Back Channels in the Classroom

By Matthew Slaats

There has been an ongoing conversation taking place here at Vassar College, about the role of the computer in the classroom. At a time when technology seems ubiquitous, there are still very strong opinions on the pros and cons of students using laptops in class. These range from those focused on the “chalk and talk” method to having highly digital classrooms. To me this is not a discussion of right or wrong, but a question of appropriateness, especially when trying to create an atmosphere of engaged learning.

One place where I feel that digital technology can make a major impact is the large lecture hall. Typically, these spaces are about the transmission of information from faculty to student. The relationship is directional, emanating from the lectern or chalkboard to the eyes and ears of students. At an early stage in a college career, this is a vital transaction, providing a foundation for the years to come. The lecture hall is a standard on every campus and will continue to be for many years. Concerns arise, however, as the computer begins to invade this space, allowing students’ minds to wander to their ever-growing social network. So, what can be done to maintain focus and build on the possibilities of the information being provided?

One idea that I’ve been thinking about for several years is the “back channel.” No, I’m not going to talk about some grimy alleyway to place misbehaving students in. What I would like to consider is a virtual space, organized and developed by students, that allows them to engage in conversation, ask questions, and bring their own perspective to what had been a one-sided conversation. This online space would allow for the class presentation to be viewed alongside other modes of communication. After a cursory review, an instructor might then bring some of these topics into the conversation when meeting with smaller groups. There are also significant possibilities for those students who are just a bit too shy to raise their hands.

With Powerpoint and Adobe Connect developing webcasting capabilities, this idea is already a possibility. A recent New York Times article discussed options and identified initiatives at several universities to create just such a space.

No matter which side of the conversation you fall on, may it be chalkboard or webboard, the important thing is to find modes of teaching that allow students to engage. It is about making the information meaningful, not just for meaning’s sake, but in such a way that the student can make it a part of their own personal experience. Providing modes of response accomplishes this objective.


Presenting the Image – Powerpoint, Keynote & Prezi

by Matthew Slaats

Certain software programs tend to dominate the conversation at times, leading most to fall in line because of their pervasive nature.  No software has held court so long as Powerpoint, the industry standard when it comes to creating a presentation. The software’s format and interface so easily combined our conceptions of word processing and the analog nature of the 35mm slide, that no other choice seemed to make sense.  This ubiquity, though, is not without problems.  With the desire to integrate various forms of media growing, Microsoft has tended to be a bit slow in their response. I picture all of those who want to integrate web-based video into their presentation, but are constantly reminded that it can only be done on the PC version of the software.  Then there is the draconian method for developing movement within a slide (how many steps will that take?) and the horrible templates they provide for the slides.  My blood begins to boil every time I attend a conference and see bullets. Now we shouldn’t demonize Powerpoint in such a way. It is just a tool, and one that has served us well throughout its life.  But what alternatives are out there?  Is there anything?

One dilemma that I’ve seen boil up in the last several years has focused on a conversation that pits Keynote vs. Powerpoint. Apple’s version of a presentation software provides a much more flexible framework for developing material.  The main benefit of Keynote is its ease of use.  All or most of the functionality of the software is readily accessible and not hidden within a series of menus.  It provides a variety of ways for getting media into a slide and it  allows you to manipulate that information in a multitude of ways.  From easily creating animated movements that direct attention across a single slide to the ability to mask certain parts of an image, Keynote’s adaptivity is an expression of what Apple is known so well for producing. Beyond this, the software easily translates a Powerpoint file directly into Keynote and works in pixels instead of inches, which is a positive for those working with images.  If you are a Mac user, you have in Keynote an alternative to Powerpoint. The question resides in how motivated you are to make a transition from the one standard to another.

Here is a video that describes how to create an animation in Keynote.

So you might ask if there is anything else out there that might be an option?  Yes there is and it is one of the more exciting options to come around in a long time.  Prezi is both a web- and desktop-based application that turns the tables on how a presentation can be constructed.  You are no longer confined to the slide, a 20th century format.  Instead, you have a wide open space upon which text, images, videos from Youtube, and a whole range of other media can be displayed.   Having such a blank canvas can be a bit daunting and requires a bit of creative skill, but the platform allows the user to move, rotate and scale information quite easily.  The other major difference is the ability to zoom in and out of the presentation, which allows elements to be revealed and placed into broader contexts in unique ways.  Beyond that, Prezi is primarily a web-based application.  This is something both Keynote and Powerpoint have been playing with in recent upgrades, but haven’t been as successful in achieving.  What is nice about this opportunity is that there is no need to carry a file around on a device that could be lost.  Your presentation is uploaded to the web and you can access it from any computer.  You no longer have to worry about compatibility because you are working with a PC or Mac. Here is a great video showing Prezi in action. (Click the arrow at each step of the presentation)

So, you now have to make a decision.  Do you stay with the standard or delve into something new?   I say give these other alternatives a try.  Know about them and how you might be able to use them to your advantage.  Though with the changes that have been taking place in this area,  I’m sure there will definitely be something new just around the corner.


The Impact of Images

by Matthew Slaats

Images have long been a vital tool in the field of Art History as a way of accessing the visual information provided by artists. From the lantern slide to the digital image, they have provided a way of accessing alternative information, conveying something more or different than text. Yet we are moving beyond the image, pulling and twisting visual material to make it more accessible and provide further information. Negotiating and exploring these new boundaries has provided a wealth of experience that is now being used not only in arts but across the humanities and sciences.

