Teaching Through Tele-Conferencing: Some Curriculum Challenges

Teaching Through Tele-Conferencing: Some Curriculum Challenges

Jim Nesin Omatseye

The article explores the intricate experience of using a two way interactive television as a means of instruction aimed at achieving some specific curriculum goals. Some Advantages and Challenges of using this medium are discussed for the benefit of first time users. The paper argues in favor of using teleconferencing as a way of promoting distance learning for the purpose of extending scarce educational resources to people in rural areas.


As educators explore new ways of making education available to the growing number of learners across the country, the two-way interactive television has received considerable attention. While a few skeptics have dismissed the medium as another technological gimmick, some educators (Sample, 1995) have viewed it as a viable option for distance learning, especially to learners in rural areas where educational resources are scarce (Batey & Cowell, 1986). In some cases, the argument is that the cost benefit does not justify the huge financial resources required to set up the equipment and provide the manpower needed to keep it running.

Following are some ways that both instructors and students can benefit from the use of tele-conferencing as an instructional medium for achieving specific curriculum goals. The success or failure in the use of interactive television as a means of instruction depends largely on the effectiveness of the instructor, the amount of interaction between instructor and students, between students and students, how focused instruction is on the subject matter and a host of other factors (Abrahamson, 1995). Practicing use of the medium will enable its users to overcome the fear of technology that tends to interfere with effective instructional design and delivery. The Kentucky Tele-linking Network (KTLN) shall provide the context for our discussion. Before preceding, four questions are pertinent: (1) What is a two-way interactive television? (2) How effective is tele-conferencing as an instructional medium? (3) What must first time users know about it? (4) And in what ways can curriculum goals be achieved through interactive television? A two-way interactive television is basically an electronic technology through which pictures and sound could be transmitted as digital signals over high speed or “T-1” lines which have the capacity of twenty-four normal telephone lines across the country or the world. Thus, people separated by thousands of miles could see and hear each other. Because it may take a couple of seconds for the “compressed” video objects to be transmitted, anyone asking a question at one end must wait a few seconds for the signal to arrive at the location. Tele-conferencing is made possible when people in separate location, across campus or across the country, can carry on a conversation by means of interactive television, thus making it possible for them to see and hear each other. This technological feat has been made possible by the development of fiber optics, (strands of glass or plastic “wire”) used for the transmission of digital data (video and audio) from one end to another through interactive television and computers (DLT, Mn Sat. 1996, Kollof, et al 1996).

As information technology continues to impact our lives, state boards of education have been challenged to utilize its tools to rapidly expand the spread of education as the world of business has done. While a good number of us are cautious, others have dreamed that the classroom teacher would soon be displaced by electronic gadgets. At least, so they thought when radio, television, reading machines and computers came along. Educators learned their lesson in the 1980’s when some people thought that computer based training (CBT) would do the trick (sample, 1995).

What is generally unclear to those who advocate a wholesale adoption of CBT and the like, is that the medium is not the message. To have a means of delivery cannot be a replacement for what is to be delivered. Users of distance learning have discovered that instructional design for distance education calls for the selective application of media and methods to individual portions of the curriculum (Sample, 1995). Maximum results in tele-teaching, requires a variety of activities appropriate to the learning styles of individual learners to articulate the curriculum for the benefit of all learners in a distance education program (Gardner, 1991). The introduction of interactive television and computers over the last few decades has greatly enhanced distance learning. Together, these technologies have made a significant difference in distance learning.

The most common of the alternative formats today would be the one-way system telecourses, correspondence courses and computer-assisted (E-mail) courses. Even then, the formats for personal contact between instructor and students are limited in each of these alternatives. If we therefore accept that interaction between the instructor and his students as fundamental to effective learning, we must accept the limitations that are inherent in these alternative formats (Abrahamson, 1998). Such limitations are also present in interactive television.

More than in some of the alternative formats, tele-conferencing specialists have combined a variety of technologies with interactive television to open up lines of communication so that spoken words and/or written materials can be transmitted thousands of kilometers per second; virtual images can now be sent over telephone lines and bounced off satellites into different sites, thus making it possible for instructors to monitor students as they work across campus or across the country. In a world that is in a hurry to inform, educate or even entertain, the tele-conferencing option has become vital to achieving these objectives. The greatest attraction is in providing access to educational resources for people separated by long distances.

