Wayne Stater articles

Spanish instructor connects with students

Left: Santos lectures to classes in Pender and Winside with the help of some high-tech equipment at his disposal.

Odell Santos, a Spanish delivery instructor for Wayne State College, is teaching Spanish to ninth- and tenth-grade high school students in Pender and Winside.

Santos doesn't have to travel, however, because he can teach both classes remotely from Wayne State College with the help of some high-tech video equipment. This kind of instruction by proxy is called distance learning.

Santos teaches three classes that meet every weekday morning with sizes that range from eight to twenty students. The classes have to remain small in order to maintain a personal connection between the teacher and the students.

Despite being separated by several miles, Santos can easily interact with his students from his classroom in Connell Hall. The classes are visually connected with a set of four television screens that resides in each classroom. The first monitor shows Santos at his desk, the second shows the class in Winside, the third shows the class in Pender, and the fourth shows a digital clock with the current time. A duplicate set-up exists in Santos' own classroom at WSC.

There are small, mounted video cameras in each classroom that Santos can control with a flat-panel touch screen. The students’ desks have microphones that transmit audio along with the video, and the cameras can automatically zoom in on students when they speak. With all the equipment running, Santos and his students can see and hear each other as if they were in the room together.

The setup works well, but one problem Santos has is maintaining eye contact with his students. The video camera that records Santos is on one side of his workstation while the screens through which he sees his students are on the other. Therefore, when Santos looks at his students on the screen, his image on the monitor is looking to the side.

Personal communication doesn't seem to be a problem, however.

"You just have to be comfortable in front of the camera." Santos said. "Creativity keeps the class interesting—I can’t lecture or I’d put myself to sleep.”

Santos also has a variety of multimedia tools at his disposal. He can replace the video feed of himself at his desk with the video from a VCR, a "doc cam" that works like an overhead projector, or a PC at his desk to show PowerPoint slides.

In a typical class, Santos may place a textbook under the Doc Cam and ask his students to describe the pictures on the pages in Spanish. He may also present a list of questions in Spanish on a PowerPoint slide and ask his students to answer them. He also gives and takes points for class participation.

Santos’ sister Oriana also plays an instrumental role in the class. She drops by every other day and has a conversation with Santos in Spanish for the students to listen to and interpret.

Homework assignments are on the honor system, but Santos expects his students to complete them and will take off points if he finds they haven’t. Important things like tests and quizzes are mailed to Santos, and he also mails lesson plans to the high school principals, but because it takes time and postage to send these, Santos will often fax documents or send them as e-mail attachments. Students can also turn in assignments via e-mail as long as they "attach" the files properly.

In addition to teaching more students at once, this distance learning system also works as a recruiting tool for Wayne State College. Santos’ students came on campus on March 13 and “shadowed” other students on campus, going to their classes and seeing what they do.

The next day, the students each gave a presentation in Spanish about what they did during their field trip to WSC.