From Video-Conferencing to the Cybercafé: Membership, Performance and Online Learning

by
Marshall Soules, Ph.D.
Coordinator Media Studies, Malaspina University-College
Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada
soules@mala.bc.ca


Video-Conferencing & Membership

In the Spring 1996 semester, Malaspina University-College offered its first distance education courses using video-conferencing technology. Four courses were offered to participants in Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, and a satellite campus in Powell River on the British Columbia mainland. We employed switched-56, compressed video-conferencing technology (PictureTel PCS 100 from Adcom) in a Windows environment. The compressed video and audio signals posed on-going challenges for instructors and course participants when it came to such subtleties of communication as facial expression, body language and gestures, and a sense of timing in discussions. These challenges were compounded by occasional instability in the application sharing software (LiveShare), and instructors began to build redundancy into their methods of delivery. I learned to use web-based methods to provide lecture notes, resources, demonstrations, and a discussion forum for both remote and local course participants. This was especially important for the remote students, who expressed their desire to be given as rich an educational experience as the students in the source classroom.

The four courses were extensively evaluated by Norm Dolan, an external evaluator, in Interactive Television Course Delivery (1996), and the results were summarized in my Enhancing Capacity with Video Conferencing (Soules 1996). One of the significant conclusions of our research is the importance of establishing a sense of membership for participants in distance courses. Evaluation made it abundantly clear what common sense might lead us to expect: that students in the remote site "appear to have greater difficulty establishing a strong sense of membership in the experience, than do students in the host site" (Dolan 1996). What might not be as obvious is the discovery that student satisfaction and success are highly dependent on this sense of membership, or engagement by the learner in the educational process. Our research found, for example, that unlike the membership construct, the technology itself does not lead to high satisfaction rates: once the purpose of establishing clear and reliable communication has been met, further efforts to develop more sophisticated systems are not likely to result in more student satisfaction. Similarly, once basic student support services have been provided, more elaborate administrative functions do not significantly increase student satisfaction or success.

After considerable discussion between instructors, project coordinators, and the evaluation team, we formulated the following broad parameters designed to promote membership in distance learning, especially as it relates to video-conferencing technology (Soules 1996):

  1. Course materials should be prepared to take into account not only the constraints and characteristics of the medium, but also to engage students successfully at the remote site. The level of structure and preparation required for distance delivery generally exceed that required in face-to-face settings where the instructor can rely on spontaneous interaction to enhance the learnerís degree of engagement.

  2. Learners should be able to communicate easily and reliably with the instructor and the students at the other site. The instructor should take active measures to communicate personally with each student and subsequently to confirm the communication with the student. We established guidelines, or protocols of communication, which tended to formalize interactions until all course participants, including the instructors, found that the guidelines actually contributed to greater confidence and spontaneity.

  3. The instructor should develop a learning environment in which individual students develop a sense of working cooperatively with peers in a meaningful activity. Engaging students in the active use of the medium of delivery will help them overcome their reticence and increase their confidence.

Besides our discoveries showing the important correlation of membership with student satisfaction and success, as instructors we found ourselves in a new performance medium: the distance education "classroom." I use the word "performance" here advisedly because the presence and demands of the technology tend to shift the instructorís focus toward delivery concerns and an acute awareness of the needs of the audience. The confidence we may have in addressing and reaching our audience in the traditional classroom is de-centered in distance delivery. Our presence is mediated by the human-technology interface which provides a new kind of performance medium, and not necessarily the stage we are used to.

Online Courses and Performance

Since the original video conferencing project, I have continuously offered web-based, online courses in Media Studies and Computer-Mediated Communication (see http://www.mala.bc.ca/~soules/). In the delivery and content of these courses, I continue to explore the performative aspects of participation in this learning environment, and how performance relates to membership. In Protocols of Improvisation and Online Communication (available online at http://www.mala.bc.ca/~soules/improv1.htm), I describe how the particular performance style associated with improvisation has many points of reference to online learning. Following Laurelís analysis in Computers as Theater (Laurel 1992), I suggest that the human-computer interface is not only essentially dramatic, but also requires a considerable degree of improvisation for its successful negotiation. A study of cross-cultural practices shows that the play of improvisation occurs within a matrix of constraints, or limitations, and these limitations can be considered "protocols of improvisation" (Soules 1997).

In the design and delivery of my online courses, I encourage learners to explore the medium of interaction by researching its history and writing about it as a medium of communication. Assignments have precise parameters regarding method of presentation, but they require learners to solve problems that they help formulate. Students are encouraged to learn computing applications from one another as well as from me. I have had most success in promoting membership, however, with a series of online journals featuring the writing of course participants. It has been extremely gratifying to see the improvements in writing quality when students write for one another, and for publication on the WWW. The traditional one-to-one writing relationship between student and instructor is redefined to become one-to-many, and this shift in broadcast model has, in my experience, a profound effect on the performance of learners in online communication.

In June 1997, my proposal for the Cybercafé Project at Malaspina University-College was funded to provide an alternative model of support for students and community members wishing to learn about computing, especially online applications. Unlike conventional computer labs in many post-secondary institutions, the Cybercafé encourages interaction between participants, experimentation in the learning process, and the networking of expertise in a "learning community." We use drop-in fees to regulate access to one of the institutionís networked computer labs. Student facilitators are available to help users with their computing questions, to suggest alternate resources, and to foster the development of a non-hierarchical, stimulating, and safe learning community. The Cybercafť Project attempts, in short, to model constructivist learning principles.

The Cybercafé Project provides more than an alternate model of support for educational technology--something learners need when they begin to go online to accomplish their instructional goals; it also reflects on such institutional protocols as access to labs and the policies used to regulate them. This project attempts to address the interrelated issues of membership and performance in the context of computer-mediated instruction and online learning.

References

Dolan, N. (1996) Interactive television course delivery. Victoria, BC: NJ Dolan Consulting.

Laurel, B. (1992). Computers as theater. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Soules, M. (1997). Protocols of improvisation and online communication. LETT í97 Conference Proceedings, 1997, Leading Edge Training and Technology, Victoria, BC.

Soules, M. (1996). Enhancing capacity with video-conferencing. Nanaimo: Malaspina U-C.