Video Learning Initiative Connects Pitt’s Campuses

Issue Date: 
January 20, 2014

In a theater stage-management class at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown, 10 students sit facing the professor and two of four high-definition screens situated in the classroom. Fifty miles away, in a Pitt-Greensburg classroom—and 150 miles away at Pitt-Bradford—more students follow the on-screen action, participating in the discussion.

A new pilot program, the Video Learning Initiative, gives students at three of Pitt’s regional campuses (Bradford, Greensburg, and Johnstown) access to classes on one another’s campuses. This spring semester, five classes—and nearly 100 students—are involved, but more courses will be added. Courses originating from the Pittsburgh campus will join the initiative soon, as will Pitt-Titusville classes this fall.

The program is a collaborative effort between the office of Pitt Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia E. Beeson, Pitt’s Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education, and the academic affairs departments on the regional campuses.

William Shields, associate vice provost on the Pittsburgh campus, said the courses offer a new way for the campuses to work together. “It fits very nicely into the provost’s desire to enhance the interaction among the various regional campuses as integral parts of the University.”

Wesley Jamison, vice president for academic affairs at Pitt-Greensburg, agreed. “It makes each regional campus more salient to the others because we do largely operate independently,” he said.

Students take the courses in real time in specially outfitted classrooms on each campus. The rooms are deliberately similar in look and dimension so students will feel they are part of the same class. Two screens in the front provide students a view of the other classrooms, the professor, and any slides or presentations. Two screens in the back let the teacher see the same. Voice activated cameras are set to switch views when a student speaks.

The choice and scheduling of classes were devised during meetings in September and October involving Shields, Jamison, Steven Hardin, vice president and dean of academic affairs at Pitt-Bradford, and Janet Grady, vice president for academic affairs at Pitt-Johnstown.

“The focus is on more specialized classes with lower enrollments that make it feasible to add students from other campuses. The Video Learning Initiative allows campuses to share resources so that expertise at one location can be shared and meet a need at another location,” said Jamison.

The final video-course list drew from multiple departments on all three campuses. Bradford offers Cancer Biology and Islam and Social Justice; Greensburg contributes an anthropology course called Supernatural Worlds; and Johnstown teaches Contemporary Issues in Criminal Justice as well as Stage Management.

“It’s valuable to me in terms of managing a curriculum with a small campus where we can’t offer everything. It’s a chance to pick up a few interesting electives based on specialties we don’t have that other campuses do,” Jamison said.

The Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education, based on the Pittsburgh campus, has worked closely with faculty on the regional campuses to ensure their lesson plans and the technology mesh.

“We try to make the technology as inconspicuous as possible. ... The technology is not a disruption, but rather an integrated tool to deliver the content,” said Michael Arenth, director of classroom and media services, Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education.

To that end, the technology support people on each campus were involved, and student employees were hired to ensure the cameras and other equipment are properly connected before the start of each class.

Pitt-Titusville, which already coordinates some courses with Bradford, will be on the fall schedule. And students on the Pittsburgh campus are expected to benefit from the Video Learning Initiative as well by gaining access to specialized courses from the regional campuses.

“For example, Bradford is getting very much into petroleum technology because of all the natural gas activity in that part of the state; that might be of interest to some of the undergraduates in the Swanson School of Engineering. There are all kinds of possibilities here,” said Shields.