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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

H1N1 absences lead to creative teaching methods

Published: September 25, 2009
Section: Features

video killed the lecturer: Anthropology professor Mark Auslander experimented with iChat video conferencing as part of his efforts to use new media to include students too ill to come to class. <br /><i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

video killed the lecturer: Anthropology professor Mark Auslander experimented with iChat video conferencing as part of his efforts to use new media to include students too ill to come to class.
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

Dealing with the occasional sick student’s absence from class is no new phenomenon for many college professors, so much so we often don’t even give it a second thought. Fall arrives, bringing with it a plethora of itchy throats and runny noses, and soon sick students are fleeing the classroom like leaves falling off trees.

And this fall is no different. Only it is. This fall, in addition to the common cold and the seasonal flu, we’re facing the new H1N1 pandemic and the possibility that unprecedented numbers of sick students will be leaving the classroom for the safe confines of quarantine.

So far, most of the discussion about the H1N1 virus has centered on addressing students’ physical ailments when and if the flu pandemic hits Brandeis. We’re well accustomed to dealing with sickness on the health end of things – large boxes of masks in residence halls and the out-the-door line of people clamoring for flu shots at the health center are evidence of that. But what happens to the academic aspect of students’ lives while they’re in quarantine? And have we really considered how sickness affects educational progression?

This new flu strain is posing new medical as well as pedagogical problems, causing professors to debate the best way to deal with the reality of fewer students in class and more at home or in quarantine.

Brandeis’ default solution to this problem is LATTE, Brandeis’ online learning environment. Using LATTE, students can have online chats similar to instant messaging, thereby including them in discussions from afar.

But some Brandeis professors are putting their collegiate critical thinking skills to good use, digging deeper to discover new ways to include sick students – quarantined due to H1N1 – in classroom conversations. Jumping on the technological bandwagon, several professors are turning to methods like online video conferencing to maintain a certain degree of face-to-face contact with sick students.

Professor Mark Auslander (ANTH) is one such forward-thinking professor. An avid Twitter user, Auslander’s extracurricular and curricular interests make him the perfect candidate for such innovation.

“I’ve [been] interested in the use of social media in teaching for a long time,” he says.

Even so, Auslander only recently started thinking seriously about its potential use in the context of H1N1-related absences. It was the beginning of the school year and one of Auslander’s students emailed him to say she wasn’t feeling well. Since Brandeis rules prohibit students who’ve had a fever over 100 degrees in the last 24 hours from coming on campus, this student was concerned she’d miss out on the interactive nature of her seminar while she was out sick.

“[The fact] that she might miss out, that just seemed a shame,” Auslander said.

It was this situation that really got the wheels turning for Auslander: “Immediately I thought, ‘Well maybe we should all be thinking about [ways to include sick students in classroom discussions].’”

An anthropology professor, Auslander has always been interested in the idea of quarantine. Historically, he says, quarantine has been used to stigmatize and discriminate against certain groups of people. Because of this sensitive history, Auslander is approaching the current H1N1 threat with caution.

“Nobody on the Brandeis campus would ever [stigmatize quarantined students] consciously,” he says. “But unconsciously we want to make sure that students who have to be off campus for five to 10 days still feel like they’re fully parts of the community.”

The simplest option to keep sick students up to date with lectures, Auslander says, is to stream the contents of a class online. It’s certainly the easiest option, he says, but one that also comes with a few necessary precautions. First, in order to preserve privacy, professors would need to post class contents to a password-protected website such as Brandeis’ secure network wormhole. Second, professors need to consider copyright rules when posting certain content online.

“The advantage of [streaming class contents online] is that [the student] can at least watch what’s happening in the class,” Auslander says. “But then the question is ‘How do they participate back?’”

One answer? Via video conferencing.

Students with Macintosh computers can use iChat, a form of two-way video conferencing similar to instant messaging. Other computers equipped with web cameras can use Skype video conferencing.

While a useful option, joining classroom discussions via video chatting can sometimes seem like a daunting task for the student being videoed in. This is due to communication problems – students have difficulty getting the attention of a classroom engrossed in conversation – and problems of insecurity – sick students might not feel they’re looking their physical best.

Auslander’s Cross-Cultural Art and Aesthetics class discovered this last week when they experimented in class with iChat. The class chatted for 10 minutes with Auslander’s former student, Bryce Peake ’08, who is now at the University of Oregon. Peake participated in the test run from his out-of-state office.

Peake, who graduated from Brandeis’ Cultural Studies master’s program last year, was one of Auslander’s advisees. While at Brandeis, Peake studied, among other things, technology and new media. He also did an internship in techno-pedagogy and participatory media at Brandeis.

