New Technologies for Distance Learning: Realizing Efficiencies and Providing Continuity in Judicial Education during Budget Crises

by Daniel Frazier

There may be no form of communication that is more misrepresented than education.  For many individuals, education is symbolized by a one-way street: teacher to students.  The teacher holds the information, the students need it.  The teacher gives the students the information and the students absorb it.

And as long as people have held that misconception, educators have been trying to break it.

Education, in all its forms, is one of the most interactive processes that happen between individuals.  The key is the absorption of information by the student(s).  Teachers can offer as much information as they desire, but learning only occurs when the student understands and retains it.  For this to happen, a student needs interactivity with the teacher.  This interactivity does a couple of key things: it allows the student to complete mental connections he or she did not have through questions and it allows the individual student to process the information in the way that best retains it for him or her through discussion and activities.

In 2006, I was brought on by the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) to begin development of a distance learning program for the Kentucky Court of Justice.  My initial research into the process of distance learning proved to be rather daunting.  As far as processes went, distance learning was limited not by technology or money, but by imagination.  For every company and system I studied and observed, they each had their own unique method of distance learning.  Each method had its own costs, set-ups, and means of communication.

In my evaluation for the AOC, I realized that the most effective means of distance learning for our audience, namely the COJ employees and elected officials, was one that would utilize our current system of communication: the AOC server network.  Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be until recent times when technology developed faster and more advanced means of internet communication would work within our limited bandwidth.  But there was also another factor at work that would push our need for distance learning forward.

Without question, the judicial branch of government for the state of Kentucky has been one of the most underfunded.  And as we all know, our nation has been under a budget crisis unlike any seen in many decades.  This crisis has dealt one of the hardest blows to the Kentucky court system with the cutting of programs and jobs.   But in the midst of this, the AOC pushed harder than ever to embrace developing technologies that would offset other costs and help save jobs.  One key area this was focused on was that of continuing judicial education.

As recent as June, 2010, the Judicial Branch Education division of the AOC was responsible for organizing and executing live conferences at different locations throughout the state for the elected officials.  But due to recent cutbacks, these conferences were suspended by our administrators with a focus on bringing distance learning tools to the forefront.

The cost to develop a basic distance learning system using new technologies on the state court’s existing network is as follows:

  • GoToWebinar: $500 annually
  • Camtasia Video Studio: $299
  • Lectora X eLearning Software: $1,790

Grand Total: $2589.

In the midst of staggering deficits and employee layoffs, this nominal price ensures continuity in education programming for elected officials and court staff. The technologies being employed by Judicial Branch Education are discussed in brief below.

In choosing the software that would be the most effective for developing our distance learning network, we had to look at the limitations of our network (as it stands) and our audience.  The primary limitation of our current network is the inability to live stream video to several computers due to bandwidth limitations.  Because of this, we chose software that employed various other techniques of interactivity.

The basis for our live webinars is the system GoToWebinar.  Due to a limited budget and the complex schedules of our elected officials, we currently subscribe to the 100-attendee-maximum account.  GoToWebinar has a vast array of communication tools that focus on the interactivity between speaker and audience.  A speaker (or moderator if a speaker chooses to have one) has full control over the presentation and audience responses.  When an audience member indicates he or she has a question, the person can activate the “raise hand” option or type their question directly to the speaker.  The speaker/moderator can then answer the question or un-mute the specific audience member’s audio so the individual can ask the question live and have a discussion with the speaker.  This manner of control is absolutely necessary when dealing with large audiences and virtually replicates the atmosphere of a face-to-face conference seminar.

GoToWebinar proved its value beyond question when the Kentucky legislature passed sweeping reforms in domestic violence law during the 2010 assembly. Education presentations had to be made quickly and be available statewide before the bill went into effect in a matter of weeks.  Through GoToWebinar virtual live presentations were given in a timely manner that would have been impossible to accomplish with face-to-face meetings.  Judges who attended the webinars praised GoToWebinar as one of the most dynamic teaching tools they have had the pleasure of working with.

But what about all the elected officials who couldn’t clear their schedules in time to attend this webinar that was necessary to the function of their courts and offices?  That is where another piece of software was employed by education staff: Camtasia.

Camtasia is, simply put, software designed to record video of a computer screen with audio from a microphone.  This elegant, simple recording system allowed us to record the webinars as they were taught live.  These recordings—in a high quality, low file size Flash animation—were then placed on the AOC’s intranet via SharePoint.  By doing this, the elected officials who could not attend the webinar could view the recorded webinar and get the information they needed.

Beyond the scope of recording webinars, Camtasia has also been a boon to our distance learning programs with its editing functions.  Original training videos have been produced by various managers of the AOC in order to train and educate their statewide staff members.  This saves the time and expense of trainers having to travel across the Commonwealth for live trainings that can stretch out over several months to complete.  Camtasia also contains interactive tools.  One example is the ability to create quizzes during the video.  A viewer watching the video will answer questions relating to what they have just watched before moving on with the rest of the training.  This interactivity promotes the retention of the material and is another reason Camtasia has found a home on the AOC distance learning program.

The newest software addition to the distance learning network is also one of the most promising.  Lectora X is a completely interactive learning tool.  A teacher uses Lectora to design a lesson similar to a power point.  Unlike power point, Lectora can use a myriad of tools to make a lesson much more dynamic and interactive for the viewer.  The lesson can contain numerous advanced learning tools such as video, audio, quizzes, activities, animations, and charts.  Viewers proceed through the lesson at their own pace, which adds to the retention of the information.  While Lectora is currently in the testing stages, we foresee many lessons to be generated through this intriguing teaching software.

As the AOC distance learning network continues to grow and develop, we look forward to bringing more and more webinars, training videos and interactive teaching lessons to the elected officials and Court of Justice employees.  Even in its infancy, we have already seen the effect distance learning has had on helping improve the quality of justice that is available for our fellow Kentuckians.

Daniel Frazier

Daniel Frazier has worked with the Administrative Office of the Courts in Kentucky since 2006 as Production Coordinator for the Division of Judicial Branch Education.  He has a background in film and video production and was owner of Foster Layne Video, LLC in Louisville, KY.  Mr. Frazier has produced many original videos for the AOC including “General and Sexual Harassment in the Workplace,” which was featured on Kentucky Educational Television.  Mr. Frazier is a graduate of Northern Kentucky University and is currently developing videos for web-based broadcast.