January/February 2002 // Case Studies
Streaming Media to Enhance Teaching and Improve Learning
by Virginia Michelich
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Virginia Michelich "Streaming Media to Enhance Teaching and Improve Learning" The Technology Source, January/February 2002. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The use of online courses continues to grow worldwide, yet it is still not clear whether such online learning environments enhance the learning outcomes of students or even meet the level of success of traditional classrooms. Many online courses currently represent no more than electronic versions of traditional classes without, of course, face-to-face interaction between instructor and students. These electronic courses often contain Web materials that lack any significant level of creativity or interactivity (Dehoney & Reeves, 1999). Cognitive research suggests that the addition of multimedia can actually improve the learning process if certain methods are employed. By using auditory and visual methods of presenting information, students can process that information more quickly, often fostering an enhanced learning process (Campbell, Lum, & Singh, 2000).

The Problem

Students often have a difficult time in visualizing concepts and struggle to grasp information that is presented either verbally or in text. This situation certainly exists in traditional classrooms but can become particularly acute in an online environment. In the study of biology, we discuss cells, living organisms, and processes of life that are often difficult to visualize from only a verbal or text-based explanation. For biology, in other words, a picture certainly is worth a thousand words. How could we make our students understand the processes of life if we could not show them? In a conventional classroom, overhead transparencies, 35mm slides, and films have helped instructors bring biology "to life." However, even the teaching aids that are currently available do not provide enough help. Delivering biology online can compound this problem. Though online delivery provides an opportunity for a multimedia environment, not all instructors take advantage of these technologies, nor is the content that they need always available for Web delivery.

Streaming Media Solutions

Others have shown that technology can provide the rich content and learning support that are considered to be critical elements of online learning (Oliver, 1999). Our goal was to increase student learning and performance by infusing streaming media content into both our online and traditional "Principles of Biology" courses (for undergraduate science majors). We hoped that such technology would help us overcome the problems of online and traditional classrooms. By using streaming media technology, which allows files to play as they download, we could deliver content that would be difficult to convey in other ways. Additionally, we sought to enhance the learning process for our students by providing course materials that would allow for reflection and review after they encountered them in the classroom.

We began by using a video microscope to capture digital images of cells and living organisms. How could we explain cytoplasmic streaming more effectively than by actually displaying it in both a protozoan (amoeba) and a plant cell? Our students study cell reproduction, which involves the processes of mitosis and meiosis, by using a series of microscope slides that show each stage of the process. We captured these images digitally and, using RealSlideshow, created a streaming media file that displays each picture of mitotic division in sequence with added text and audio (Exhibit 1) (Editor's note: The exhibits in this article require RealPlayer 8 basic or higher to be viewed. To download a version of RealPlayer, visit their download site.) In this format, the images, text, and audio download quickly over a modem and are accessible to students with slow connections. Student response to this use of technology was encouraging; they liked having images along with the text explanations and especially enjoyed the audio explanations.

We later expanded our offerings to include content on laboratory experiments as well. Many of the processes that students study in a biology lab take too much time for one lab period and cannot be left until the next week. Streaming media technology allows us to overcome this problem. For example, we study egg fertilization and development in sea urchins. The students actually perform the experiment in the lab and usually see the four- to eight-cell stage of division by the time the lab ends. After a day and a half, the fertilized eggs reach the larval stage. We digitally capture the entire process, from the shedding of gametes to the development of the sea urchins to the larval stage. We deliver the video, text, and audio explanations with streaming technology that uses Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL). Now, the students can see the entire process in about 23 minutes. We found that this file downloads well over a 56.6k modem.

Currently, we are also taking advantage of a SMART board in conjunction with streaming media technology to provide multimedia content to our students. A SMART board is an electronic version of a whiteboard that is compatible with programs such as Microsoft PowerPoint. Any PowerPoint slides, including images, and any notes written on the SMART board can be captured and saved as HTML files. I am now teaching in a classroom with a SMART board and capturing classroom discussions. The classroom is equipped with a camera, a microphone, and a computer with the software I need. Using RealProducer G2, we capture each biology class, including video, audio, and SMART board slides (Exhibit 2) and then link to the class through WebCT course delivery software so that students may access the material online to review classes. When the students click on the link, they see a page of all the SMART board slides. They may click on a link on that page to hear the audio presentation from the class. In addition, RealPlayer is embedded in the page so that they may also view the video of the class. In this way, the students can access the format that works best for the connection speed they happen to be using at the time. We recommend that they use the video format only if they are using a high speed connection. We also use the SMART board to create streaming media content modules for the online classes. We offer clips that explain complex processes such as the light reactions of photosynthesis. Each stage of the process can be represented on a separate SMART board slide with a link to an audio explanation (Exhibit 3). This technique has proven invaluable for demonstrating how to approach problem solving, including population genetics problems, and for explaining difficult processes like nerve impulse transmission.

Student Feedback and Success

The results of this project show that our efforts have been successful. Though we have not yet conducted a formal survey, anecdotal feedback from students has been noteworthy. As the first video clips appeared, online students called to tell us how much the images and audio helped them understand the processes that we study in this course. "Oh, to hear a voice, I understand now," was a phrase I heard more than once. The first students to notice the multimedia were quick to send an e-mail or post a bulletin to other students to alert them. Online students have remarked that the streaming media files captured from the classroom help them to understand the more difficult concepts that they encounter in this course. As they leave our classroom, my students ask how soon I will have that day's class linked to our Web site. These students also have begun to ask other instructors at our institution when they plan to start using this technology. Further, I have noticed a significant increase in class participation since these streaming media files have been available for the students. They are less concerned about taking copious notes and now can focus on understanding the concepts during class. They know they will have the class material to review whenever they need it. Most importantly, though, student performance on exams and assignments has improved in the multimedia-infused courses. As I teach both the traditional and online versions of this biology sequence, I can give the same exams to both groups of students. The online students are required to take proctored exams. Over the past four terms, I have compared grades among these biology classes before and after my implementation of the multimedia while also comparing achievement in online versus face-to-face classes. The average grades in this course sequence have increased by ten percent since infusion of the multimedia, and the online students perform as well and sometimes better than the face-to-face students. Other departments at our institution are beginning to develop streaming media content modules for online courses in humanities and nursing. Science faculty are exploring the use of streaming media technology to deliver pre-laboratory learning modules and for its use in delivering laboratories online. The success we have had is encouraging others, and we believe the use of streaming media technology at our institution will continue to grow.

[Editor's Note: This paper is modified from a presentation at the 2001 WebCT Conference in Vancouver, BC.]


Campbell, C. S., Lum, J. F., & Singh, N. (2000). SMIL: You're really learning now. Syllabus, 14 (1), 24-26, 61.

Dehoney, J., & Reeves, T. (1999). Instructional and social dimensions of class web pages. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 10 (2), 19-41.

Oliver, R. (1999). Exploring strategies for online teaching and learning. Distance Education, 20 (2), 240-250.

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