Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Distance Poses No Hindrance to Learning Program Links UNF, Area Schools in Class

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Distance Poses No Hindrance to Learning Program Links UNF, Area Schools in Class

Article excerpt

Claudia Campbell said she thought about quitting the University of North Florida graduate school course she started in January.

Not because it was difficult learning the concepts, but because of how the class was set up.

There are three monitors at the front of the room -- a large screen in the middle and two other monitors the size of an average television at diagonals above and to the sides of the largest screen.

Two small tracking cameras are anchored near the ceiling in the front and rear of the room. Another monitor is suspended above the students.

Assistant professor Bill English sits on the left side of the classroom with an oversized remote control on his desk. The control pad is nearly a foot wide.

Welcome to the classroom Campbell once found intimidating, a classroom on the campus of the Northside's Raines High School and not at UNF's College of Education and Human Services. Campbell studies how to assess and evaluate students in a room called a distance learning lab.

Distance learning comes in many forms, including courses held via the Internet and the Raines High lab, the largest and most elaborate of its kind in the Duval County Public Schools system. A signal can be received from anywhere in the world.

"What we can't provide here at school, we can now go out and get somewhere else," said Linda Lisella, Raines' vice principal who works with the learning lab. "What it will allow us to do is have schools without walls."

A lab at Ribault High School is similar, said Judy Till, Duval County schools supervisor of distance learning. But the Ribault room cannot accommodate as many people as the Raines lab, the monitors are larger in the Raines lab and some of the equipment is more sophisticated.

But for Campbell, at first, all of the technology got in the way.

"That's my first time being in a class like that, with assignments online and monitors," she said. "I was going to quit this course at first because I was afraid. I'm not scared now."

English said six students dropped the class because of similar fears.

Here's how it works:

While associate professor Tuiren Bratina stands before about 25 students in a UNF classroom, her image is picked up by a camera in the room and is transmitted to Raines, where about 25 other students and English view her on screen.

Bratina lectures the class, and her voice is picked up by a microphone pinned to her shirt operated by a battery pack at her hip. Other microphones and speakers are built into the room.

The video image and the audio travels through three high-tech phone lines that allow digital information and create a better-quality image than regular phone lines, Till explained.

"This course is not really different except I wear a lot of makeup now," Bratina said with a smile.

In the Raines room, students watch Bratina on the main screen and can see an image of their classroom on the other two smaller monitors. When a student wants to ask a question, English punches directional buttons on the oversized remote control to move the tracking cameras to the student.

The tracking cameras can also zoom in on a subject when a remote "look at me" button is pushed, but it isn't used during this course at Raines.

"As a teacher, you have to be aware of a whole lot of things not directly related to what you're teaching," English said. "But they [the students] don't have to worry about switching cameras. They don't have to worry if their question can be heard at the other end. We don't want the technology to get in the way of the content."

The Raines lab also has a "smart board," a white display board that can be written on in pen. And what is written freehand on the board can be saved on a computer disk and printed out. Also, information on a computer disk introduced to the system can be displayed on the board. …

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