Digital Teaching Promises to Improve Grades

Technology in the classroom is not about putting a computer on everybody’s desk anymore. It’s about getting the right software so students can absorb the information universities and schools are teaching.

Given all the high-tech help available, increasingly students may find it tough to explain why they can’t maintain a 4.0 grade point average.

One of many tools now on the market is “lecture capture technology.” It aims to provide students with a “blended learning” experience that integrates classroom learning with digital content accessible from anywhere

The software comes from Echo360, a Dulles, Virginia based company. It’s used by more than 1 million students in 30 countries, says chief executive Fred Singer, who promises that instructors can “mix face-to-face interaction and online classroom review to promote academic retention and improve grades.”

He believes lecture capture is “an incredible opportunity to impact modern learning.”

Instructors at Georgetown University’s medical and nursing schools and science and humanities classes have been using Echo360 technology for the past two years. Janet Russell at Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship agrees with Singer’s assessment. The uninspired label “lecture capture,” she says, fails to convey the disruptive potential of this tool.

At its most basic, lecture capture does exactly that: captures audio or video recordings of classroom lectures. “When I was in graduate school, students used to put recorders in front of lecturers to capture everything they said,” Russell says. “That’s a basic function of this, but it can also be used in very innovative ways.”

For instance, the tool can organize a lecture into chapters, index accompanying images, videos, and whiteboard demonstrations, and highlight the most important points for scholars to zero in on at exam time. The content is compiled into a synchronized package that students can either replay in full or skip to and revisit exact points as often as they need to.

Professors, meanwhile, can use the software to animate their markup of students’ papers, recording verbal comments and tracking the cursor as they annotate and assign a grade.

Russell says giving face-to-face feedback to students is still crucial, but “depending on how big your class is, you’re often only going to do that for one draft.” Now she uses Echo360 to record comments on second drafts to offers students a “high touch” experience. “They see and hear me responding to their work in a way that feels personal,” Russell says. “If I crack a little joke, or if my dog barks , that personalizes the experience and that’s valuable. That’s different from getting a piece of paper with illegible handwriting on it.”

Another Georgetown professor uses Echo360 to present case studies to medical students. Russell explains, “She captures herself drawing freehand on a digital smartboard, for instance, on an image of the human intestines.” Students can use the movie as a study aid outside of class.

All of that “captured” content can be delivered, at no cost to students, through course management software or simply by email. Students view digital files just as they would YouTube videos.

Though she’s more interested in the pedagogical implications of the tools, Russell says Georgetown and other schools were first drawn to lecture capture as an “academic continuity” solution. If the H1N1 flu virus or a weather event prevents  students and faculty from getting to class or moving around campus, Echo 360 provides an answer.

In other words, administrators see the technologies as a way to protect revenues from the impact of mass absenteeism.

Of course, if classroom content is available digitally, why go to class at all?

In fact, says Russell, “many faculty are immediately afraid of students not coming to class. ‘Why would they come if they can just replay me?’ they ask.” But according to Georgetown’s Center for Learning philosophy, “classroom time is not just a stand and deliver time,” she says. “There’s plenty of data that show if you’re employing a tool like Echo 360, attendance does not need to drop at all,” Russell reports. “Even good distance learning classes where you never see students fact-to-face usually have a synchronous component,” she says. “This is an asynchronous tool. You do want to have some live interaction with students.”

Echo360 boss Fred Singer emphasizes that his company’s tool is not designed to replace the exchange between teacher and student, because an instructor’s excitement can’t be replicated by technology. Instead, he says, the tool is meant to “allow schools to do more with less.”

Motivated by recent studies that show the high impact of research-based experiences on learning, Georgetown now employs Echo360 to expose more students in large lectures and general education courses to research.

What about Singer’s claim that the technology can improve grades? Though Georgetown is still in a pilot phase, Russell says a statistics professor in the School of Foreign Service has tracked a steady rise in average grades among students since he began employing lecture capture. And for faculty, Russell says, “this is going to help their teaching right now and eases them into the new world of hybrid and distance learning.”

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