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High-Tech Connections Made Possible in Interactive Classroom

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Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives

November 9, 2001

High-Tech Connections Made Possible in Interactive Classroom


FRED LEBLANC

In October, Thomas Wartenberg, MHC professor of philosophy, brought philosopher Matthew Lipman to campus via the College's interactive video classroom. Installed in April in Library 619, the equipment uses computer cables or phone lines to give face-to-face and voice-to-voice contact with classrooms at the Five Colleges or with similarly equipped facilities around the world.

Matthew Lipman, university distinguished scholar of philosophy at Montclair State University, has authored dozens of books, articles, and workshops on the importance and practice of teaching philosophy to children to encourage critical and creative thinking. Among his fans is Mount Holyoke's Thomas Wartenberg, professor of philosophy and chair of the Film Studies Program, who has been using Lipman's written work and videos this semester in his course Teaching Children Philosophy. This fall, as he prepares MHC students to teach philosophy at Northampton's Jackson Street Elementary School, Wartenberg went one step further in sharing Lipman's knowledge and experience; he brought the philosopher to the MHC campus October 1 via an interactive video classroom.

Installed in April in Library 619, the equipment uses computer cables or phone lines to give face-to-face and voice-to-voice contact with classrooms at the Five Colleges or with similarly equipped facilities around the world. Connection to Montclair State or to any compatible site requires only that an operator "dial" a number on a touch screen, then adjust volume levels and cameras. It was Wartenberg's first videoconferencing experience, and he is sure it won't be his last. "The technology is really great," he said. "Previously we were limited in terms of the number of guests we could bring in. This is an efficient way to have more speakers interact with your class."

Mount Holyoke's equipment performed perfectly for Wartenberg. Lipman's words and lip movements stayed in sync, and students watched him intently (perhaps aware that he could see them too). Coughs, paper shufflings, and varying voices were accommodated by six small, self-adjusting microphones suspended from the ceiling. A VCR recorded the entire exchange without a single click or whir. All worked as it should have to focus attention on Lipman, rather than on the technology.

"We were so excited about this meeting!" Christina Blair '03 told Lipman at the conclusion of the hour-long question-and-answer session. "After reading Harry Stottlemeier's Discovery, I thought, Wow! We get to meet the man who wrote this book."

Wartenberg heard similar comments from his other students. "They seemed really thrilled that they got to meet the professor whose book they had just read," he said. "It gave them a real sense of sharing in an important project with its founder."
Supported with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Five College videoconferencing classrooms are an outcome of the external review of Five Colleges in June of 2000. The board of directors outlined its hopes for using new technology this way: "As part of the long-standing commitment of the consortium to improving teaching and learning among our institutions, Five Colleges, Incorporated, will seek to establish itself as a laboratory of national prominence for exploring how technology can enhance learning and the creation of new knowledge."

Interest in using Mount Holyoke's videoconferencing classroom in creative ways is coming from departments all across campus. At a May open house, Library, Information, and Technology Services (LITS) training coordinator Susan Fliss welcomed thirty faculty and staff members to Library 619. At a three-day training session in July, she was pleased to see representatives from departments as diverse as LITS, religion, music, and physics. Language students are using the classroom now and throughout the fall term to meet with peers and instructors at Hampshire and Amherst Colleges. Like Wartenberg's students, they are finding the technology to be unobtrusive and uncomplicated, said Tamra Hjermstad, LITS technology consultant for foreign languages. "The technology doesn't get in their way," she said. "They come in, dial up, and start practicing the conversation skills so critical in language classes."

Yu-Ting Huang '02 is one of those students. Enrolled in a Japanese language course with Lecturer Mariko Yamamura of Amherst College's Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations, Huang is thrilled to avoid a time-consuming commute several times a week. "The videoconferencing classroom really saves us a lot of time, and so far it works really well," Huang said. "I don't have to speak any differently. It's just like taking a normal class."

In addition to hosting occasional lectures by off-site guests and regular Five College courses, the classroom will be used for occasional class-to-class discussions, such as a dialogue about dance history between MHC dance professor Charles Flachs's students and students from South Carolina's Columbia College. In the future, the room might even be used for team teaching, student mentoring, interviewing candidates for positions at Mount Holyoke, or interviewing potential MHC interns. "The possibilities are endless, and we're encouraging professors to come to us with their ideas," Fliss said. "We want to help faculty investigate how this technology can enhance their teaching and give them easier access to Five College resources."

Fliss notes that LITS offers training on the classroom's equipment, ongoing classroom support, and tips on managing discussions that involve people at multiple sites. It also plans to offer seminars and forums at which faculty may share pilot project experiences with one another and with faculty from other institutions, or discuss such broad topics as incorporating interactive video into teaching styles and philosophies, using videoconferencing technology to help students meet established learning goals, deciding which technologies and pedagogies add value to course material, and designing a technologically mediated course that reflects the needs of a diversity of learners. The first of these discussion opportunities is scheduled for January Term. For more information or to reserve Library 619, contact Sue Fliss at x3034.

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Copyright © 2001 Mount Holyoke College. This page created by Office of Communications and maintained by Don St. John. Last modified on November 9, 2001.

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