Telepresence: Distance Learning with Students in Class
This article was written in collaboration with Jacky Boucher, Academic Dean, Collège O'Sullivan de Québec
Telepresence is a type of online learning. In fact, it is more aptly described as an improved videoconference that tries to replicate face-to-face communication without the constraint of students and teachers having to be in the same room.
When we think of online learning or distance learning, we imagine the students on their computer at home listening to a synchronous or asynchronous presentation by a teacher. What makes Jacky Boucher’s pilot study interesting is that in the telepresence approach the students are in school, sitting together in a classroom and the teacher is at home or in a workplace. Why is this approach appealing to colleges and their students?
Students in a telepresence classroom in one city with a teacher in another city.
Response to a Problem
This project at O’Sullivan College in Quebec City came as a solution to a recruitment problem for specialised teachers in the 3D Animation Program where students learn to design video games, special effects and computer generated imagery. For some very specific software, recruitment of teachers became an issue, as not many experts in the field were interested in or available to teach in Quebec City. Jacky came up with the idea of recruiting in Montreal. He was more likely to find someone because 90% of the manpower in this field in the province work there. With LinkedIn and various contacts he found people who were interested, available and agreed to teach as long as they did not have to waste time on a commute.
Finding the Appropriate Technology
Jacky then needed to install the technology that enabled a teacher from one city to teach a group of students in a classroom in another city. Another important consideration was that it is important for the students in this program to learn to collaborate and that is why the College had them come together in same classroom. The objective was to find a system that enabled students to see and hear what the teacher was presenting but also to be able to interact with each other in real time.
O’Sullivan College decided to integrate a combination of audio and visual hardware into an already existing infrastructure (a computer lab). A system of networking hardware and telecommunications equipment consisting in a wide screen, video cameras, microphones and speakers was installed in the lab. Thanks to this high tech teleconference system the teacher could do pretty much everything that teachers can do in a classroom:
- Share his computer screen
- See students raise a hand for a question
- Hear students if they are speaking amongst themselves
- Remotely control the students’ desktops
From his workplace, the teacher appears on a wide screen. The camera on the right is trained on the classroom.
To make sure that the students would receive all of the necessary support because the teacher would not, physically, be in class, Jacky hired a teaching assistant. During the class if there were any questions or needs for support there was someone on site to work alongside the teacher and help the students.
Jacky believes you cannot underestimate the importance of building a relationship between the teacher and the students for any online course to succeed. That is why to launch the project he asked the teacher to come to the Quebec City campus to meet the students and TA. The first 6 hours of class for the semester would take place in the classroom; with everyone physically present, face-to-face, in order to get to know each other.
How it Worked
During the fall 2017 semester the college offered 2 classes taught by telepresence. Here we will be talking about the 60-hour course in 3D Animation. The main object of the course is for students to learn how to use very specialised software to create video games. Here are some of the strategies that were used at various times during the course:
- The teacher shared his desktop on the wide screen to provide an overview of the step-by-step procedure to perform a task.
- A video camera fed a picture of the classroom to the teacher so that when a student raised their hand to ask a question the teacher could see them and respond.
- The students were assigned learning activities. The teacher used Moodle to structure the learning, provide tutorials as well as forums to compile the students’ questions. There was no hard copy of documents everything was on Moodle.
- The teacher used Team Viewer, a free tool, to remotely access a student’s computer. This technology allows the teacher to monitor the students’ work. For example, when the teaching assistant was not able to answer a question or if the student wanted some help with an exercise, the teacher could access the student’s desktop and see exactly what the student was doing.
- A college license for NetSupport was made available so that from home, the teacher could take control of all of the computers in the class and blank the students’ screens for example. The features of NetSupport also allow the teacher to share his or a student’s desktop with all or selected students. The teacher can use the desktop as a whiteboard.
- There are many advantages to online learning in general, but for this program Jacky insisted on using the telepresence approach so that together in class the students would acquire an important skill for their future career: collaboration. Students collaborated on group projects and helped each other.
The teacher shares his desktop on the wide screen to provide an overview of the step-by-step procedure.
Advantages of Telepresence
A definite advantage of telepresence is the possibility of having an expert from the industry teach a class. The 3D Animation students of O’Sullivan College found it very cool this session to attend a class given by a person from RodeoFX, the visual effects company behind various blockbusters such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Blade Runner 2049. The students were happy to get first hand insight on their future career from a teacher from the real team working on the Game of Thrones series. Jacky would never have been able to get a teacher with that level of expertise to take time off work to come into the college. This system accommodates both the college and the teacher.
Another benefit of the telepresence experience is for the students to simulate the future workplace environment for video game developers who have to collaborate on projects with colleagues from California, Paris, New York, etc. Online meetings are becoming more frequent in large companies. For the students, learning how to use networking technology is definitely an asset.
The telepresence installations at O’Sullivan College will be used by other groups of students to host guest speakers from various industries. All the teacher has to do is give a password to the guest speaker who will be able to log on from anywhere on the planet. With additional licences, the students could log on from home to hear the conference.
Drawbacks of Telepresence
- A teacher who is new to this kind of teaching has to learn to manage the content, the exercises but also the various software.
- Because the teacher isn’t constantly in visual contact with the students it could take a little more time for the teacher to notice that a student has a question to ask, then he has to give the student the right to use the microphone.
- As in all classes, sometimes the students start talking amongst themselves and the teacher has to maintain a certain control. The teacher wears a headset and if it gets noisy in class the teacher has to intervene at a distance.
- Concerning the lines of communication between the teacher and the students, Jacky says, “You need to plan certain things to make sure a relationship develops between you and the students. You have to do some things differently, you have to compensate or bridge the gap created by the physical distance. All of the one-on-one communication skills you developed over the years when you are online you have to find other ways to connect individually with the students.”
Overall, because the students seemed to be involved and to learn as if the teacher was physically with them in the classroom, the advantages of telepresence largely outweigh the drawbacks and Jacky will definitely be hiring other experts to teach specialised classes at O’Sullivan College.