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Expanding the Classroom Walls
Distance-Learning Makes Calvin Accessible Worldwide

Communications professor Robert Fortner is telling his class of graduate students how television doesn't always work as a teaching medium. "Students snap into entertainment mode," he says, meaning they passively let the words and pictures wash over them.

Ironically, half of his own students are watching him on television monitors miles away from the classroom he's lecturing in. But the technology that normally gets in the way of learning in this case seems to disappear. Students talk back to the man in the monitor; he listens and responds.

Fortner's teaching "Media and Information Literacy," the first class to use Calvin College's new distance learning classroom. Now, neither students nor teachers need to be in the same place, as long as both are in camera- and monitor-equipped classrooms hooked up to the same fiber optic cable network.

Calvin's $100,000 high-tech classroom, in the basement of Hiemenga Hall, hooks up to a network connecting sites in West Michigan via fiber optics supplied by U.S. Signal. Calvin pays a monthly fee for unlimited time on this local provider's network.

But the classroom can connect to any other hooked-up site countrywide, or even around the world -- though it takes a little more work and costs more.

"It's sort of like the early days of telephones," instructional resource director Randall Nieuwsma said. "One operator can get you so far and then you have to pass it off to another."

The added costs for going outside the loop -- far more than for a long-distance telephone call -- may seem like a lot, but Fortner thinks distance learning will be ultimately cost effective.

"We think it will allow us to reduce our costs...by making us more accessible," Fortner says. "We can bring Calvin to people instead of asking people to come to Calvin."

But Fortner also sees a less pragmatic, more philosophical reason for acquiring state-of-the-art classroom technology.

"This college's mission declares with no hesitation that we seek to be a leader in higher education," he explains. "This is the future of higher education."

Calvin actually lagged behind many other colleges and even high schools that already had distance learning facilities. About five years ago, a Grand Rapids merchant anonymously donated equipment and system hookups to eight local private high schools, including Grand Rapids, South and Calvin Christian High Schools.

Fortner, who is also Calvin's director of graduate studies, was convinced of Calvin's need for such a classroom in the fall of 1994 at a Council of Graduate Schools convention, where distance learning topped the agenda.

When he returned to Calvin, Fortner organized a group of about 30 faculty to try teaching a spring-semester class using the local private school network. They talked about what did or didn't work, and "were able to construct a reformed idea of distance education," Fortner said.

The professors, for example, didn't want to have to justify the cost of distance education with large tuition-paying classes.

"Well, that's distance, but it's not interactive," said Nieuwsma, who prizes the personalized education the 30-student classroom allows.

The faculty then persuaded Calvin officials that the college needed its own distance learning classroom. With money budgeted from both the computer center and general funds, the college built a classroom with all the bells and whistles.

Four 31-inch monitors sit in the front of the classroom, allowing students to see up to three remote sites along with the camera shot of their own classroom.

Another bank of monitors lines the back wall, behind the five rows of desks, so the instructor can see students in remote classrooms. "I think of them as row 6," Nieuwsma said.

A small microphone embedded in a sheet of Plexiglas hangs from the ceiling in the teaching area, though the instructor also wears a lapel microphone. Each two-student desk holds a flat microphone.

The camera in the back of the room follows the instructor, who wears an infrared tracking device around his neck. When a student in the Calvin classroom talks, a camera in the front of the room responds to the noise, takes over the display on the monitor and zooms in on the student.

The student camera is set to "filibuster mode," Nieuwsma said, meaning the camera stays on one person until she's done talking. Those who interrupt can't get the virtual floor seen by remote students.

"It's kindergarten rules," Nieuwsma explained. "Whoever talks gets to finish their thought."

"It's a way of controlling rudeness, basically," Fortner added.

Shots of students who attract the camera's attention by coughing or fidgeting can be overridden manually with a touch-sensitive camera control screen. An audio-visual assistant usually sits at the master control board during class to finesse what students see.

Instead of using an overhead projector, instructors can also use the monitor for visual aids. Fortner plugged his laptop computer into the system and called up some ready-made, full-color charts and graphs.

