"Development of Portable Multimedia Content for Secondary At-Risk Learning: The Handheld Lecture" – May 2008


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Boulder Preparatory High School serves a wide range of students; drastically different skill, motivational, attendance, and age factors join together in the same classrooms. Two major obstacles to learner success are transient attendance rates and difficulty processing information. Students frequently miss presentation of critical course information or lack comprehension at first exposure to new or complex information. The development of accessible multimedia can ameliorate these problems, reduce instructor workload and improve course evaluative data. Boulder Preparatory High School can utilize capture programs such as Camtasia or SnagIt, in conjunction with Microsoft Powerpoint and webcam technology, to create recorded versions of live lectures. These lectures can be accessed asynchronously by students via course websites or downloaded to handheld media devices. This technology should not replace live lecture but can be used to catch up on missed material or repeat lecture information in a different format for improved understanding. Initial trials will be conducted during a World Geography course that utilizes a blended learning environment. Whiteboard lectures will be converted to Powerpoint or recorded video lectures, then offered to students online. Evaluation of students will maintain same methods, however course evaluations will consider student completion, understanding and reported satisfaction with new technology.
The Learners

Boulder Preparatory High School is a public, college preparatory at-risk high school in the Boulder Valley School District. Its student population consists almost entirely of transfer students from other high schools. Reasons for attending Boulder Prep vary widely: expulsion or suspension for behavioral problems; truancy issues; judicial system involvement and referral; compromised sense of safety through bullying or harassment; cultural or socioeconomic ostracism; and various unique personality traits that do not mesh well with the traditional public school environment.

Knowing as much about the target audience as possible is critical to success when designing course curricula (Piskurich 311). The aforementioned differences create a remarkably heterogeneous learning environment. Furthermore, the school size does not permit typical segregation of students by merit; learners with severely limited capacities often share classrooms with advanced students, as do a variety of ages and personal backgrounds. Course curriculum is always individualized to each student’s unique needs and abilities.

Attendance is a major hindrance to effective student learning for much of our population. The factors which contribute to student absence are as diverse as our student body—lifestyle choices, economic needs and legal obligations are just a few examples of obstacles to regular attendance. It is not uncommon for even the youngest learners to have jobs which contribute to their family’s basic financial needs. Court appearances occur only during regular school hours. Insomnia, psychological prescriptions, and amotivational traits all affect a learner’s attendance.

Another major obstacle to learner success stems from difficulty processing new information. Attentional disorders are extremely common within the population, sometimes accompanied by medications that worsen retention rates. Elicit drug and alcohol use occur at an epidemic rate among the population, with both the onset of drug use and the absence of a preferred addictive substance causing problems with comprehension.

These learners face very similar challenges to those encountered by adult learners. These students often lead very ‘adult’ lives and approach learning in a similar manner. Burge states that “adults want and need to feel in control and able to secure ‘just-in-time’ (that is timely, not ‘just-in-case’) help” (90). Indeed, material relevance is critical to learner success at BoulderPreparatory High School, but even more critical is access to “whatever works best for them” (Burge 90).
The Technology

Currently implemented technology varies by classroom and instructor. Several instructors utilize Microsoft Powerpoint and other multimedia resources during their face-to-face lectures. The vast majority of courses are delivered live and synchronous, although a few offered via independent study and the existing computer lab allow for more asynchronous learning.

Developing portable and online versions of live lectures would allow students to access course materials at their own pace or during times outside of the scheduled class. Physically separating the learner and instructor and allowing media to act as the intermediary (Burge 7) is not a new concept; every homework assignment, from fiction novel chapter reading to math worksheets is a use of learning technology. Offering Boulder Prep students access to recorded lectures would present the same challenges of any homework assignment: learners would have more independence, need a greater sense of responsibility, and would need to know how to use and access the technology. Clearly understanding expectations and maintaining motivation also become more difficult when instructors and learners do not have direct contact (Burge 8).

Boulder Prep’s current pedagogical philosophy contends that “learners need to develop individual competence, but within a context of effective participation in groups and communities” (Burge 82). Therefore, there is a philosophical resistance to independent learning when it contributes to learner isolation or seclusion. This proposed plan would not interfere with the sense of community belonging. Instead, the recommended technology implementation would actually encourage group participation, as absentee students or slow learners would no longer feel “out of the loop” on current classroom lecture materials. Recorded video lectures offer some students a chance to catch up and others the opportunity to see the information multiple times or under different conditions.

Fortunately, the technology infrastructure for this proposal already exists. No current instructional methods would be eliminated to make room for this new addition. Instructors who utilize Powerpoint presentations will easily be able to convert their lectures into portable formats. While more editing and preparation time would be required, this technology can also replace or substitute for whiteboard lectures.
The Costs and Benefits

Initial software costs will be minimal; the educational package prices for programs like Camtasia and SnagIt are very reasonable. Webcams are rapidly becoming ubiquitous and inexpensive. Lecture archives can be stored easily on the school website with no additional cost. To obtain the necessary tools to begin this project, less than $500 will be required.

