More Than Ten Years of E-Learning at W&M

Broadcasting from W&M Weather Vane

This is a guest post by Michael Kelley, W&M Professor of Applied Science. Michael has been teaching courses at W&M using lecture-capture and distance learning technologies for over ten years.

E-learning is not new to the College of William & Mary. More than ten years ago we began technology-enabled course sharing with other Virginia schools as part of our participation in the Virginia Microelectronics Consortium (VMEC).

Technology Brought Us Together as a Single Classroom

Aggregating demand in this way with the VMEC moved class enrollments from mid-to-low single digits to having between twenty and forty students. A combination of technologies effectively “brought us together” as a single classroom, where we could see each other, converse and present the lecture slides. A special feature added early on was recording all class sessions for later viewing (“lecture capture”), a bonus to students for whom English was a foreign language or academic background deficiencies.  However, we depended on dedicated network connections, servers, and personnel; resources were insufficient to support scale-up to multiple courses.

Other issues remained as well.  Graduate and advanced undergraduate education in engineering and science is an arena with complex and layered issues, but has the advantage that participants are disposed toward using technology as a solution for problems. Among the issues are:  small enrollments, wide diversity of backgrounds, frequent lack of English fluency, divergence of goals for the learning, and a scope that significant exceeds available class time. As noted earlier, the first three can be addressed already, but a more widely deployable and friendly approach is needed.

Big Changes in Technology Are Now Taking Place

A major evolutionary step in the technology is now taking place. New user-friendly software is at hand to enable making high-quality recordings with ordinary notebook/desktop computers possible. Special facilities are no longer needed. Lecture length is no longer rigidly connected to the class duration; it can be whatever is appropriate to the material. Further, there is no inherent limit to the total amount of lecture time, and special interests for a particular class can be accommodated by added lectures.

The pedagogical impact of this technological evolution is that the content-delivery component of a course can be provided by pre-recordings, freeing class time for discussion and interaction — “flipping the classroom.” Moreover, students can pause the recorded lecture and re-watch segments as needed to fill in knowledge gaps. Students with learning disabilities, as well as students with all levels of ability can progress at their own pace.

The hurdles to being able to deploy prerecorded lectures continue to grow easier to navigate. Both the pre-recording and class session capture can now take place on the presenter’s local computer, to be made available later on an ordinary server. Connectivity is also changing. Class sharing by videoconferencing is now available from Web-based providers. The requirement for specialized networks, servers and their dedicated staff is coming to an end.

Finally, the entry barrier is coming down. Back in the day, we had to convert an entire course all at one time. Now, faculty wanting to experiment can pre-record and flip just a single class session. This makes it easier than ever before to try out the flipped class model.

Technology Makes Flipping Easier; Now a New Pedagogical Challenge

The vexing and inherent scope issue can now be addressed. Applied courses must communicate to students and assure in them a mastery of content. Students must also develop fluency and creativity in its use. However, while previously the amount of class time needed for content mastery had left rather little time for applications, flipping a class changes things, as for each class period you flip, you gain that much time in the classroom to spend on learning activities with students.

The challenge now will be to use effectively all this new interaction time. We now have to ask ourselves, what learning activities are best for that newly freed-up time in the classroom with students?