At Japan's Hosei University, Professor Tashikazu Takao writes the words "Synoptic Gospels" on a digital whiteboard. The board can detect his pen movements and then digitally transmit the data in real-time to a screen in UC Davis' Olsen Hall. "This is real secret agent stuff," explains Bill Sykes, a technician from Classroom Technology Services. Impressive as the technology is, this isn't a James Bond movie, but rather, "Humanities 250: Christianity in Japan during the Asian-Pacific War and the Post-War Period," taught live to UC Davis students by a professor in Tokyo, Japan.
As class begins, the UC Davis students scan each of the four large monitors that hang around the classroom. Two display the UC Davis classroom and the other two focus on the professor sitting at his desk in Japan. In the front of the room a huge screen displays PowerPoint presentations by students from both locations and also displays what the professor writes on his digital whiteboard. "Can someone define the word canon?" asks professor Takao. The camera angle immediately switches to a live shot of the Japanese college students, who are uniformed and seated in rows. In stark contrast to the informal feeling of the UC Davis classroom, the Japanese classroom is a bright white auditorium glowing with halogen lights.
Bill Sykes quietly moves in and out of the room throughout the class, changing camera angles, monitoring connections, and even setting up additional hardware for an upcoming videoconference that will be transmitted to China. When everything is stable, he heads down to the basement where he can monitor all videoconferences taking place, and even troubleshoot them remotely if need be.
Indeed, one can expect some problems to arise when trying to sync this wide array of techno-gadgets. Professor Tashikazu accidentally misspells a word on the digital whiteboard. "It's very difficult for me to erase this," he says, shrugging with a chuckle at the camera. Later on, Davis loses the stream of Japan's PowerPoint presentation, but Bill Sykes has it back within minutes.
To make sure the class runs smoothly, the operation requires a team effort. And it is easy to see why the teams go to all the trouble. The result of topnotch technology and teamwork is astounding. The audio and video quality of videoconferencing has greatly improved since its inception. What used to be delayed and choppy pictures mixed with fuzzy audio that did not sync, is now real-time video synced to pristine audio. Interaction between universities becomes a pleasant and enjoyable collaboration.
Although Humanities 250 sounds like a one-of-a-kind course, there are typically four or five videoconferencing courses taking place around UC Davis each quarter. Departments taking advantage of the service include Animal Sciences, Economics, Nutrition, Biological Sciences, and many others.
The beauty of distance learning is in the multicultural nature of collaboration. In exchange for Professor Takao's class, UC Davis offered a class on violence in American culture for Japanese and UC Davis students. The course was developed after being specifically requested by Hosei University.
Even though Professor Takao is on the other side of the world, it doesn't mean he is unable to give UC Davis students their fair share of homework. Since it is difficult to find the same textbooks in both Japan and the United States, Takao relies on handouts for student reading. Before the videoconferencing class is over for the day, teaching assistants in Davis pass out a thick photocopied handout, "A History of Christianity in Japan," by Otis Cary, to be read before the extraordinary -- and yet surprisingly ordinary -- trans-Pacific experience repeats in just a few days.
For a taste of distance-learning at its finest, consider dropping in to see the live action for yourself. You won't be di sappointed.Videoconferencing
Instructors interested in collaborating with universities across the world, or having colleagues in remote locations speak to their classes via a video feed, should contact Classroom Technology Services (CTS) to discuss options for incorporating these novel forms of technology into future classes. The service is free for any instructor whose course is listed with the registrar, and is available on a first come, first served basis. Videoconferencing for other purposes is also available on a recharge basis. Contact CTS regarding videoconferencing at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 752-3553. More information is also available at cts.ucdavis.edu/services/vtc.html.