UTRGV connects campuses with interactive TV

BROWNSVILLE — Gathered around two TV monitors and with a camera and microphones pointed at them, graduate students at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Brownsville campus participated in a course taught 67 miles away via video conference.

University officials are using this new method, called Interactive Television or I-TV, in hopes of better connecting the Brownsville and Edinburg campuses, and offer students more course options without having to commute.

“I think it’s a good option, and I think it’s better than online classes,” said student Rhiannon Barron, 24, who is taking the interactive course in Brownsville as part of her master’s work in business administration. “Almost every semester I feel like there’s a class that is only offered in either Edinburg or online, so I think it’s a good option.”

Wednesday evening, UTRGV lecturer Bruno Arthur began the course by addressing his Brownsville students through the monitor and his Edinburg students in person.

This is the first time he has taught a course using this technology, and he said even though he received helpful training from UTRGV before the start of the semester, he knew the challenge would be equally engaging students in both locations.

“I can’t hear you Brownsville,” Arthur said as he asked all students to answer whether they understood part of the lesson review.

“I think we will make progress, but for the instructor and for the students, this is a challenge,” Arthur said. “But if it were not for this new video conference, we would not be able to offer this course in Brownsville … so this new paradigm is serving a good purpose.”

Rather than thinking of the course as a merger between in-person and online courses, Arthur said he would describe it as two-thirds in person and one-third online.

This is mainly due to students being able to ask questions immediately and interact with the rest of the class and him also traveling to Brownsville at times to meet in person with the other half of his class.

“My hope is that as instructors are more and more keen to this new paradigm and as students get more used to it and as we get more technological progress, it will be more and more easier every year,” Arthur said.

Dave Jackson, dean of the graduate college, said this semester was the first time they implemented the technology for two courses, both finance courses at the graduate and undergraduate level.

This is the second year the two campuses exist under a single university, UTRGV, as they were formerly two separate institutions — UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American.

Part of the transition to one single institution is to attempt to offer equal amounts of courses and programs at both campuses to increase the number of degrees that students can pursue without having to commute.

Since the launch of UTRGV, about 20 new programs and degrees have become available for Brownsville students. But the challenge in Brownsville is a lack of classrooms and faculty able to travel between the two campuses on a daily basis, Jackson said.

“Students in Brownsville, without having to leave Brownsville, can now do so many more programs,” Jackson said. “They can also travel … but we are trying to minimize that because it does utilize a lot of time to travel.”

In order to offer the teleconferencing courses, the university has to equip classrooms with cameras and microphones at both campuses and Jackson expects the number of these classrooms to increase for the spring semester.

“When I talk about rolling out programs in both campuses, it might not necessarily be that every class is taught by somebody standing in the classroom there,” Jackson said. “Some of the classes could be via I-TV.”

For students like Nora Blanco, 25, who’s also working on her master’s degree in business administration, having the university offer these options was the only way she could take the final classes to graduate this year. Her work schedule wouldn’t permit her traveling between Edinburg and Brownsville often

“Finance is a hard class because it involves too many formulas, problems, and I think that completely online it would have been too hard,” Blanco said in Spanish. “So the opportunity to have a live professor in two places at the same time is great … I’m glad the university is taking advantage of the technology that we now have.”