Facing Distance Learning Head On

How engagement-oriented solutions can drive successful online learning.

GUEST COLUMN | by Ji Shen

Today, learning effectiveness isn’t just a student-based challenge; it’s a household issue. As many as 65% of homes have children joining classes remotely. Teachers are under unprecedented pressure. They’re wrestling with the chaos of disparate devices — from cameras and microphones to video conferencing platforms and cloud-based applications that make distance learning possible — and how best to boost engagement with these tools. It turns out that a successful distance learning experience requires more than simply adding technology; it requires a thoughtful technological approach with the goal of replicating the human one-on-one connection that makes the classroom so successful.

‘It turns out that a successful distance learning experience requires more than simply adding technology…’

In this new paradigm shift, teachers face the daily challenge of effectively driving engagement with the technology and tools already in place or those they’ve been given in response to the pandemic. Although the technology may be advanced, implementation tends to fall short in providing an equivalent experience to in-person instruction.

Visibility and Engagement in an Online Environment

In a traditional classroom setup, teachers are never far from their students’ view. They can provide students with individualized attention, moving around the room to spot raised hands and read body language to aid those who might need more help. For students, this learning process is natural, comfortable, and effective. In an online environment, however, visibility and engagement become much more challenging, which can prevent students from progressing academically.

This problem demands creative solutions that bridge this gap and that are simple for teachers to use. Almost every teacher can attest to how complex and time-consuming learning new technology can be to leverage any gains. In addition, teachers already shoulder a heavy burden keeping up with rapidly changing standards to help each student succeed. Every minute in the classroom is valuable, so educators can’t be inundated with complex hardware that impedes workflow. This is especially true during remote classes, where time is even more of a precious commodity.

San Diego Example

Although this is a relatively newer challenge for K-12, the higher education market is farther along in its distance learning journey and in implementing results-driven solutions. Many organizations began instituting online programs over a decade ago in order to expand their reach and offer more flexibility to their student body. In this process, they asked how they could provide as an engaging learning experience to remote students as those who are in the physical class. A tide-turning example took place at the physics department of San Diego State University (SDSU).

In the traditional in-class setting, it’s not uncommon for math and science-based instructors to lecture with the aid of a chalkboard or whiteboard. Despite being low-tech, they’re easy to use and surprisingly effective in conveying and aiding in understanding highly complex information. They allow teachers to walk through problems, illustrate mistakes, and demonstrate solutions — all without having to learn how to operate anything other than a piece of chalk or a dry erase pen.

It’s a very different experience, however, for students who are not in class. In the online format, it’s certainly possible to use a chalkboard or whiteboard, but it’s not as effective for many reasons: Teachers must turn their backs to the camera, which makes it not only harder to pick up what’s being said, but also not always clear on camera what or why something was written on the board.

Taking on the Challenge

SDSU physics professor Matt Anderson took this challenge head-on. He started by breaking down what the key elements were for making students feel more engaged with the material. In his research, he discovered that gesture and eye contact are essential. If remote learners are unable to see the instructor, they struggle to absorb complex material. He created a video production system that uses an innovative glassboard setup between him and a camera. It’s like a window to learning that allows students to see gestures and the feeling of eye contact, keeping the experience immersive.

‘It’s like a window to learning that allows students to see gestures and the feeling of eye contact, keeping the experience immersive.’

Solutions like this mean instructors, even in distance learning situations, are never off camera or turned away from students. They also provide a radically different teaching experience from the traditional whiteboard model because you can leverage multimedia content — video, graphics, and more — to draw students in and then save the entire session for them to refer to later.

A Decade Later, And What’s Ahead

Since Dr. Anderson’s invention 10 years ago, it’s proven very effective, boosting student engagement around the content as well as the rapport between students and educators — of which the benefit cannot be overstated. Like his innovation, the goal of classroom technology should be to create better interaction and engagement that naturally fuels higher achievement, while remaining easy for instructors to use.

This solution addresses the same problem now faced at all levels of education today. For many teachers struggling with inattentiveness, it’s not the lack of video content that’s the problem; it’s what’s being captured and how it’s captured. The best technological approach needs to bring instructors forward as they work through material — whether it’s college-level physics or beginning phonics — just as they would be in class.

Ji Shen is the CEO of Pathway Innovations and Technologies, designer and manufacturer of HoverCam document cameras, webcams and scanners. His company develops innovative products that enhance learning, improve communication and save people time. His cameras were built specifically for educators in learning environments. Ji was first featured in EdTech Digest just over a decade ago. Contact him here.  

1 Comments
  • Raymond M Rose

    Reply

    Wait! Sorry Ji, but you don’t have all the data. You said ” … the higher education market is farther along in its distance learning journey… Many organizations began instituting online programs over a decade ago in order to expand their offerings.”

    You ignore the fact the first virtual high schools in the US started over two decades ago. 2 not the 1 you credit higher ed with.

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