President's Report 2006 | Teaching

Memorial adopts new technology for psych course

Dr. Carolyn Walsh, Psychology, taught a course in winter semester using video conference technology. (Photo by Jeff Green)

For the first time this year, students at Memorial University took a course using cutting edge video conference technology that allowed them to interact with their professor in real-time.

But their instructor isn't being beamed in from another university. In fact, she's just across campus.

It's all part of a pilot project to test video equipment which allows students to see their professor and ask questions as if they were in a classroom.

The guinea pig is Dr. Carolyn Walsh, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology. She taught Psychology 1000 this winter on the St. John's campus. Instead of going to her classroom, though, she headed to the basement of the Education Building where she strapped on a microphone headset and stepped in front a small camera to teach her course. Dr. Walsh joked it's her 10 minutes of fame.

"In terms of how I teach, I stand in front a camera that is mounted on a monitor giving me a live shot of the classroom," she explained. "Next to the monitor, still in front of me, is a second monitor giving me a visual of exactly what the students are seeing on the screen. I am behind a little table and the camera can take a preset near shot of me or a wide shot showing me."

Her students, all 32 of them, are tucked away in a classroom across campus in the Science Building. A psychology grad student was on-hand to turn on the equipment and to monitor the class.

"I admit that teaching this way has involved a learning curve but it has been interesting and even fun," said an enthusiastic Dr. Walsh. "I think the students are enjoying it also." The new real-time equipment is a step-up from what Memorial has been using for years. Typically in the past, courses like Psychology 1000, which attracts upwards of 1,300 students a semester, have been offered through video technology. Professors would be in an on-campus TV studio teaching students simultaneously in lecture theatres in the Education and Science Buildings. But that technology doesn't offer the same flexibility as the equipment, said Kevin O'Leary, producer/director with Distance Education and Learning Technologies (DELT), the unit which oversees media production at Memorial. "The problem with this delivery mode is that it requires a large human resource commitment on our part," he said. "We would have up to four staff people involved in the delivery of each class. With the introduction of this new technology, we are able to deliver virtually the same content with the efforts of one technology support person." In the past, students couldn't speak in real-time with professors. Instead, they had to go to a microphone to ask questions.

Mr. O'Leary said the prime benefit of the new technology is the flexibility it offers to students and professors.

"Anywhere students can gather, where this technology is available, is now a potential classroom," he said. He said the equipment is evolving but added that Memorial has the most current editions of the software, cameras, microphones and monitors. "It allows us to deliver this content to different combinations of classroom locations. This will effectively allow for variable classroom sizes without having to make physical alterations to the existing classrooms. Then, if you extend this to the technology's full capabilities, the classroom can be in a location in a different city, province or country." For her part, Dr. Walsh said the new equipment is much more user friendly compared to the old technology.

"For students, I think it also gives them the sense that the instructor is much more 'with them' in the classroom," she said. "Besides, I get a chance to play with all this new equipment. That's kind of neat, too."