The race to utilize these technologies for the benefit of mankind started in the early 1980’s. Kentucky joined the race in the United States in 1986 when the Legislature with a strong endorsement from the Governor’s office approved a plan for a multimillion dollar statewide network that would include an uplink and 1650 downlink dishes. A receiver dish would be located at each state sponsored vocational school. Libraries, community colleges and universities would be hooked to the network. The primary thrust of the educational programming would be the educational institutions themselves (Pietras & Murphy, 1992).

In view of the need to achieve the desired efficiency associated with this technology, its users have been constrained not only to learn how to use it but also terminologies associated with it. Although some state agencies still use the one-way system, most are linked with the state-wide two-way network connected to its hubs located in all the major state university campuses and the capital in Frankfort. With the Kentucky Educational Television (KET) playing a leading role, interactive television has taken a considerable stride to enhance the development of education in the state.

On August 21, 1995 the Eastern Kentucky University’s Tele-Linking Network (KTLN) went into operation for the purpose of transmitting credit courses mostly from the main campus to its centers in Corbin, Manchester and Danville. For the first time, instructors in Richmond could see and hear the students at the other three sites. In like manner, students at the far sites could see and hear their instructor

An average KTLN classroom contains two 35″ monitors at the front of the room. The monitor on the right shows the `local site’, or the location of the viewer; the monitor on the left shows the `far site’ from which the last communication was received. At the rear of each classroom is another monitor showing the `far site’. A camera is mounted on the rear monitor while another is located on one of the two front monitors to record the class. A third camera, often referred to as the ELMO, is located on the instructor’s podium, looking down at a small area to show graphics, overheads or three dimensional objects. The instructor can select which camera is needed at any point in time. Each classroom has four networked computers, a phone and fax for easy contact with each other. Each class session is videotaped for viewing later by anyone. Nearly all the high schools in the neighboring counties are `wired’ to the main hub at Eastern’s campus.

Cost Benefit of Interactive Television:

The following is a synoptic synthesis of the cost benefit as perceived by some users of the Kentucky Tele-linking Network (KTLN). Some believe it,

1. Provides equity and increases the quality of educational opportunity for learners in remote areas;

2. Provides access to subject matter experts or career role models not available in the local community;

3. Provides increased access to information and instructional resources for learners everywhere;

4. Provides interactions and opportunity for joint activities with students in other schools and locations;

5. Provides opportunities for staff development and inservice training for beneficiaries;

6. Promotes school/community linkages;

7. Cuts down on travel and other costs to beneficiaries.

Somehow, it would appear that the degree to which individuals desire an opportunity for education seems to determine the level of tolerance of difficulties associated with interactive communication. In a survey carried out last summer after teaching a graduate course, at least 30% of all the forty students in four sites expressed reservation as follows:

1. Hard to get test results back.

2. Difficult to have one-on-one interaction with the instructor.

3. Hard to adjust to use of a microphone while a camera is pointed at you.

4. Videotapes used repeatedly and too soon.

5. A feeling that far sites are less important.

6. Bored watching television the entire class time.

7. Very impersonal.

8. Slow paced class sessions.

9. Too much time spent moving from site to site.

10. Lack of availability of instructors except at class time.

In the same survey, 70% of the students expressed satisfaction.

1. Learning to use state of the art equipment (ITV).

2. Interaction is simple.

3. Exciting to interact with students in other sites.

4. Variety of ideas from different areas of the state.

5. Learning made interesting by some instructors.

6. Teamwork with other students on projects.

7. Accessibility to instructor through phone, fax, E-mail or “On Air”.

8. Short travel time to sites from home.

9. Networking with other students and faculty.

10. Small classes and small groups.

11. No Friday classes.

The mixed reaction notwithstanding, most students offered the following suggestions:

1. Have instructors teach at least once each semester from each site.

2. Instructors should not lecture for too long.

3. Make all students meet on the main campus in Richmond for first class session to meet the instructor face-to-face.

A. Tips and Strategies For Tele-Teaching:

1. When educational institutions undertake to invest in interactive communication it is expected that that they would provide the equipment and the accessories needed. In addition to the transmitting station, such items as camera, microphone, fax, VCR, telephones, computers and a variety of materials to make the system work would be provided. The personnel needed to operate the equipment will include the camera crew, site facilitator or instructor, printer, editor, technicians, instructional designer and courier service providers. The preparation for getting started cannot be complete without the instructor’s written packages, textbooks, photographs, audio and video cassettes, case studies, study guides and course syllabus.