Instructors performing science experiments or demonstrating medical procedures can use the camera that's pointed down at the work surface in front.

Other teaching aids in the system include a videocassette recorder, a laser disc player, a compact disc player, a cassette deck and a fax machine.

And to make both video and audio electronics perform ideally, the classroom's walls are paneled with acoustical boards in the exact shade of rose that gives the best color contrast on the monitors.

"We put in the state-of-the-art, most sophisticated room that we know of," Nieuwsma said.

But even with the sharp images and near-perfect sound, how close can a teacher and a remote student come to forgetting they're really not face to face?

"The technology itself becomes fairly transparent," Fortner said. "The biggest challenge is giving (remote students) the same kind of interaction you give the live audience in the room." He tends to look over the heads of in-the-flesh students toward the monitors and camera in back, giving apparent eye contact to remote students like Sally Van Noord.

"You have to remain active so you feel more a part of the class," said Van Noord, an English teacher at Grand Rapids Christian High School who usually stays at the high school to take Fortner's Wednesday classes. "I'm not uncomfortable here, but I'd rather be (at Calvin) because it's just more visible -- the prof is there, the computer is there."

But classmate Lois Brink, Grand Rapids Christian's librarian, said small inconveniences -- such as technological glitches or shifting positions to speak into the microphone -- don't detract much from the convenience of just staying after school to take the class.

"We just walk out of our classroom and into this one," she explained.

"I feel more relaxed here," Brink continued. "You can get up without being rude."

Indeed, students in the small media room off the high school library were a bit more chatty than their live-classroom counterparts, and even passed around snacks during the lecture.

Van Noord has taught classes using the distance learning system, too, and said it offers lots of benefits besides convenience.

"It broadens communication between the schools. It enhances your classroom because you get different perspectives from different schools. And it benefits the school because you can augment your curriculum without having to hire a new teacher," she said.

That's a benefit Fortner hopes will "introduce some multicultural dimension" to Calvin classes.

"We could bring minority professors to campus (via the network)...that we couldn't attract full time," he said.

Any guest lecturer, in fact, could avoid perhaps-inconvenient trips to Grand Rapids -- and Calvin wouldn't have to pay air fare and hotel bills.

Marjorie Viehl, director of the Calvin-Hope nursing program, can't wait to use the distance learning classroom to lessen or even eliminate tiresome treks between Grand Rapids and Holland. Currently, students and professors alike must make the 80-mile round trip at least twice a week.

"We had anticipated using (the classroom) during interim, but Hope is not ready yet," Viehl said.

She thinks it will be another year before Hope College has a distance learning classroom, but that will give nursing professors time to work out an appropriate curriculum for that format.

"We have to make sure it does not give one class an advantage," she said. "We don't want one campus only for reception. We want it to be truly interactive."

And the system could also let non-traditional students -- say, a parent living in California -- get a Calvin education without sacrificing jobs or families.

For all of its benefits, though, future uses of the distance learning classroom still have some minor kinks to work out.

For example, instructors at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa have mentioned they'd like to work out some collaborative classes with Calvin professors. Dordt can access a state-wide fiber optic network there, but who will pay for the in-between costs? And who will receive tuition payments?

Another case-by-case problem will be how assignments and tests will be collected or proctored. For Fortner's class now, it's not such a problem for two reasons: students only need to submit papers to receive a pass or fail grade, and the students at least live in the same town as the teacher.

The likely solution relies on more technology. Students will probably submit papers via electronic mail; the teacher can download it, mark comments on it and e-mail it back.

Even tests can be taken this way, though it's harder to shield your computer screen from students' roaming eyes than it is to cover your test paper.

Then, of course, there's the vanity problem: "The camera shows how bald I am and adds ten pounds," Fortner joked.

"There are a lot of little housekeeping details that need to be worked out," Nieuwsma said. "We're just kind of giddy with all this."

"We don't know where it's going," Fortner concluded. "It's a lot of talk right now. But at least we're set up to make the talk real."

Karen Schnyders DeVries is a reporter for the Grand Rapids Press.


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Last revised by Nathan Vandenbroek on 1/9/97.