Teaching across two sites using “Classroom” audiographics – trials and tribulations

Audiographic tools can enable teaching and the support of learning across two or more sites but our university’s classroom computing infrastructure cannot support audiographic tools: local hardware is not up to the job.
I conducted a trial this week to test these propositions.

Context
Our University has four main campuses. We are structurally divided into four faculties. However, the departments of the faculties are not located together on the same campuses. Faculties are distributed. Inter-campus transport is not great. You need to allow an hour between the end of an event on one campus and the beginning of an event on another. We teach a number of combined honours programmes and some modules are common to several programmes. Students may have seminars on different campuses. Students may be resident on different campuses. Lecturers may teach on different campuses. PhD teaching assistants may work predominantly on one campus and have occasional teaching duties on another. To further complicate matters the main campus is a building site and pressure on teaching accommodation is severe.

For all these reasons, and more, it makes sense to consider whether groups might be distributed between two (or more?) campuses, where a lecturer in a “home” room speaks with people in that room and simultaneously to those in one or more “satellite” rooms.

A scenario in which this seems to make sense is when a lecture is followed by seminar groups, especially if there might be a rationale for holding these break-out seminar groups on different campuses.

An additional benefit would be to enable (rudimentary) lecture capture for later re-play.

The trial
Participants on the New Lecturers Course and Postgraduate certificate in teaching in higher education (PCTHE) are based on all four main campuses and there are also participants from affiliated colleges and other universities.

The New lecturers course is not only supposed to teach the basics of surviving in the classroom, but to push the boundaries of teaching practice.

This week we tried distributed teaching with our “Microteaching” workshop. This workshop is aimed primarily at very new lecturers. Participants gather for a plenary at 0930 in which we discuss teaching observation and peer feedback. And, then at 1000 we disperse to smaller rooms in groups of about 5 participants, each facilitated by a tutor.

We offered participants the opportunity to have their break-out sessions on the campus of their choice while we hosted the plenary on the main campus. In the event, about 17 people gathered in the plenary home room and four people chose to have their session in the satellite room on another campus.

Findings
So how did we do it? What were the challenges? Did it work?

The plenary session was a success in that the lecturer was able to speak to both the “home” and the “satellite” room. Participants in the “satellite” room could see the lecturer and contributed to the discussion, asking and answering questions. Participants in the home room could see and speak with colleagues in the satellite room.

The “home” room would have been better served if there had been a microphone to pick up questions from the floor as well as the lecturer at the podium.

But, there were many challenges, almost all associated with the equipment in the two teaching rooms, and the solutions were decidedly Heath Robinson.

The detail

In advance of the session I installed a “classroom” into the Course VLE site. This was completely unproblematic. The link between Wimba Classroom and Blackboard (WebCT legacy) CE8 worked perfectly.

I then went in to the assigned home room on Monday afternoon to test things out for the distributed teaching session which was to take place on Wednesday.

The plenary home room was one of our newest teaching rooms with a podium full of computing and AV equipment. However web cams are not part of the setup and podium computers are not routinely provided with microphones. We would have to use external USB cameras and microphones. I have a Logitech composite camera and microphone, which works with “most machines”.

I started the podium computer (a reasonably recent machine running our standard Windows XP set-up) and logged in, thereby establishing there was a local network connection. I plugged in the composite camera/microphone. The machine recognised it (which was an initially pleasant surprise). Then I clicked to load a browser. The application loader failed. No browser would load. I tried Firefox, Chrome and IE. Nada. I did a hard reset and waited while the machine rebuilt its registries. Same thing: the app-loader application wouldn’t run. I noticed a sign on the door telling students that, earlier in the day, a last minute room change had been arranged. I guessed it was because no one could get this machine started. I wandered down the corridor, found an administrator who said that someone had mentioned that the machine wasn’t behaving properly and that IT was coming. We called IT again and to be fair someone was there in about 10 minutes. They went through what I had done, determined that the machine wasn’t working, called Operations, took my mobile number, said they would look into it and went away. I had a coffee.

In about 20 minutes they rang back and said they had resolved the app-loader problem. I went back to the room, fired up the machine, loaded Firefox and plugged in the camera/microphone. Now the machine refused to recognise this device and told me I didn’t have the necessary privileges to install hardware. I gave up. got out my MacBook Pro, and plugged in the peripherals, including the room audio-out mini-jack.

I loaded the VLE, started the data projector and ran the Classroom set-up wizard: Java check, certificate check, whiteboard check; no audio. I unplugged the jack. The laptop speakers were fine. The Wimba classroom was working perfectly, video and all. I made sure the volume controls were all turned up. Still no room audio. I turned on the podium PC again. Found a random MP3 and played it with the default audio device on the machine. No sound. (You need to do this in order that people don’t just say, oh, it’s the Mac.) So all the computers were working but the room speakers were not. The podium is locked down. You can’t get at the cables and see if something has jiggled loose. So I put another call into IT services.

This was about 4:50 on Monday afternoon. I said I needed to use audio in the room on Wednesday at 0900. I was given a service “ticket” number, assured that they would sort the room audio and if they couldn’t would bring a set of external speakers.

At 0900 on Wednesday I got to the room, plugged in the Mac and started everything up. But, no audio on the room speakers and no external speakers. I called IT services quoting my “ticket” number. I was told it “… hadn’t gotten to the top yet”. I said I need audio in 10 minutes. I think I sounded grumpy. In about 5 minutes a colleague came running in with an external speaker. At 0930 we were “live” on the web at the advertised start time for the session.

So what about the “satellite” room? We had asked for a “standard teaching room” with the “usual podium setup”. The room assigned had no kit. We were assured that a laptop and projector would be “delivered” and that the room did have the network. My colleague, who was facilitating in that room arrived. There was no laptop and no projector. He got out his MacBook Pro and plugged it into the ethernet port. There was no network at that point. Fortunately he was in range of wifi. The MacBook Pro worked fine. The VLE and classroom worked fine. He called our administrator who chased up the projector, which arrived at about 0935. As there were only five people in the room the on-board speakers were just about adequate.

Recommendations
All (most?) teaching rooms should be equipped with web cams, microphones and (working) loudspeakers. Obviously there would need to be a phased upgrade plan. There should be some (most?) teaching rooms, which also have cameras to capture the wider room and cameras to follow a lecturer who prefers to wander rather than stay at the podium. Room mics are needed to pick up questions from the floor.

Without such an upgrade, I suggest, the value of our investment in the Collaborate suite might not be fully realised.

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