- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Students in Gallaudet University’s English Grammar for Writers and Future Teachers class can rest easy if they miss part of a lecture.

They can go online later and download the lesson in total, down to every sign the professor and their fellow students made.

The Northeast Washington university for the deaf and hard of hearing has been using a new lecture-capture program to record some of its classroom sessions for about a year, and the program is about to expand. Initially, the technology helped students in four Gallaudet classes. Now, 20 classes operate under the Apreso system.

The technology involves a series of cameras and monitors that operate independently but in conjunction with the classroom action.

Sterling, Va.-based Anystream supplies the technology to Gallaudet as well as a number of other universities, including Temple and Arizona State. Anystream’s program automatically captures a classroom’s total audio and visual presentation, down to the PowerPoint details, and transfers the data to a university Web site.

Such technology is aimed primarily at colleges dealing with special-needs students or those who teach via distance-learning programs.

Gallaudet students enrolled in courses using the new system sit near a button that triggers the robotic cameras. Should they have a question or comment, they wait to be called upon, then press the button to direct the camera their way. Their conversations are then shot and integrated into the overall lecture.

The Apreso Classroom is the 2007 version of the microcassette recorder.

Transforming a college classroom into an Apreso-worthy one costs about $5,000 per room per year for the software, the company says. Getting the room up to technological speed is another matter. Company spokesman Matt Dornic says the system operates best with a dedicated PC and two capture cards, the latter running about $2,500.

Earl Parks, Gallaudet’s electronic-learning manager, says through a sign-language interpreter that the system gives “full control of what you want to look at.”

“You can speed it up or slow it down,” Mr. Parks says. “We have the ability to review concepts again and again, and that’s crucial for students.”

It’s even more important for Gallaudet students with a less-than-firm grasp of American Sign Language.

Each year, about 10 percent of Gallaudet’s freshman class is either struggling with American Sign Language or somewhat uncomfortable using it. That’s where the new system comes in. Students who have a hard time during class, either with understanding the material or with the signing itself, can replay the course later to comprehend it better. If they lag behind their peers in signing skills, they can slow the speed of the signing or simply read the closed captioning added to the material to understand it better.

“If they’re taking notes, they’re not focusing on what the professor is saying,” Mr. Parks says.

During a lecture-capture class, the small cameras move silently and stealthily to record both the professor’s and the students’ signing.

Two cameras are in action, one at the back of the room aimed at the professor and another at the students. When the professor moves to a “smart” board, a computerized blackboard, he or she clicks a button on the board to let the camera know to adjust its positioning accordingly. If students have questions or comments, they hit buttons in front of their seats to direct the camera in their direction. A student must wait to get the professor’s attention before signing. If he or she doesn’t, the camera will miss what is being said.

If a professor speaks as well as signs during the class, he or she is miked, and the audio is sent to a closed-captioning transcription service; the results are synchronized to the signs. If the class is taught solely via signing, a sign-language interpreter must read the signs before that synchronization measure takes place.

Anystream founder and Chairman Geoff Allen says nearly 500 Apreso Classroom packages have been installed across the globe, most in U.S.-based schools. The vast majority help universities deal with deaf or hard-of-hearing students or distance-learning scenarios.

Mr. Allen says lecture-capture technology has existed for about a decade but only in the past few years has the means to distribute it come to pass. Computer prices fell, the Internet got faster, and capture systems suddenly could depict highly detailed imagery where once they simply couldn’t.

“Now, it more closely replicates the typical classroom,” Mr. Allen says.

He says Temple University was able to eliminate some remedial math courses and replace them with captured lessons that allow students to learn the material without attending traditional classrooms.

Anystream isn’t the only company working with lecture-capture systems.

Lectopia, developed at the University of Western Australia, and Sonic Foundry’s Mediasite offer similar systems for participating colleges.

At the University of Massachusetts, officials were seeking to improve student-retention rates with the Calculus 1 course, says Mike Lucas, coordinator of distance learning at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

“It’s a feeder class for the engineering programs,” Mr. Lucas says.

At first, university workers shot classroom lectures with conventional cameras, but the results were clunky and often missed the finer details of what professors wrote during the class.

“They could hear the lecture and see it, but if there was small text on the screen it was unreadable,” Mr. Lucas says.

Enter lecture-capture technology.

“Students were overwhelmingly positive about the system. They wish they had it available for more classes,” he says of the first use of the Apreso system in a class, which holds up to 250 students.

Attendance did drop by 4 percent for that initial class, as students figured whatever they missed live they could catch up with later, but Mr. Lucas says the system can integrate attendance records with site access to prevent a mass exodus of students.

An informal survey confirmed that the program has produced fewer failed students and higher grades overall, he says.

Mr. Lucas would like the downloaded lectures to be searchable, an option Mr. Allen says is forthcoming.

“The only thing inhibiting it is the cost,” Mr. Lucas says. “We have a lot of faculty that would like to buy in.”

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