In 2006, Vassar College’s Art Department embarked on an initiative to shift from analog to digital material. Lead by the Visual Resources Library (VRL) and Academic Computing Services (ACS), the college took on the sizable challenge of translating the material and supporting the infrastructure used to display the images. This transition was not simply a move from one media type to another, from slide to JPEG, slide projector to Powerpoint, but a revolution in digital literacy as faculty have moved from being media users to being media producers. The result of 4 years has not only been a large collection of images or a faculty that is more savvy with Powerpoint, but a faculty with an increased desire to pursue new forms of media. This is leading us now to discuss the roles that the VRL and ACS play in supporting these new desires and what structures are needed to create dynamic teaching resources.

Here are a few examples of the  experiences we have gone through on our path to a new digital world.

Image Collections

A primary question when digitizing images is how they will be stored.  At Vassar, our answer has been Luna. Initially chosen because of its usability and presentation functionality, most faculty see it primarily as a repository for material.  In recent upgrades, the system provides interesting possibilities for organizing and sharing content with just about anyone. Artstor has similar functionality. Brought to you by the same people involved with Jstor, this collection provides an ever growing resource for digital images along with presentation ability via the web.

The main issue with both these systems is that they don’t do everything you really want them to do.  When I say everything, I mean storing various media formats (movies, sound, pdfs, etc). While they are making inroads into these areas, both systems have specific audiences they are trying to reach with very specific needs. In an ideal world, we’d have a system that could store anything, connect with the proper data, and provide unique ways of using that information. Presently, we are looking into new possibilities that would create relational collections for a broad range of material.

Powerpoint and Keynote

Yes, the ongoing battle of Keynote and Powerpoint. Much of this would be based on whether your campus is Mac or PC.  At Vassar, we have a mix of both, which keeps us abreast of the constantly shifting changes in the software. My official favorite is Keynote.  This is due to its wealth of functionality and its ability to absorb just about anything. Typical of Apple, Keynote is made for using and adapting media with possibilities for removing backgrounds and doing animation. With Office 2010/11, Powerpoint is definitely catching up, specifically with its ability to broadcast and create animation. I’d also note other online tools like Prezi, Google Docs Presentations, and Adobe Connect.

Quicktime VR/Zoomify

The last two things that I want to mention are Quicktime VR and Zoomify. Over the last three years, Vassar has become a hub of panoramic image production. Primarily in support of architectural research being done by professor Andrew Tallon (Link) and Nicholas Adams, we have created a wealth of images that allow for a much further appreciation of space and context in teaching. Serving these through the web and in presentations, this medium provides for a broadening of the experience, allowing students to tangibly access distant places. Our collection will soon be available via a website.

Extending out of this work, we have begun to photograph spaces using Gigapan technology. These extremely high resolution images allow for the documentation of the minutest detail. When accessed through a web page with Zoomify, you are able to pull out detail that most would never be able to see. Here is an example – Center Portal Tympanum at Vézelay.


In all the transition from analog to digital images has provided a wealth of opportunities for engaging in new ways of understanding and experiencing the world around us. No longer are images the sole medium through which teaching takes place, but a starting point that is leading to video, audio and animation.  Faculty, Librarians and Academic Computing must be partners in leading down the revolution of image consumption to digital production.


A ticket to Anywhere

by Matthew Slaats

In my first week at Vassar, some three years ago, I attended a meeting with one of my colleagues in ACS and a faculty member to discuss some options for incorporating digital material into his teaching. The faculty member had been collecting images, audio and video during multiple trips to Asia as a part of his research. The reason he had come to ACS was to think about ways in which both he and his students could use this material as a way of expanding their knowledge and experiencing distant places. My response came in the form of a question: “So basically you want to give the students a ticket to anywhere?” Meant more as a rhetorical comment than as a criticism, I was thinking about the possibilities for providing meaningful experiences to students. In this case, the goal being to give them a sense of place, modeling a lived experience, or providing something that establishes a deep memory. This experience has remained vividly present even to this day with ideas of a contextually based pedagogy continually evolving. 

Since the turn of the century, Art Historians have been using images as a way of addressing the visuality of the material they teach. Long at the vanguard of using media, they have established a tradition through sustained experimentation. This is a tradition that values the balance of decoding the semiotics of visual material with rigorous texts to provide a broader context for the time period, artist thinking and influences. In this mode of learning, the instructor provides a broader, more comprehensive understanding/picture to situate information.  Now with the pervasive use of images by historians, economists, and even English professors, an understanding has been built for the value of an image to reference and support the information that is being provided. With the explosion of other forms of media (video, audio, the web) and viable options for interactivity, these experiments will only continue to grow.

So, I return to this idea of Contextual Pedagogy. If I had to define the term, it would be a form of teaching that takes students outside the classroom they are sitting in and allows them to access vast worlds in radical new ways. It is highly dependent on digital media and interactive software, which takes a tremendous amount of time and effort on the parts of both faculty and those supporting the development of the technology. Yet it produces a much more expansive mode of comprehending material.

Over the next year, I will be speaking with faculty members, researchers, and technologists who are aggressively exploring these avenues.  May it be Google Earth, image-based VR, mobile gaming, or the iPad, I want to further explore possibilities for engaging in these dynamic moments of learning. It is my hope to clarify further the boundaries of these practices, the theory behind their use, and their relevancy on the liberal arts campus.