TTU Expands the Classroom with Interactive TV

After working for the Tennessee Valley Authority more than 20 years, Jenny McCann, a 41-year-old mother of two, found her career hinging on becoming "multi-functional" in her job. That meant learning new skills and taking college-level classes.

Although night and weekend classes at a university or community college might be ideal for some working mothers, McCann wanted to avoid hiring baby-sitters and giving up family time with her 15- and six-year-old daughters - the ball games, school activities and family dinners.

Responding to TVA's search for an alternative, Tennessee Technological University's Extended Education Office offered her employer, TVA's Colbert Fossil Plant, a chance to bring college instructors into the plant to teach chemistry and algebra to McCann and other employees. And the trip to the northern Alabama plant each week is unbelievably quick because interactive television is the means of travel.

"With our interactive television system, or ITV, we can simulate the college classroom experience right in the workplace," said Julie Galloway, Extended Education area coordinator. "Students and teachers can see and hear each other and interact almost as they would in a traditional classroom."

The ITV system is one of Tennessee Tech's latest efforts to give people other than traditional college students access to university courses and instructors. The system allows instructors to simultaneously teach at multiple sites in Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. Programs are designed to meet the needs of employees who need convenient, quality instruction.

The ITV system looks like a surveillance system. At the university, two cameras are mounted just below the ceiling, one in front of the teacher, the other behind. Another camera focuses on a document presenter, which works like an overhead projector. On a table sits a control board about the size of a notebook. It looks like the panel on a microwave, but these buttons control what students see - the instructor, visuals or even video.

The instructor has two monitors, one showing the image being sent to the remote sites, the other showing a classroom. When someone speaks at one of the multiple sites, the voice-activated system places the speaker's site on the instructor's monitor. Each site can see and hear the instructor, plus hear others asking questions.

"I don't even like to watch TV, but this system works great and is as close as you can come to a real, interactive classroom," said McCann. "One instructor performed a chemistry lab experiment and showed a film. And just like a traditional course, you have to do your homework."

Reginald Mazares, a Tennessee Tech math professor, teaches algebra to 13 students at five sites in Tennessee and Alabama. Edward Lisic, a Tennessee Tech chemistry professor, teaches chemistry to 30 students at ten sites in Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky.

"I tell my students to call me Reggie, and the ice gets broken the first day," said Mazares. "These students are exceptionally motivated, hard-working people who do very well and make grades comparable to my university students."

Tennessee Tech offers the ITV program to all TVA plants, and continues to increase the use of the technology. In addition to these non-credit classes, Tennessee Tech's Extended Education Office offers graduate credit courses by ITV to meet the needs of students pursuing a degree who may live quite a distance from the campus.

McCann pointed out the new perspective ITV classes give to employees. She was pleased her teenage daughter recently ventured to ask her help with chemistry homework.

"Because of Tennessee Tech's classes, I've been able to accomplish something I probably would have never tried," said McCann. "In a recent TVA meeting, I understood a concept I did not understand before I completed my chemistry class. I'm a better employee and feel better about myself because of this opportunity."

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