Wendy Toscano Uses Synchronous Learning to Provide Students Access to Paralegal Studies Course — Faculty Highlight

Wendy Toscano, professor, paralegal studies, is the first professor at Valencia to teach using a new technology, synchronous learning, that allows her to teach her class on East Campus, while reaching students at Osceola campus at the same time. This is part of a pilot program brought to Valencia via the Title V Osceola grant — a $2.65 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education that was awarded in 2015 and runs through 2020. The grant funds the implementation of new software programs that leverage distance learning technology to increase access to a wider variety of face-to-face classes across multiple campuses. Per the grant, the synchronous learning environment is being used for Career and Technical Education course expansion at Osceola Campus.

Wendy’s Introduction to Paralegal Studies course is offered only on East Campus, so using synchronous learning offers Osceola Campus students access to the course. “This is a class the students may not have taken or a career path they may not have pursued if they couldn’t at least take the intro class and see what it was like,” Wendy explained. “And for some that would travel from Osceola County to the East Campus, this technology saves students the drive.”

With the push of a button, Wendy connects the two classrooms via a Polycom voice and videoconferencing system that runs over Valencia’s closed internet loop.

In a synchronous learning classroom, there is an 80-inch monitor in the back of the room. On that monitor, Wendy can see her full Osceola Campus classroom and students, appearing like an extension of her East Campus classroom. In the front of both the East and Osceola Campus classrooms, there are two monitors — one that shows Wendy’s presentation and another that shows the other classroom.

Like a regular class, Wendy can see her Osceola Campus students raise their hands, and with many microphones, the students can ask questions, just like they are present in the East Campus classroom. “It is easy to call on them and talk to them. It’s not awkward having the conversations back and forth,” she said. “Actually, one of the first things we noticed was that we can pick up side conversations. So they are very good in my class, because everyone can hear them with the mics hanging from the ceiling.”

Wendy explained that overall, she has only had to make some minor teaching modifications. “What I realized is that so much communication is nonverbal, and because the students appear small on the screen at the back of the room, it can be hard for me to pick up those signals when they’re confused or have a question.”

She added, that it can also be more difficult to learn the Osceola Campus students’ names.

To address learning names, she provides the Osceola students large name plates that they use every day, even after she learns their names. “It’s important that I call on them by name and start answering their questions from the very first class,” she said. “I must dive right in and start engaging them.”

By engaging them immediately, it helps open the lines of communication, so they are more likely to speak up if they are confused or have a question. She also visits the Osceola Campus class twice per semester, so she can build in-person relationships with the students. “I think that makes a huge difference,” she said.

This is the fourth semester that Wendy has taught via synchronous learning, and according to Jennifer Keefe, Osceola Campus project director, Title V, there are two additional synchronous learning classes being taught this semester. Susan Yawn, professor, criminal justice technology, is piloting a Community Corrections course from East to Osceola, and Lisa Gray, professor, accounting, is teaching Accounting from Osceola to Poinciana. Also, synchronous learning rooms are now being planned for the Lake Nona Campus, expected Summer Term B, and West Campus, expected in 2018.

Students have been happy with the pilot. Jennifer, who surveys and conducts focus groups with the students, explained, “Student satisfaction has been high and seems to improve from semester to semester as professors get more comfortable and students adapt to the equipment. The favorite response is that they appreciate not having to drive to another campus for the class.”

For more information on Valencia’s synchronous learning and to see the classroom in action, watch the video below:

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