October 9, 2013

Long-Distance Classes Take Cornell

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For most Cornell professors, the commute to work is an easy trip from their homes in Ithaca. But, over the past few years, telecommuting and videoconferencing has made it possible for some professors to live and travel outside of Ithaca while teaching Cornell classes.

Some professors live in a different city and teach classes remotely for an entire semester. Other professors have reaped the benefits of telecommuting while traveling away from Ithaca during the semester for shorter durations, such as when attending conferences elsewhere, according to Barbara Friedman ’81, assistant director of the Academic Technology Center.

WebEx — a Cisco program that allows students to video chat with their professor and other students and view PowerPoint presentations that the professor has uploaded — is frequently used by professors who are only out of class temporarily, according to Friedman.

This strategy allows faculty to continue to teach, rather than having teaching assistants step in, which “[maintains] the continuity of the class,” Friedman said.

This can be especially beneficial when professors are in locations that are of interest to students or relevant to the topic at hand, Friedman added.

Prof. Angela Gonzales, development sociology, has been using WebEx this semester to continue teaching Development Sociology 4100: “Health and Survival Inequalities” while conducting research in Arizona.

“I wanted some way to actually teach my class while I was gone instead of inviting a guest lecturer or showing a film to fill the time I would be away,” Gonzales said.

According to Gonzales, students were allowed to attend class from anywhere they had an Internet connection. Gonzales said that, while she experienced some technical difficulties with the program — for example, some students were unable to log in and watch lectures — it was a generally positive experience.

“I think it’s hugely beneficial to both instructors and students. That said, I’m not sure I would would ever teach a course entirely online,” she said. “Having this as an option allows me to meaningfully engage in teaching when I need to be away.”

Beyond videoconferencing software itself, some schools at Cornell — including the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and the Johnson Graduate School of Management — have classrooms with built-in videoconferencing technology that are specifically designed for professors to telecommute.

Friedman said the classrooms are equipped with microphones and cameras that make distance learning operate more smoothly.

One class held in a specialized distance learning classroom is ILR Organizational Behavior 4203: “Pragmatics of Leadership,” taught by Prof. Sam Bacharach, industrial and labor relations, who is based in New York City.

The class takes place in a distance learning classroom in Ives Hall, where Bacharach lectures to both a group of interns in New York City and students in Ithaca. The class lectures on Mondays and students meet with teaching assistants on Fridays. “[The class] surprisingly does not differ much from my classes with professors in the room other than that lecture is only once a week,” Bianca Rodriguez ’15, a student in Bacharach’s class said. “At first I figured the lecture part of the class would be like any other, with lots of one-way communication with the professor lecturing the material at you. But Professor Bacharach really tries to have both the students in Ithaca and the ones with him in the city engage in all the lectures.”

Students in the class each have microphones at their respective seats that allow them to communicate directly with Bacharach. The classroom also contains two screens, so that the professor and his presentation can be viewed at the same time.

Bacharach said he tries to make sure the class is especially engaging by creating visual aids and bringing in guest speakers like Rob Manfred ’80, the assistant commissioner of Major League Baseball, and Doug Braunstein ’83, the former Chief Financial Officer of J.P. Morgan.

Students in the class are usually given the opportunities to ask questions of the speakers and participate in discussions with them in order to help them engage in the content, Bacharach said.

“We keep it highly interactive,” Bacharach said. “I’m trying to achieve the combination of video teaching with intimacy. I get very excited about it.” Michael Haflett, a Distance Learning and Classroom Technologies coordinator for ILR, said Bacharach is one of a number of professors who use distance learning technology in the school.

He said, in his opinion, these professors can “energize a classroom full of students regardless of where they are.”