Towards Video Conferencing Mode of Teaching and Learning Mathematics
By: Dr. Alexander Vaninsky
Professor of Mathematics
Hostos Community College
The City University of New York
The paper presents an experience of providing students with online office hours in the video conferencing mode. Blackboard Collaborate was used in a post – calculus course taught in a community college, providing additional office hours for students from the convenience of their homes and workplaces. Most students demonstrated positive attitudes, while some of them were not fully comfortable with the online environment and preferred personal communications. We discuss short- and long-term perspectives of this teaching technique that is a step towards an efficient and affordable way of online teaching and learning of mathematics.
Some colleges, universities, and private firms have already recognized the potential of the video conferencing mode for use in higher education . For example, the online Western Governors University (WGU) suggests programs separated into six-month semesters. It charges per semester, rather than per course or per credit. Tuition ranges from $2,890 to $4,250 per semester, depending on the program. As publication Not What it Used to Be (2012) mentions, the average time to completion is 2.5 years. Another new initiative is the “massive open online course” (MOOC), which offers free college-level classes. The companies Coursera and Udacity, startup StraighterLine, and a non-profit edX, are among the leaders. Community Colleges are expected to play a special role in the further development of this process as providers of higher education for people who want to acquire or change a profession at a lower cost.
It should be mentioned, however, that contemporary online education may still be too expensive and therefore unaffordable for many students. It is important that colleges and universities participated in the development of opportunities for such work, for example, by involving students in teaching and research as assistances, or as participants in community service.
2. Accommodation problems
Most of the students involved in this study had positive reactions to the online communications. At the same time, some problems arose. The first problem was video image quality. A relatively powerful notebook Acer Aspire One 722 with AMD Dual-Core processor 1.3 GHz, 2GB memory was not sufficient to provide images with motion, such as those that included writing mathematical formulas. Another problem was the quality of sound. Both the students and the instructor had to use headsets with a microphone to communicate. Running Blackboard Collaborate on a private computer required installation of Java that sometimes caused problems, especially in cases when the students were not computer savvy. Most of the students preferred using tablets or Smartphones, but the restrictions imposed by Blackboard Collaborate decreased the efficacy of their use.
It was found that some materials were easier to present in a handwritten or graphic form. A convenient way was using tablets with a touch screen that permit handwriting. But such tablets are expensive, so, when needed, we used a portable whiteboard and transmitted the image taken from another computer using an additional web camera. This approach did not guarantee high quality of the image, but turned out to be a reasonable substitute. When office hours revealed a general problem, handouts were prepared and posted on Blackboard together with an email encouraging students to view and study them.
The system turned out to be sensitive to the type of browser used. Our college technical staff recommended using Internet Explorer for better performance, but it was not possible for the users of tablets or Smartphones. As a result, some students did not feel fully comfortable and requested face-to-face communications.
Instructors, like me, while watching and hearing themselves on the record, may decide to take courses in public speaking, acting, or digital filmmaking before employing online conferencing teaching on a regular basis. In particular, the importance of body language, facial expression, rhythm and pauses of speech, timing of questions and answers, etc. – the topics conventionally taught in the courses mentioned above – become even more important in the new environment.
3. Some important features
Blackboard Collaborate allows dynamic images in its Content Area : Whiteboard for drawings, Application Sharing for presentations and desktop, and Web Tour for web pages. When Excel and TI-89 Emulator were needed simultaneously, the synchronous operations on both of them were performed.(Fig. 1). The visual contact with the instructor that synchronous video conferencing allows is a very important and, in some cases, crucial feature. For example, it allows the faculty member to verify the identity of the person using those office hours. Online office hours are a step forward in the video-conferencing synchronous and asynchronous online teaching and learning, which allows involvement of thousands of students in the higher education process. Summarizing, it may be stated that the video conferencing mode of learning allows students (1) to get a lecture face-to-face, (2) to participate online from home or any public place, or (3) to use pre-recorded lectures and get help during the office hours – both in person and in the video-conferencing mode. This is a great opportunity for the students who are working while taking college courses.
Office hours in the video conferencing mode are a step towards universally accessible and economically affordable online higher education. They provide efficient assistance to the students from the comfort of their homes or conveniently located public places.
Figure 1. Synchronous use of TI-89 and Excel.
Instructors willing to offer online office hours in the video-conferencing mode will require additional equipment: a headset with a microphone, a spare computer, a portable web camera, a projector, and a whiteboard. Taking courses in public speaking, acting, and digital filmmaking is also useful for the instructors involved in this type of education.
Not What it Used to Be (2012).The Economist, December 1-7, 29-30.
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