How One Community College Teaches Shakespeare Across the Desert

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Any small college knows the challenge of filling an esoteric literature course with enough students to officially keep the course on record through an entire semester. But an Intro to Shakespeare course at a rural community college in Arizona wouldn’t seem to stand a chance.

Professor of English Karen Hindhede is proving that it’s possible. She and her students are discussing the Bard’s greatest works in her LIT 267 Introduction to Shakespeare course at Central Arizona College (CAC)—a “rural fringe” two-year institution, as categorized by the National Center for Education Statistics. She found 12 students—the minimum requirement to officially hold a class—by relying on CAC’s video technology to make the course available to students separated by hundreds of miles.

Going the distance

CAC is a relatively small community college with 5,849 undergraduates spread across five campuses, each separated by a 30-minute to two-hour driving distance. This makes it difficult to recruit course enrollments from the entire student body to fill up any one class offered at any one CAC location.

In addition to Hindehede’s bonafide, credit-bearing course in Shakespearean literature, CAC offers a number of different courses via its Interactive Television (ITV) system. Hindhede’s Fall 2016 class has enrolled 12 students and counting (as of the first day of class). Her course has students who are physically located at four different CAC video conference rooms who synchronously interact with her and their fellow classmates on Thursday mornings from 10:30 to 11:45, just as if they were all in the same classroom. 

“I am so excited to be teaching this class,” she says. “We would not have been able to do it without our ITV system.” ITV got its start in the early 90s at CAC with its first installation of a Polycom videoconferencing room at the main campus in Coolidge, AZ. Today, with CAC being the only higher-education institution located in Pinal County, it has 25 vitally important Polycom video conferencing rooms located across all its campuses and centers. The ITV system enables its entire student population to enroll in courses that may not be located closest to their homes, saving them from being forced to drive relatively long distances to get to class.

Conducting distance education courses synchronously over a video conferencing network is not, relatively speaking, a new technology. Today, ITV technology is typically implemented inside blended-learning courses, whereby students and faculty go online through a typical course management system as well as meet face-to-face at any of the three to five different video conferencing sites that may be hooked into the class. These types of courses are obvious solutions for colleges like CAC that are geographically spread out within vast rural areas.

Hindhede says she likes using ITV because it also gives her an opportunity to visit all the various campus sites and meet face-to-face with all her students. “I try to set up my schedule so that I can travel to other campuses,” she says. “That way the students have that in-person contact with the faculty member.”

Pinal County sits within 5,200 square miles located between Phoenix and Tucson. The CAC Maricopa campus, on the west side of the county, is more than 100 miles away from the Aravaipa campus on the east side of the county. The Superstition Mountain campus on the north end is more than 50 miles away from the Signal Peak campus in the center of the county.

“For a college our size, this is quite a feather in our cap,” says Tressie Hanson, ITV operations specialist. “You can build your department by offering and recruiting from the entire district and get people to come into these ITV classes. You can keep your program going and build your enrollments.” During Fall 2016, CAC is delivering 89 courses over ITV, according to Deanna Broking, coordinator at CAC’s Distance Learning and Services department. “Every effort is made to provide a wide range of subject areas via ITV in order to offer the best learning experience possible to CAC students.” Subjects for Fall 2016, in addition to the Shakespeare course, include social work; music history and literature; administration of justice; fire sciences; women/gender studies; and a variety of core courses in English, business and math.

The number of CAC students enrolled in courses that use ITV has grown from 509 students in Fall 2008 to 1,047 students in Fall 2015.

The new normal

Regarding how well the ITV system works, Hindhede explains that occasionally she might experience some latency issues between sites, but overall communications across the ITV system have been smooth and uninterrupted. She adds that offering a course that has five sites instead of three or four can get too cumbersome to manage. “Connecting three or four campuses is better for discussion purposes and makes you feel better connected,” she says. “I know that in other disciplines, such as business and math, that are not as discussion-driven as literature courses, they will have more campuses connected at the same time.”

One of the questions from students that always comes up is whether or not anyone other than the instructor, students and IT support can peep in on these classes. Is there a Big Brother concern, they ask. “We narrow cast,” says Hanson, meaning, unlike broadcasting over an Internet connection to a wide audience, ITV classes are closed systems that can only be seen and heard by the people in the video conferencing rooms where they are held.

Hinhede has been teaching ITV-enabled courses for seven years and notes that “students have become much more comfortable with ITV since when I first started, probably because we are all getting used to doing things like Facetime and Skype—so this has become just another version of video conferencing for our students. It is not a big deal. They feel comfortable with it. The first couple of years I had a lot more questions and lots more hesitation by students to speak up, but that is no longer the case today.”

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