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Seizing The Moment

Social Dynamics And The Remote Student Experience

 Social Dynamics And The Remote Student Experience
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Jim Phillips, James Williamson and Nicholas Brummell :
At a recent Excellence in Teaching award luncheon at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a conversation turned to lecture capture and revealed unexpected impacts. Although not a research study (much work has been done comparing online and in-class learning), the following recounts the faculty conversation and introduces a potentially beneficial dynamic for both remote students and in-class participants.
Applied Mathematics Professor Nic Brummell teaches Mathematical Methods for Engineers 1 in a large auditorium. More than two hundred undergraduate engineering majors are enrolled in the course. After Brummell outlined the class expectations and format, the students requested he add lecture capture recordings. He agreed. Audio recordings and a data feed were made available on demand so that students could access the lecture materials for review. Brummell's intent was to offer the lecture capture materials as supplements to the classroom experience.
Initially, his lecture presentation style was typical of what might be encountered in a large classroom. To convey the material, he used two document cameras projected on separate screens to make it easier for students in the far reaches of the room to see the content. Even though he saw benefits to this setup, Brummell pointed out that using the cameras has drawbacks. "This means you sit down at the camera," he said. "I don't like that. I prefer to be up and active. With lots of students in the class, you can't really pick out specific students very easily, and no one wants to ask questions."
After a few lectures, Brummell noticed that a sizeable number of students had stopped coming to class, presumably because they preferred to listen to the recordings. With the class scheduled in a large auditorium, the students who came to class tended to sit closer to the front of the room and nearer to the professor. While the use of the document cameras forced him to remain anchored to a specific location in the classroom, Brummell noted that because the students were closer, he could look up and talk directly to them. "I started getting to know a few names and faces, especially the students who got there early like me," he said. "I chatted with some of them on a regular basis."
Consequently, his class of two hundred was reduced to about fifty stalwart students who continued to come for the live-lecture experience. Due to the smaller face-to-face class size, Brummell began to shift his focus to the more specific needs of the students who were present. This, in turn, allowed him to use his small-class teaching style in place of the large-class teaching style he would normally use in a lecture hall. Brummell explained:
The atmosphere of the class definitely changed in that respect. There was a much more friendly air and a less separated (teacher-student) feel to it, and there were some questions that were more easily answered. [It was] easier to address a particular person, and I didn't feel the pressure of keeping a whole bunch of other people waiting.
It is also interesting that the remote students were not able to observe the professor interacting with the students in the classroom; they perceived his small-class teaching style only through his voice.
As the luncheon drew to a close, the reaction of the remote students was compared to the effect a live studio audience can have on television viewers at home. Professor Brummell agreed and jokingly asked for the addition of a laugh track to his recorded lectures.
Due to the smaller class size, Professor Brummell was better able to connect with the classroom audience. Students listening to the lectures remotely later indicated that his new presentation style was very effective. Brummell recounted:
There were quite a few comments…expressing appreciation for the webcasts, and some of the comments mentioned the atmosphere of the class (using words like "enthusiasm" and "friendliness"). Many appreciated the alternative. Again, it is hard to quantify, but my overall feeling is that even though I usually get good comments for this class, this year overall there seemed to be a greater degree of satisfaction.
While the positive student response described above would not have been possible without the digitization of the lecture content, it should not be attributed solely to technology. These student responses may have been strengthened by a deeper behavioral phenomenon: surrogacy through "vicarious interactions."
Vicarious interaction occurs when remote viewers establish a sympathetic relationship to a live studio audience and, through surrogacy, develop a connection with mediated subjects. For example, one study focusing on celebrities and social media describes vicarious interaction and surrogacy:
In [television interview] scenarios, the studio audience and the supporting cast who were involved in direct interactions with a performer function as surrogates for the audience that consumes the show from a distance.1
Within the context of online/hybrid instruction, remote students can benefit from the vicarious interactions by accepting the classroom attendees as surrogates. The concept linking surrogacy and vicarious interaction to student satisfaction was introduced in a paper presented by Leah Sutton at the 2000 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association:
Such students, referred to as vicarious interactors, can enjoy benefits that are essentially equivalent to those achieved by direct interactors. This enhanced outcome can be achieved without direct interaction in the traditional sense. The vicarious interactor cognitively processes content while absorbing the interactions of others. The cognitive processing that takes place at this stage, although relatively passive, nonetheless enhances the learning process.2
Sutton later posits that because the vicarious experience is derivative and because remote students do not directly or overtly participate in the classroom experience, their achievement may suffer.
Today there is a different type of student from the one Sutton recognized in 2000: one who is accustomed to online social interaction. It can be argued that techno-societies have reached a state of maturity wherein digital interchanges are accepted norms, and this has positive impacts within the context of teaching and learning.
In this case, the process of digitally recording the lecture and sharing it via the distributed network added new value, transforming a large lecture into a small-class conversation with unforeseen, vicarious benefits for remote students.
The digital transformation discussed here included three distinct elements:
The availability of recorded lectures resulted in a certain portion of the student population listening remotely, which, in turn, resulted in a smaller in-person class size.
The small-class format allowed the professor to address the issues, problems, concerns, and questions of those students present.
The remote student evaluations reported positive responses in part because of the small-class format.
Several interesting educational research questions remain: Do students who attend the lecture and interact with the professor introduce a selection bias to the class discussion? Additional research is needed with random samples of remote and in-class students to study whether selection bias impacts the nature of class discussion, the types of questions asked, and whether vicarious interaction improves the performance outcomes of remote students.
Another set of questions could consider the performance outcomes of remote students when there are classroom students versus when there are no classroom students. That is, does vicarious interaction have a measurable effect?
One might observe the tremendous growth in online learning and attribute it to better materials, better delivery, or even better technology, but another factor is how undeniably accustomed students have become to the dynamics of digitally mediated social interactions. Predictably, this impacts learning in all of its manifestations, including online/hybrid learning. This harkens back to what Stephen Fry referred to as the synergistic nature of invention wherein one invention has a ripple effect on society, which begets new technologies and new uses of existing technologies.3 Within this fecund space of human invention and bricolage lies unanticipated revelations, serendipitous discoveries, and unexpected side effects.
In an age of increased enrollments, impersonal lecture halls, and overcramped classrooms, it can be challenging for students and faculty to establish and maintain positive working relationships. Professor Brummell was able to improve the learning experience for both in-class and remote students by establishing a level of connectedness that endured even after the course had ended. He said, "I still see and recognize some of these students around campus now, and they cordially acknowledge me."

(Jim Phillips is Director of Learning Technologies, Information Technology Services at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Jim Williamson is Director of Educational Technology Systems and Administration, Office of Information Technology, at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Nic Brummell is a Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of California, Santa Cruz).

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