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DCE Uses Portable Technology to Support Students Learning Remotely

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Instructors at the Harvard Division of Continuing Education can now accomodate teaching students learning both in person and remotely in nearly every classroom thanks to the portable technology software HELIX.

Portable HELIX units were adapted from the original HELIX Classroom, which was developed during the pandemic to support online learners and enhance the remote student experience. HELIX technology, an acronym for Harvard Extension Live Interactive Experience, was first designed as a classroom equipped with microphones, speakers, large screens, and a camera operator to allow students participating remotely to hear and see their classmates.

Remote students’ faces are displayed on large screens for the class to see, and the camera — operated by a technician from the DCE’s Teaching and Learning department — allows for remote learners to view their peers. Currently, there are eight HELIX classrooms outfitted with this technology, but the portable HELIX unit is capable of transforming almost any room into a classroom.

Professor Henry H. Leitner, who serves as associate dean for Information Technology and chief innovation officer for the DCE, praised the HELIX technology for bridging the gap between in-person and remote students and their instructors.

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“You see students who are also participating live, but they are geographically remote,” Leitner said. “It could be literally in another part of the country or somewhere else in the world, so that as you're teaching, you can interact both with the students who are in the room, as well as students who are online.”

A key difference, however, between the HELIX classroom itself and the portable units is the use of cameras. Portable HELIX units omit the bulky camera equipment, screens, and operator in favor of individual students using Zoom to view classmates, augmented by high quality audio technology.

“The students who come to the classroom do have to use their laptops and have Zoom on, so that we don't have to have a videographer showing each of their faces in real time,” Leitner said. “We can use the camera from their laptops in order to capture their image when they're speaking."

Professors Daniel L. Smail and Matthew J. Liebmann used a regular HELIX Classroom last spring to co-teach General Education 1044: “Deep History.” While Smail taught students from the classroom, Liebmann gave remote instruction via Zoom in what he describes as a “seamless” experience.

Liebmann said he hopes to further implement this technology in his teaching, citing its potential use to bring students from different universities and geographical locations together. He also said he hopes to use the technology to include students from tribal colleges.

“I actually have a vision for one of my classes that would include participation from students at tribal colleges.” Liebmann said. “I can imagine trying to use the HELIX classroom to bring together Harvard students with the students who would be coming in remotely.”

Smail also lauded the technology, referring to the HELIX’s capacity to support “cross-campus learning” among students.

“If I were teaching a course with a colleague from the University of Chicago, then we might well have my students in Harvard Hall 101 with the other students at Chicago zooming in,” Smail said.

Adrienne Phelps-Coco, executive director of teaching and learning in the DCE’s Teaching and Learning Department, trains faculty to use HELIX technology — though she said the main objective of the training is to “take the technology out of their hands.”

“When we train the faculty, we really are not training them with technology. We're just training them to rethink how they interact with their students,” Phelps-Coco said. “What we've really found is that the first day of class sets the tone for the rest of the semester.”

Phelps-Coco also said the HELIX technology aims to foster connection between instructors and students even in a remote setting.

“We try to create the most human learning experiences that we can,” Phelps-Coco said. “It's not about delivering content. It's really about ‘how do we connect people to other people?’”

—Staff writer Ashley R. Masci can be reached at ashley.masci@thecrimson.com.

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