Stony Brook's Reach Expands with Distance Learning

By: William Welch
Last Updated: February 23, 2016

By Joslyn Matthews ‘15

Frey Hall Distance Education classroom technology with Gary Van Sise, Director of Educational Technologies.Four distance learning classes are being taught on Stony Brook University’s West Campus this semester, reflecting the growing and complex role technology plays in the classroom. For the first time, professors Anna Geisherik and Xianfeng Gu are teaching distance learning courses with SMART Technologies equipment. Geisherik is teaching a course called Russian for Heritage Speakers, while Gu is teaching a graduate computer science course called Advanced Visualization.

Distance learning is a method of teaching in which lectures are held by correspondence through video chat in specialized hi-tech conference rooms. Stony  Brook’s history with facilitating methods of distance learning has roots as far back as the 1970’s, according to Director of Educational Technologies Gary Van Sise. Van Sise said there was a program called EngiNet in the late 80’s that served as an early form of traditional distance learning. 

“It was sharing engineering courses between all the major engineering schools in SUNY and that was a videotape-based system,” Van Sise said.

Geisherik’s and Gu’s classroom use a “blended” approach, where there is a mix of students from Stony Brook’s campus and students who are wired in from another location. With distance learning, Stony Brook is able to tap into SUNY’s resources to provide students with access to other professors and individuals who can share their expertise. For instance, since January 2000, a class called Global Issues in the United Nations has allowed students to hold conversations with UN ambassadors, which provides a unique and valuable learning experience that they would not normally receive. The former Pakistani ambassador Ahmad Kamal teaches the course directly from the UN.

“They meet in our video conferencing facility and the students introduce the topic and some of the issues they would like to discuss, and then the ambassador and other UN employees actually take over and teach the class,” Van Sise said.

Frey Hall, a recently-renovated classroom building at Stony Brook, has modern upgrades such as easily-accessible power outlets for students at their desks and projection screens for professors. When the building was being outfitted with audio visual systems, it was decided a larger dedicated videoconferencing space was needed, so Frey 211 was specially equipped with SMART Technologies equipment for the purpose of distance learning.

SMART Technologies is one of the leading makers of interactive whiteboards, especially in grades K-12. “Their smart podium (17” interactive monitor) is a unique product,” Van Sise said. “Using the smart podium allows instructors to draw on the lectern monitor and have it appear on the data projector to be recorded by the lecture capture system.”

The video conferencing that goes hand-in-hand with distance learning allows the University to go beyond what Van Sise calls the “vanilla box classroom” model usually associated with college learning.

The distance learning classroom has two 90-inch flat panel screens in the front of the room with a camera that looks out at the students. In the back of the classroom there is a smaller screen, also outfitted with a camera, that allows the distance learning students to view the professor. Push-to-talk microphones have been added to every desk, and when activated by a student, the camera in the front of the room focuses in that direction, allowing the individual who is not in the classroom to see who is speaking. 

Russian for Heritage Speakers is a specialized language class for students from Russian-speaking families who were either born in America or came to the country at a young age and grew up speaking the language. This is Geisherik’s first time teaching a distance learning course.

“I’ve never used anything like that,” Geisherik said, referring to the technology in Frey 211. “I’ve always used chalk and a chalkboard, and compared to that, this is pretty exciting.”

When the Russian language program realized that only a few SUNY campuses offered a Russian heritage course, Stony Brook decided to offer the class to other campuses. That is how SUNY New Paltz student Jessica Gubankova became a part of Geisherik’s class. With parents who were born in Russia, Gubankova grew up speaking the language, and when her previous Russian professor suggested she further her skills with this course she jumped at the opportunity.

“Recently, my grandmother came to visit from Russia,” Gubankova said. “Although I do know how to speak pretty well, I wanted to become proficient in the language so I can better communicate with my grandmother.”

For Geisherik, using SMART Notebook, the interactive software used for teaching, did not pose much of a problem the first time she tried it. Knowing how to write by hand is an important part of learning the Russian alphabet, and with SMART Notebook, Geisherik is able to use the Notebook monitor to write in Cyrillic script and have it appear on the screen in the front of the classroom for her students. Anything written on the SMART Notebook is shared directly with Gubankova on a monitor in the room at New Paltz, which she can view and save for future reference.

This is Gubankova’s first distance learning course, and despite initial technical difficulties, she is now used to the SMART technology that connects her classroom at New Paltz to the Stony Brook classroom. Geisherik said that, although her students were at first a bit apprehensive about the unique setup of the classroom, they soon got used to it.

Gu has taught Advanced Visualization at Stony Brook for nearly 10 years, but this is his first time teaching it as a distance learning class. The computer science department partnered with J.P. Morgan with the help of an alumnus who now works at the company and saw a need for this course. 

Gu teaches 30 students, including five from J.P. Morgan. He was trained in how to operate the SMART Technologies equipment, but said that it is very intuitive and easy to use. For Gu, using SMART Notebook in the classroom has made teaching more efficient.

“Because my teaching involves a lot of geometry, I need to draw and rotate and show different sides,” Gu said. “It can become very complicated.”

According to Gu, it would be impossible to teach without the use of SMART Notebook. 

There are currently plans to build a new classroom and update another on the Stony Brook Southampton campus.

“The update will be in Chancellors Hall 201,” said Van Sise. “We’re upgrading a simple system already in place to today’s standards.”

The new classroom will mirror the one in Frey Hall so instructors won’t notice a  difference when working between the two buildings. These additions will broaden the potential for more distance learning classes to be taught at Stony Brook.

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