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From Desks to Desktops: Faculty Transform Traditional Classrooms Using Cutting-Edge Internet Technology

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs
Posted April 19, 2000

It's 9 a.m. Time for class. So Joe Student rolls out of bed, walks over to his computer and logs on to the course's Web site. His professor appears on the monitor, presenting the day's lecture.

With just a few clicks of the mouse, Joe can switch the screen from his teacher to the notes on the chalkboard or the experiment being conducted, or look at all three simultaneously.

Joe doesn't understand one of the concepts the instructor is explaining, so he uses a chat room to contact a moderator, who forwards the inquiry to the professor. Joe receives his electronic reply within minutes.

This kind of cutting-edge classroom is not yet a reality, but, according to Lawrence Rowe, professor of computer science, it isn't far off.

"Right now, it is impossible to receive high quality audio and video over the public Internet," said Rowe. "But in the next five to 10 years, the technology and infrastructure will be in place to deliver TV over the Internet, allowing anyone to take a computer course like this at home."

But change is happening at Berkeley right now as campus classrooms evolve from traditional desks to digital desktops. Currently, several large, undergraduate courses, such as Chemistry 1A, Biology 1A and Art 160, are being "web cast" on the Internet via the Berkeley Internet Broadcast System, which Rowe coordinates.

With Web casting, students can watch and listen to a live or previously recorded lecture on their home computers any time of the day or night.

"Students watch the archived lectures to review for exams or clarify points they didn't understand during the live presentation," said Rowe. "They also sometimes gather to watch a live webcast together, as a discussion group."

The system can support up to 100 people watching Web casts at one time, and often get that many during exam time. The system must be working, says Rowe, because when students can't log on, they get upset and call his office.

One instructor taking advantage of Web casting is Alex Pines, a chemistry professor who teaches Chem1A. Pines plans to take it a step further.

To stimulate student interaction and response, Pines and lecturer Mark Kubinec developed ChemQuiz, a test in which Pines poses a question that students work together to solve, then vote on possible answers. The exercise transforms a large lecture hall into an intimate venue for animated discussion and peer instruction, they said.

Pines and Kubinec are developing a way to extend ChemQuiz to their cyber students, to initiate discussion in chat rooms and vote over the Web.

"The Web casts alone lack the feel and interaction of a real classroom," said Kubinec. "With these interactive quizzes, we have the potential for instructional effectiveness beyond traditional classroom boundaries."

In addition to Web casting, professors across campus have found innovative ways to present course work using the Internet, including online course materials, chat rooms, discussion forums and digital video and audio.

Using computer sound files, history students in Professor Geoff Koziol's class will soon be able to hear faculty from around campus read or sing passages from their favorite works of medieval literature, in the original language.

While they listen to versions of Beowulf, The Songs of Roland or Piers Plowman, pupils can view the original frayed, worm-eaten sheephide manuscripts from which the text comes, on the course's Web site.

"Not only do they get to listen to their teachers read these works, they also get to hear them explain, in their own words and voice, why they fell in love with this poem or song," said Kosiol. "The new technology offers the opportunity for discovery and revelation, which is what teaching and learning ought to be about."

As technology advances, and cyber classrooms increase, one might wonder if students will bother coming to the campus at all. Rowe said some faculty report that lecture attendance declined because students could watch the lectures at any time, on-demand, through the broadband system.

However, not everyone thinks that's a bad thing, especially with the projected tidal wave of 4,000 additional students over the next 10 years coming to Berkeley.

"It's not feasible to build new lecture halls to accommodate these students," said Rowe. "By putting lecture materials online, it lessens the need for students to be on campus every day."

But don't expect Berkeley to become the next Phoenix University, or the online "Ivy League-quality" university that billionaire Michael Saylor has donated $100 million to create. Computers will never totally replace classrooms at Berkeley, said Rowe.

Computer instruction is not appropriate for all classes, he said. Critical thinking courses, for example work best when small groups of students and professor meet in person. "The best computer facility in the world won't help that kind of interaction," said Rowe.

"Now is an interesting time in university education. Thirty years ago, a high school education insured a comfortable living," he said. "Today, a college education is required to compete, and this will only increase as time goes on. Current models for education students will not be able to handle this expansion so we need to look at new models."

Alice Agogino, professor of mechanical engineering and director of Berkeley's instructional technology program, has been working with Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Carol Christ this past year to develop a strategy for educational development.

"New advances will have a major impact in higher education in the future," she said. "Berkeley should play a leadership role in developing pedagogically sound strategies for their use."

Agogino has been working with staff, faculty and students to develop a new Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology, which seeks to develop a faculty-driven approach to improve teaching effectiveness, student learning and to promote innovations in the creative use of both new and traditional educational methods.

"Technology should not drive teaching and learning," cautions Agogino. "Rather, the teaching and learning goals should be at the forefront. Educational technology should be selectively deployed in order to expand the opportunities of both the student and instructor."




April 19-26, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 29)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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