As an anthropologist, Peake regularly uses iChat and skype to communicate with friends and family while he’s outside of the country. But he says the experience he derived from this experiment was very different from his normal use of iChat.

In a typical iChat, Peake says, the two participants are most likely alone in their respective offices or rooms. In other words, there’s not much to distract the participants or make them feel isolated. In a classroom, however, students benefit from personal interaction and discussion. And joining in on this conversation can sometimes feel like butting in on a private conversation.

“It’s kind of complicated. Because on one hand it’s a really isolating experience because you personally are just sitting in a room [alone],” he says. “I was the only one [in my office], and there was this whole other world on the screen that somehow I was a part of.”

Having your voice amplified by speakers in the classroom, attached to the computer, can feel a bit weird, Peake says: “It’s kind of a strange experience because you’re the only one who’s a floating head on a computer screen and you’ve got this weird dominance in the room.”

In spite of its drawbacks, though, Peake says video conferencing is still a better option than the more impersonal LATTE option.

In any case, Auslander says the help of professors and fellow students will be essential to making these new methods a success. In some instances, he says professors should even consider electing a student liaison in the classroom to monitor the quarantined students on the computer, letting the professor know when they have a comment to make.

Because of this extra factor, Auslander says this method won’t work at every school: “I don’t think this would work at every school, but at Brandeis where the students are just always amazing about helping each other out, I think it might work.”

Just like these distance learning alternatives wouldn’t work at every school, Auslander says it’s important to realize that the best option for one class at any given school won’t be the best option for the next class. The ideal solution hinges on several factors: the size of the class and how many students are out at any given time, the personality of the student in quarantine, and the faculty member’s grasp on the technology involved.

Professor Tim Hickey (COSI) has also experimented with novel teaching methods in his classes and has even developed collaborative software with his graduate students.

“I have been interested in computer-mediated communication for several years,” he wrote in an email to The Hoot.

In his Introduction to 3-D Animation – a class of around 100 students – Hickey has experimented with screen recordings of class lectures to accommodate students who might have missed a lecture or two. He edits the lecture into smaller pieces and plans on posting them to a Web site in the near future. While this option poses potential technical problems due to large video files, Hickey is confident it will work.

Hickey’s class has also experimented with the LATTE chat function, but he found it doesn’t work as well for students not in class. Because of this, like Auslander, he’s interested in exploring iChat or skype for classes with smaller numbers of students.

In the future, Hickey would like to try out a software program called Dimdim in class. Using this software – free for groups of 20 or less – up to 20 people can share a desktop, allowing them to simultaneously view PowerPoint presentations, pdfs and shared web browsers.

“The idea would be to use this tool to present a lecture on the projection screen and to have up to 20 absent students watch the lecture from their homes or dorms or hotels,” Hickey explained.

Hickey is also interested in using new wiki-like technology currently being developed, such as that of Brandeis professor Richard Alterman (COSI) and graduate student Johann Larusson.

There are surely a lot of possibilities for professors to consider. But just because this type of distance learning has positive aspects, Auslander says, that doesn’t mean we should become too dependent on it.

“There’s always the danger with distance learning that we become too passive and we’re not learning together,” he says. “Real learning takes place when people are engaged in a voyage of [mutual] self discovery…We have to engage in a creative discovery together. So sometimes the technology can help; sometimes it can stand in the way.”

Nonetheless, both Auslander and Peake think experimentation is worth the while. Experimentation with iChat and skype could lead to improved technology in the future, Peake says.

“I think it’s a good way to start thinking about [distance learning],” he says. “There are a lot of drawbacks to it, of course, but the only way that we’re going to get to the point where we have software that can actually do a good job at facilitating this distance learning is by doing things with iChat and skype and figuring out where the limitations are and where these things excel at and then expanding on them.”

After all, this isn’t just a temporary fix to deal with our latest fear – H1N1. Rather, Auslander and other professors are also looking into the long-term possibilities of using such technology. Including Brandeis students who are studying abroad in the occasional on-campus discussion is just one of many possibilities.

“So it’s not only an H1N1 question, it’s [related to] a lot of our global learning as well,” he says.

Peake agrees, saying people should be open to the use of new media as a form of classroom communication. “On top of using to communicate with students who have been quarantined for the H1N1, it’s also a good way to think about bringing communities that you don’t have immediate access to into the classroom,” he says. “It’s a good way to break down the barrier between the academy and the community.”

Auslander says he and Hickey will probably hold a workshop in early October to discuss the various forms of interactive technology at a distance.

These alternatives to in class learning are completely optional, Auslander says, and should only be used if the student is up to it: “For those who are really sick and just need to be getting better, they shouldn’t be bothered with having to connect into class, of course. But for those who feel well enough…and they’re really invested in the conversation, I think it would be great if we could include them in some way.”