Tools of Engagement: Using Case Studies in Synchronous Distance-Learning Environments

By Rybarczyk, Brian J. | Journal of College Science Teaching, September-October 2007 | Go to article overview
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Tools of Engagement: Using Case Studies in Synchronous Distance-Learning Environments


Rybarczyk, Brian J., Journal of College Science Teaching


Faced with the challenges of addressing a variety of student learning styles, academic levels, and demographics, incorporating innovative learning strategies, attaining higher-level thinking skills, and offering new courses with contemporary content, associated colleagues and I turned to the case-study method as a pedagogical tool to address these challenges not only in face-to-face courses but, more importantly, in courses offered through distance learning.

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Distance learning

The composition of the undergraduate student population and its expectations of a college education are changing as increasing numbers of adult learners and first-generation, underrepresented students enter baccalaureate programs (Pascarella and Terenzini 1998; NCES 2006; Department of Education 2006). Many universities are turning to distance learning to ensure that contemporary courses are offered and to reduce the already-heavy teaching loads faculty have with core curriculum courses. Distance learning typically employs technology as an integral component for content delivery and a tool for interaction. Distance learning is any learning that occurs with the instructor and students separated by time or location. Thus, distance learning can be either asynchronous or synchronous.

Examples of asynchronous distance learning include online/internet-based courses, modules with streaming video, and postings to a discussion forum. Synchronous, or real-time, distance learning encompasses technology such as instant messaging, teleconferencing, and interactive videoconferencing. Universities and colleges are using distance learning to (1) offer courses and, in some cases, entire curricula; (2) address the growing diversity, needs, and constraints of learners; (3) make education more cost effective; and (4) provide educational opportunities otherwise unavailable. The results of a plethora of research studies indicate mixed attitudes and learning outcomes from distance-learning initiatives, which are contingent upon the reliability of the technology used, the instructor's pedagogical skills, and expected student learning goals (Russell 1999; Twigg 2001).

The distance-learning environment described herein uses video-teleconference (VTC) technology to share courses synchronously between two (or potentially more) classrooms. The technology allows for full interactive audio and video communication as well as capabilities for sharing data in real time resulting in a learning environment that closely mimics a face-to-face classroom experience. Microphones capture sound from both the instructor and students while cameras capture and transmit the instructor's and students' images in each classroom. The images are displayed on a plasma television or projected onto a screen in each classroom. By toggling camera views, students at both sites can see and hear each other. Programs such as Microsoft NetMeeting are used to share electronic information, data, and presentations through a second internet connection. The data are projected onto a white screen or an interactive whiteboard such as SMART Board. Students and the instructor can write on the interactive whiteboards so the information is simultaneously shared with the distant classroom. A VHS player, a DVD player, and a document camera are also advantageous so that other types of media can be shared synchronously as needed.

Teaching synchronous distance-learning courses between two sites can be conceptualized as one of three modes: (1) One instructor is present at a local site and teaches to a remote classroom of students; (2) one instructor teaches to students in a local classroom and to students in a remote classroom; and (3) one instructor is present in one classroom with students and a second instructor is present in a distant classroom also with students, similar to a team-teaching arrangement. Each of these modes of implementation has advantages and challenges, but the commonality is that they all involve teaching to a group of students at a distant location.

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