For This Armenian History Class, the Students Are at Berkeley, the
Professor Is at UCLA
by Amy Corral
Students here can now take a rare history course offered only at UCLA without setting foot off the Berkeley campus.
All they have to do is step into the new Distance Learning Classroom.
The classroom, located in Dwinelle Hall, uses the latest in compressed video technology to link students at Berkeley with Professor Richard Hovannisian's Armenian History class on the UCLA campus.
Each Tuesday and Thursday morning, Hovannisian lectures to a crowd of eager students as two video cameras track his every move.
Five hundred miles to the north, inside room 127, the professor appears on two large television monitors as eight Berkeley students scribble notes.
Students at UC Santa Barbara are also sitting in on the lecture from their campus.
When a student in Berkeley asks a question, Hovannisian can see and hear who's talking by glancing at his own TV monitor.
High-tech distance learning isn't new--the California State University system has been using this teaching method for years, and other University of California campuses have developed video teleconferencing capabilities as well.
However, Berkeley's is considered the most sophisticated teleclassroom facility in California.
Along with TV monitors, the room is equipped with video cameras, a computer that provides access to the Internet, video players and a fax machine.
There's also a sophisticated control console in one corner where a technician can operate cameras to focus on whoever is talking and regulate lighting.
About the only tool missing from the classroom is an old-fashioned blackboard.
The room was intended originally to help UC officials communicate more efficiently.
"This is the perfect kind of class for campuses that don't offer courses as specialized (as Armenian history)" says Hovannisian. "For me, it's been
a very educational, exciting experience to be able to sit with, see and speak to interested students from three UC campuses at the same time."
Berkeley undergraduate student Ani Sarkissian agrees. "This has given me a chance to enroll in a class I wouldn't have been able to take here, and this is my last year of college, says Sarkissian. "Without the new facilities, Sarkissian would have had to spend a semester at UCLA, an expensive proposition.
The teleclassroom is not without its glitches. For instance, there's a short delay in audio transmission between Berkeley and UCLA, which can result in an echo when someone at Berkeley talks to class in Los Angeles.
"One time," remembers graduate student instructor Michelle Tusan, "we tried to engage in a debate, and the one-second lag made it feel a little strange." Tusan adds that the media services staff has been helpful in quickly identifying and solving technical troubles.
While some students and educators welcome this new method of teaching, others worry that the lack of direct contact between pupil and professor will diminish the quality of education. The ideal strategy, says Hovannisian, is to combine traditional teaching with modern technology.
"I've visited Berkeley several times this semester to meet with my students face to face. Things wouldn't have been as cordial if I hadn't traveled upstate; together, it has made the class work." The professor also makes it a point to check his students' written work personally, by having their papers faxed to his Los Angeles office.
Hovannisian adds, "I would not substitute (distance learning) for a large, general ed class. But for campuses that won't offer smaller courses in a highly specialized field, it's a perfect solution."