Indeed, before the instructor can be said to be ready, she must,

a. Practice, Practice, Practice-how to use equipment-become familiar with compressed video

b. Familiarize herself with compressed video

c. Combine use of mediums and strategies to accomplish objectives

d. Coordinate the activities of personnel, especially site Facilitators/Instructors–share instructional goals with them.

e. Familiarize herself with the background of students in your class.

f. Identify distance learning processes and procedures.

g. Prepare for formative assessment.

h. Visit other sites to familiarize your self with equipment and set up and personnel.

i. Develop contingency plans because technical glitches may occur–Let students and personnel know what to do before they occur.

j. Ask questions about matters that are not clear.

k. Make adequate arrangement for access to library materials.

The instructor also ought to:

a. Have an impressive beginning with self introduction by everyone to establish rapport and mutual trust.

b. Provide contact information to all students within policies of the institution.

c. Calm fears about providing information about students.

d. Train students to use equipment–especially the microphones.

e. Outline the unique expectation in a technology rich environment, especially a compressed video environment with cameras pointed at you.

f. Downplay technology and focus attention on the subject matter.

g. Create a listserv to facilitate communication; also share E-mail addresses.

h. Handout course syllabus and other relevant class materials with thorough explanation.

The instructor needs to:

a. Address students by their names — instructors should learn names as soon as possible.

b. Lecture for 10-15 minutes at most and then intersperse methods and media options with discussion, question-and-answer, activities and dialogic exercises.

c. Be spontaneous and personalize interactions.

d. Inject humor, fun, jokes, into his presentation to eliminate boredom.

e. Direct questions to students in all sites as much as possible so that nobody feels excluded–create a sense of balance in participation.

f. Look straight into the camera lens always because that creates a sense of being close to the viewer.

g. Give students an intermission to discuss, digest and reflect on issues.

h. Focus attention on course content and pay less attention to technology.

i. Make good use of class time to make up for loss clue to slow pace of the two-way system.

j. Strive for clarity in communication at all times.

k. Keep good record of class activities and events.

l. Remind students of when and how you can be reached after class hours–by phone, E-mail, fax, voice mail or through a secretary.

At the end of each class meeting, the instructor should:

a. Reflect on what went well and why.

b. Think about the pitfalls and how to avoid them in future.

c. Review video cassette of his classes for self appraisal and work to improve performance in the future.

Here are a few Ideas for Interactive Learning Activities on Instructional Television:

a. Select a debate topic to be discussed and moderated by the instructor.

b. Have students to complete incomplete handouts to be discussed and moderated at each site by site instructor or facilitator.

c. Have students participate in games and competition organized around issues and topics relevant to the course at all sites.

d. Simulate or present case studies, scenarios, problems and let students role play, analyze and resolve such problems with assistance and guidance from site instructor or facilitator.

e. Let students write responses to problems posed on E-mail for class discussion.

f. Promote group work on some given problems for 10-20 minutes.

g. Conduct site surveys: opinion polls on values and have the results tallied for class discussion.

h. Handout some questions to be answered during class time.

i. Let students generate questions on topics studied in class be answered during class time.

j. Encourage small group discussion with report to be presented to class

k. Control class presentation, while allowing questions and answers during such exercises.

l. Promote free speech on any topic relevant to the course to encourage participation in class.

m. Share “On Air” Internet Findings on a given problem for class discussion.

n. Report on local perception of an issue for class debate.

B. Getting Down To Business:

In his book, Teacher and Child, Haim Ginott (1972) summed up his philosophy of teaching as follows:

I have come to a frightening conclusion. I am the decisive element in the

classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my

daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher I possess tremendous power

to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or

an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In

all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be

escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or dehumanized.

If this statement holds true for teaching in general, it is even more so for tele-teaching because a lot of what instructors and students take for granted in the traditional classroom is missing in it. In his theory of transactional distance, Moore (1983) conceptualizes transactional distance as a complete system in which the student and the primary instructor are seen as two additional systems. He describes transactional distance as the function of two variables and dialogue, with the primary instructor acting as the catalyst for integration of the system. In other words, whether good teaching brings about a meaningful learning experience largely depends on the amount of the planning and execution of it in the class by the instructor. The success or failure of tele-teaching is virtually determined from its inception to its concluding stage and after. Even when the course is over, its effect will still be felt and discussed by students and other participants.

