The “Video-Conferential Equation”
The idea of videoconferencing at Yeshiva University emerged a few years ago at the highest levels of the academic administration. The purpose of the initiative was to address several problems, primarily the distance between the Wilf and Beren campuses. On paper, videoconferencing appears to be an ideal solution to the problem of similar courses, sometimes taught at the same time, on both campuses. However, video-conferenced classes require a very important investment in both equipment and technological staff.
Pros and Cons of Video-Conferenced Classes at YU
The principle benefit of videoconferencing is to offer courses that would otherwise be impossible. For instance, in Spring 2011, seventeen students were enrolled in the Mathematical Statistics class at Wilf campus, a higher-level math course geared towards those in the pre-Actuarial track. Only one student was registered for that class at Beren Campus. To address this issue, the class was videoconferenced. The professor was in regular contact with the student at Beren and, according to the Mathematics department, the student was not bothered by this type of class setting. In the fall of 2011, there was a similar situation. In both cases, the technology worked flawlessly according to Dr. Thomas Otway, Professor of Mathematics, and former chair of the department at Wilf Campus. Without videoconferencing, it would have been financially impossible to run two similar classes in both campuses.
Nevertheless, video-conferenced classes had several inconveniences. First, the instructor is not present physically. Students have said that the lack of the professor’s physical presence has made the classes less serious. The original format of the class could also bother some students that are used to learn in a typical class environment. Further, it constitutes an issue regarding the quizzes and exams: How will they receive the exams? Who will observe the students in the video-conferenced class? Finally, the success of video-conferenced classes is highly dependent on the technology working properly.
Video-Conferenced Math Classes This Semester
Several video-conferenced classes were planned for this semester for the Mathematics department: two undergraduate-level courses, Advanced Calculus and Probability Theory, as well as several graduate-level courses, including Chaotic Dynamical Systems. On the weekend before the beginning of classes, a cable was accidentally cut in the major video-conferencing classroom, Belfer Hall’s Room 205. According to Dr. Otway, “this immediate problem was that, due to the accident during construction in one of the high-tech classrooms, the equipment simply didn't work.” As a result, a significant component of the technology, which permitted to the professor to write on the board at one campus and have the result appear on the board at the other campus, was not working. The courses could not be run without this machine working properly. Consequently, both undergraduate video-conferenced courses were replaced by regular courses. Chaotic Dynamical Systems remains video-conferenced, while other graduate-level math courses were cancelled for other reasons, including low enrollment numbers. This incident created minor problems on timing, specifically within the professor for the Probability Theory and Chaotic Dynamical Systems were finally accommodated by small changes in the schedule.
In addition to the construction problems, Dr. Otway said that, “the other problem was that the class sizes were on the margin of what would be appropriate for that kind of technology in any case. It's hard to argue that a class having ten students would not run unless it were video-conferenced from another campus,” as opposed to the successful video-conferenced classes in the past, which only involved one student.
The Chaotic Dynamical Systems class continues to be video-conferenced since its enrollment is small enough to use a technical backup system which was not adequate for the large undergraduate courses. On the Wilf Campus, the Probability Theory class has over thirty students.
Future of Video-Conferenced Classes at YU
Dr. Marian Gidea, who teaches Probability Theory and the Chaotic Dynamical Systems courses, is optimistic about video-conferenced classes at YU. “Videoconference, hybrid, and blended courses in mathematics are becoming increasingly popular. Such courses can provide a very successful educational experience,” Dr. Gidea told me. However, Dr. Gidea, who must now hurry from Wilf to Beren Campus on Wednesdays to teach the Probability Theory class there after teaching the graduate course from Belfer Hall, cautions that this method requires activities that increase the level of engagement among students with their professor. Still, “Getting students used to video-conferencing can be viewed as acquiring a job skill as well, since this is becoming a standard tool for running long-distance communication and team projects,” concludes Dr. Gidea.
Dr. Otway remains distrustful of the technology. “It is unlikely that videoconferencing will be used in the future if there is any alternative mode of presentation. But that is precisely what videoconferencing is supposed to provide: a means of running a lecture course if no other mode of presentation is feasible.” Dr. Otway concluded by noting that “other technological alternatives are currently being explored by the department, in particular, hybrid lecture/online courses in computer science.”