Instructors who wish to adopt this proposal will be required to devote the necessary time for software training and authoring of their lectures. Additional hours will be required to upload portable media to the website. Special attention to issues of learner elicitation (Piskurich 258) will be necessary during course design to reduce incidence of learner confusion. Once course design is complete, however, the time needed to record should not exceed one or two additional hours of preparation per lecture, however time required will vary widely with the complexity of the authoring task (Piskurich 324).

Once the portable lectures are uploaded and accessible, however, overall classroom management economy will be significantly improved. Instructors can choose to continue delivering new material because alternatives are available for students who are behind. Extra hours outside of the classroom typically devoted to reviewing material with absentees can instead be used for improvements of design and evaluation. Learner’s “lost time” spent with substitute teachers will be virtually eliminated with the availability of online lectures.

Looking deeper into possibilities, these multimedia lectures may encourage instructors to step back from their usual roles as the Subject Matter Expert and introduce similar lectures from world renowned SMEs. Universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and University of California at Berkeley have begun uploading many of their best instructors’ lectures for free online access through a project entitled the Open Courseware Consortium.
The Timeline

First pilot lectures were created using a free trial version of Camtasia. The project began with a World Geography course which takes place in a blended learning environment that combines frequent internet and computer use with whiteboard lectures. Students access most of the classroom materials through a course wiki site. This site contains all necessary information regarding assignments, progress reports, important upcoming dates, etc. The only information not available via the internet comes from live whiteboard lectures on geopolitical topics from around the world.

Piskurich suggests that learner involvement during the developmental stages of authoring can improve overall efficacy of the program (105). Following this idea, World Geography students chose three of their favorite lectures from the course and assisted the instructor with the design of Powerpoint presentations of the material. Photographs, maps and diagrams previously unavailable during the whiteboard lecture enhanced the presentations. Students offered their own voices for narration and uploaded the lectures as streaming video plug-ins on the course wiki site. Links to the lectures in MP4 format, viewable on video-equipped iPods, were also included.

In the next month, the pilot lectures will be presented to the Boulder Prep administration and a budget request will be made. If accepted, all lectures from this course will be authored into portable formats over the next few months. Continued student involvement will be encouraged. Future offerings of the course will evaluate learner response and instructor economy.

With approval of the administration, the results of this pilot project will then be presented to the faculty. Over the next twelve months, instructors will receive software training and begin authoring their own lectures as needed.

Looking further into the future, these archived portable lectures can serve learners who must serve criminal sentences, take leaves of medical absence, take maternity leave, etc. Our current independent study program, which suffers the usual troubles with lacking motivation and understanding, could potentially benefit from this plan.
Concerns & Considerations

“Learners, especially those participating from home, may not have the access to the range of technology that we might expect…competing needs for online access from home may produce conflict” (Burge 42). Many of the learners that would benefit most from portable lecture media do not have computers or handheld media devices. While this plan will work for many, especially those dedicated enough to seek out the resources they need either after school, at a library, or through other family members and friends, the proposal may fail to reach some learners.

“E-learning is a single event solution that supports skills and knowledge improvement. It is not a solution for complex performance problems that require multiple actions in the work environment to solve” (Piskurich 371). These lectures can only serve as an alternative form of content delivery. Video and slideshows serve this purpose well but do not necessarily enhance higher level functioning or advanced cognitive skills (Piskurich 261). Therefore, while this portable media technology will hopefully someday enhance an already weak independent study program, many additional hours of design and evaluation will be required to do so.

Individual student evaluations, at first, will remain identical. This allows instructors to determine success rates of the newly implemented technology. Further use, however, would dictate the need for interaction during the portable lectures to elicit learner understanding. Software programs like Camtasia allow authoring to include elements such as quizzes during lecture.

Perhaps more important than learner evaluations, recorded lectures will allow instructors the opportunity to evaluate their own delivery methods and revise techniques for improved instruction. Self-awareness that may be lacking during live lectures can inhibit overall success; recorded lectures offer an important element of constructive criticism to an instructor’s quiver of tools.

Course evaluations are paramount to determining the success of this plan. “The definition of success depends upon the reason for implementing the project in the first place” (Piskurich 380). Evaluation will determine if absentee students are demonstrating improved performance. Individual student evaluations will contribute data regarding content understanding and overall course satisfaction. Access statistics (how often students use the technology), coupled with improved grades and increased knowledge retention, will ultimately determine the proposal’s success.

Individualized learning is a keystone element to instruction at Boulder Preparatory High School. Various factors inhibit learner success, most notably attendance and faulty comprehension. The introduction of supplemental materials in a portable or online-accessible format can reduce these problems and improve learning, reduce instructor workload and potentially enhance the independent study program. Boulder Prep has proven itself a very successful college preparatory program for at-risk youth. The organizational culture, technology infrastructure and instructor readiness (Piskurich 72-73) are all ripe for this opportunity.

Burge, Elizabeth J. ed. 2000. The strategic use of learning technologies. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 88. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Open Courseware Consortium. Accessed May 24, 2008. Home page. http://www.ocwconsortium.org/

Piskurich, George M. ed. 2003. The AMA handbook of e-learning: effective design, implementation, and technology solutions. New York: AMACOM.

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