in the classroom is the best form of learning," Huether concurs.

Few things supply as much "engagement" as the electronic "personal responders" tested by the biology professor and a few other faculty for the past two years. More sophisticated than button-on-a-chair prototypes, the classroom performance system measures a variety of responses through a device resembling a simple TV remote control.

"Many people never raise their hand to answer a question in class, but if I ask how many think the answer is A or B, everybody will answer with the responder because it is anonymous," Huether says. "They love the idea of hitting that button to see if their answer is correct."

The spring quarter is experiencing a surge in responder use at UC, says Montgomery, who also tested them in his classroom. "We have 10 courses with about 1,000 students, each of whom is now required to have a personal responder. It either comes bundled with a textbook or they buy it at the bookstore for about $15, a onetime cost. Each has a unique identifying number, one the students will use throughout their years at UC."

With electronic classrooms, Blackboard Internet communication and responders, the university "has only begun to scratch the surface" in using technology to advance learning, Provost Tony Perzigian says. But he believes UC is already "a pacesetter" among universities in Ohio. Perhaps a national pacesetter, since the university was one of the few asked to beta-test Blackboard's Content System, a new extension software.

"We aren't interested in using technology to supplant our residential campus, our classrooms, faculty engagement and all that," says Perzigian. "But as much as our alumni are proud of their campus and how it has been radically transformed, I think they should also be aware that we're extending the boundaries of the campus, and the reach of our curriculum, by offering opportunities to new audiences."

Jane Henney, UC Provost for Health Affairs, agrees. "We will always have the traditional campus, but we realize that people cannot always come to us. Now we have the technology to engage them in a new way."

The university's "new way" of expanding borders to deliver an education to new audiences is distance learning. The effectiveness of Blackboard has helped transform a number of select programs into quality online courses. In many cases, a professor is teaching the same class to both on-campus and online students.

Geographer Richard Beck, satellite imaging expert, uses five monitors in his distance learning course: two to process complex images, one to view the distant classroom, another to observe and make remote corrections on student workstations and the fifth to see how his presentation looks from the students' perspective. photo/Colleen Kelley

Geographer Richard Beck, satellite imaging expert, uses five monitors in his distance learning course: two to process complex images, one to view the distant classroom, another to observe and make remote corrections on student workstations and the fifth to see how his presentation looks from the students' perspective. Photo/Colleen Kelley

UC's College of Engineering offered a certificate in computer science about four years ago for working professionals who had degrees in other engineering disciplines, information systems or related areas. At first, the seven-course program was taught only in a high-tech classroom on campus.

The certificate has since been converted to a distance learning program, with materials presented over the Web through streaming video. Eugene Rutz, director of the college's professional development and distance learning, points out that if students have questions too complex for e-mail, they can come to campus for extra help, making it a "blend" of distance and campus learning.

"This is difficult material, so we are trying to remove the barriers to participation as much as possible, especially for working professionals," Rutz says. An additional incentive is that by taking the seven required courses, a number of the credits will transfer to an engineering master's program if the professionals wish to continue.

Suman Jha, who has a master's in geology, wanted the computer-science certificate so she could improve her "market value" at Convergys Corp. As her skills grew, so did her confidence. She began asking for bigger project responsibilities at work and earned a raise.

Similarly, working professionals across the country are benefiting from a criminal justice master's program which has grown rapidly since it started in 2001. More than 200 distance learning students took part in 2003, with an increase to 400 anticipated next year.

Frank Cullen, director of UC's master's program in criminal justice, admits that he was slow to believe in the value of distance education, but now is a convert. "I've seen the quality of courses that can be delivered over the Internet, observed what students have learned, seen that their papers are comparable to those written on campus and realized that we are, in fact, bringing knowledge and education to students who otherwise wouldn't have had it," he says. "They all had 'insider' knowledge of their profession; what they needed was basic scientific knowledge about what works and what causes crime."

The new police chief of Seguin, Texas, agrees, calling the UC program one of the things to which he attributes his advancement and success. "I'm proud of the UC program, and I promote it every chance I get," Luis Collazo says.

The College of Nursing also is successfully providing a master's distance learning program. In concert with Yonsei University in Seoul, UC has awarded approximately 30 master's degrees to Korean registered nurses. They have traditional classroom instruction at each university, plus online specialty courses through UC.

"When we entered this collaborative agreement, there were no master's programs in Korea for pediatric or neonatal practitioner nurses," Dean Andrea Lindell explains. "I knew Dr. Maji Kim, the minister of health for Korea and former dean of the college of nursing at Yonsei. She facilitated the idea of our working together. Yonsei identified our college as the one they would work with, because of our excellent reputation and collaborative experience."

Elsewhere on UC's East Campus, the College of Pharmacy is extending doctorate opportunities to all its graduates, primarily through distance courses. The impetus is that today's graduates finish school with a six-year pharmacy doctorate, while most alumni are working in the field with bachelor's degrees. According to assistant dean Bill Fant, alumni can upgrade by working on one course a quarter for three to three-and-a-half years.

Furthermore, the four colleges on UC's East Campus -- Allied Health Sciences, Medicine, Nursing and Pharmacy -- collaborate to provide alternative learning courses, including an enormous online continuing education program for their students, faculty and employees. It's no small task.

"We have thousands of people on staff who are required to renew certification annually," says Roger Guard, head of Medical Center Libraries. Critical topics include procedures for working with blood-borne pathogens, confidentiality, federal law and protected health information.

"Our new program keeps track of everyone and automatically sends out reminders when certification needs renewing," Guard notes. "This is a big deal, because careers are at stake."

Careers in jeopardy was the reason for the largest distance learning program, the Early Childhood Learning Community (ECLC). A 1998 federal mandate had declared that staff in all Head Start centers must have at least an associate's degree in early childhood education by 2003.

In response, the College of Education, University College and RISE Learning Solutions, a nonprofit distance learning company, created the ECLC national network. More than 480 hours of streaming video lectures, as well as materials on other media, were prepared for online students around the country -- and now are available to students around the world.

Although Ben Dillon was not enrolled in the early childhood program, the Cincinnati student took an English course with the Head Start teachers. He chose distance learning because he was traveling between home and army training, anticipating an assignment in the Middle East.

Instructor Wendy Beckman says that when Dillon participated in online class discussions, he probably felt "as if he had six mothers in the room with him." That was a classroom unlike any other at the University of Cincinnati.

"The future of higher education is not going to be on campus, nor in distance learning, but an intermingling of both," Frank Cullen believes. "If you have good faculty, dedicated faculty, you'll have good programs."

Related articles:

What do professors do with all that electronic gear?

How much is that electronic classroom?


Photos of electronic classrooms on campus

UC's Faculty Technology Resources Center