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November 21, 2013

Regionals to share more courses via interactive TV

Pitt’s regional campuses are expanding their use of interactive television (ITV) in a pilot project that will give students on the Bradford, Greensburg, Johnstown and Titusville campuses access to courses not offered on their home campuses.

Pitt’s new Video Learning Initiative (VLI) aims to make better use of regional faculty resources while expanding the selection of courses available to students on the four regional campuses, said Associate Vice Provost William Shields, who is coordinating the provost’s office initiative in conjunction with the regional campuses and the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE).

Seven courses will be offered during the spring term: Islam and Social Justice and Cancer Biology from Pitt-Bradford; Contemporary Issues in Criminal Justice and Stage Management from Pitt-Johnstown; Globalization, Anthropology of Religion and Intro to Theatre from Pitt-Greensburg.

The selected courses — all electives — were chosen to broaden opportunities for students on the regional campuses as well as to multiply enrollment in courses that might otherwise attract a small number of students on a single campus. “We tried to find courses particular to a specific campus,” Shields said.

The courses will be taught in real-time using technology-equipped classrooms. “It will be like one course offered in four different classrooms,” Shields said.

The VLI classrooms are designed to ensure that students across the campuses have a similar classroom experience whether or not they are in the same room as their instructor.

Michael Arenth of CIDDE said that students will be able to see their classmates on the other campuses and sound-activated cameras will facilitate conversation by focusing automatically on students when they speak. Instructors are free to move around the classroom because the camera will track them automatically. “We encourage them to be more mobile.”

Arenth said classroom cameras and displays are arranged to let students on the remote sites see and hear as if the instructor is in front of them. Even the classroom dimensions and furnishings are consistent to enhance the impression of a single classroom as opposed to a “main” site with satellite locations.

Technical staff will be on hand at first to help faculty members, but the goal is to move away from needing an operator in the room. Faculty opinions vary on that, Arenth said: Some feel abandoned without a technician at hand; others prefer not to have an outsider “hovering” in the classroom.


CIDDE instructional development staff are helping faculty members prepare to teach VLI courses. CIDDE teaching and learning consultant Erin Kleinman is meeting with all seven faculty members who will teach VLI courses in the spring term to tackle issues ranging from camera anxiety to course design.

While the VLI project gives students access to a wider range of courses and provides faculty with a more diverse population of students, teaching at a distance presents challenges.

“It requires aggressive assessment of your course,” Kleinman said: “Is this something that can still be done in this technology space?”

She went over course syllabi with faculty to adjust classroom activities and assignments and ensure they would both translate to the distance environment and meet the desired learning outcomes.

For instance, students in the globalization course create supply-and-demand graphs in class. The assignment is an important component of the economics course, so document cameras in the remote classrooms will be used so students can “show” their work to the instructor, Kleinman said.


Facilitating student interaction across classrooms is among the main challenges, in part because students can feel “silenced” if they’re not in the same room as their instructor, she said.

While lecture-based courses are easy to broadcast, discussion-based courses — like most being offered through VLI — require some adjustments.

Cameras can be arranged to give the appearance of a circular classroom arrangement. And, knowing students’ names is even more important in order to promote good conversation in a multiple-classroom setting, she said, adding that it’s helpful if students use name cards to aid the connection.

Faculty must adjust to accommodate the automated cameras that focus on each speaker. Classroom discussions need to be more structured than the energetic free-for-all conversations that many faculty are accustomed to, she said.

Building a classroom community is important and research has shown that online discussion boards can help.

Kleinman said CourseWeb’s live discussion feature can be tricky if some students don’t have their own laptops, so she encourages faculty to facilitate discussion outside of class via CourseWeb, then carry that conversation into the classroom.


Early enrollment in the VLI courses has been good and if the initiative is successful, it may be continued in the summer term and beyond, and could someday expand to include the Pittsburgh campus, Shields said.

Decisions on VLI’s future would be made mid-term, he said. “We want to be sure this kind of medium is attractive to students.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 46 Issue 7

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