The instructional design of an ITV course should indeed begin with the instructor’s appraisal of its essence including content. Selection of course materials should give an indication of what is to be emphasized. Where there are issues of social or factual nature, or the subject matter needs conceptual treatment, the delivery approach should include some lecture to be followed by class discussion. Such lectures should not exceed a maximum of fifteen minutes at a time before it is interspersed with questions directed to students at most sites. The instructor must take advantage of every opportunity to generate discussion. When necessary, students should be asked to share their experiences or express their views on the issue under discourse. Use of simulations, case studies, scenarios and problem solving strategies could really break the monotony of a long and dry lecture. Some debate on relevant topics could also spice things up. When students at all sites are drawn into a debate on a hot issue or some hands-on activities lined up for each class, there can hardly be dull moments. As much as possible the atmosphere should encourage some personalization of interactions. For instance, a student in Danville may ask, “Will Mary in Corbin clarify what she means by saying that women are the stronger sex?”

It is a lot of fun teaching on interactive television when there are no technological glitches caused by bad weather or breakdown of equipment. Even then, the instructor must be ready for all types of emergencies. Site facilitators/instructors should be told ahead of time what to do should such occur. They should have sufficient training to round up a discussion that was going on before a sudden disruption caused by equipment happens. Such training ought include a clear and comprehensive explanation of what their responsibilities are at distance learning centers (Abrahamson, 1998). The Facilitator should see himself as an extension of the primary instructor. The instructor’s directive must be aligned with students’ requests in order to avoid confusion. The on-site facilitator/instructor must be flexible enough to fill in gaps that may exist in the primary instructor’s presentation. The responsibilities of a facilitator include taking attendance, coordinating class presentations, administering tests, tutoring, advising and providing feedback (Granger, 1995). Having the primary instructor to evaluate the job of a facilitator would increase efficiency because it creates a sense of accountability.

Test taking on interactive television could be a harrowing experience if badly handled. The availability of courier service could be helpful. But then, the instructor must make and package his tests for distribution to far sites a few days before the assigned date. If for some reason there is a delay in getting the test to any site, there might be a problem protecting examination papers from leakage or someone tampering with the process. The integrity of the site facilitator becomes even of greater importance. If a site facilitator chooses to leak your test to his friends in the class, that could be a serious breach. Returning completed test papers to the instructor may also be delayed by an unreliable courier service or the post office. Sending a copy of the test to the director of a center may be helpful. But there is no guarantee that it may not fall into wrong hands if faxed because anyone could pick it up from the machine. The entire process is fraught with loopholes that the instructor must constantly block.

In conclusion, the use of interactive television as a teaching tool may not be the panacea that some have sought for the best teaching result, but it is certainly of great value in our desire to make education available to people in remote places. While it may be an expensive tool beyond the reach of many communities, its contribution can be enormous when its users are able to adapt it to suit the needs of its beneficiaries. Curriculum goals are attainable when the technology and its accessories are adequately adapted to the learning styles of its users. As we sharpen our skills in the use of interactive television, education can be brought to the doorstep of many citizens in a more realistic way.


Abrahamson, Craig. (1998), Issues in Interactive Communications in Distance Education. College Student Journal. (March)

Batey, A. & Cowell, R. N. (1986), Distance Education: An Overview. Technology Program, Portland, Oregon: Northwest Education Laboratory.

Distance learning Today. Minnesota Satellite, 1996.

Gardner, Howard, (1991). The Unschooled, (cited in DTL, 1996).

Ginott, Haim. (1992). Teacher and Child: A handbook for Teacher and Parents. New York: The MacMillan Company.

Kollof, Fred. C. & Nelson, Kenneth. (1992). Teaching on KTLN: workshop at Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, Kentucky.

Moore, K. (1983)/Self Directed Learning and Distance Education. ZIFF Papiere 48 fern U Universitat. Hague.

Pietras, Jesse J. & Murphy, R. J. (1992). Telecommunications Infrastructure Modernization and Interactive Distance Learning in Connecticut. A Paper presented to ERIC on Rural and Small Schools.

Sample, Eileen S. (1995). Going the Long Distance. The Trader (Newsletter, Dept of Energy) Summer.

JIM NESIN OMATSEYE Eastern Kentucky University

COPYRIGHT 1999 Project Innovation (Alabama)

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group