eTEACH No Longer Offered as a Service
Back in the mid-90’s, when most computer users were just beginning to migrate to the Internet over their slow dial-up connections, Greg Moses, Larry Landweber, and Mike Litzgow were already looking toward the future.
Rather than simply posting research and training videos online, their goal was to develop a teaching and learning system that incorporated audio, video and text to enhance and extend the learning experience. Despite the ambitious nature of this project, the first iteration of eTEACH became available in 1999, less than two years after it was proposed.
eTEACH developed a large and devoted following both inside and outside of UW-Madison. Harold Scheub used the narrative power of eTEACH to bring the stories and oral traditions of South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Lesotho to life, while the UW-Extension harnessed the distance learning abilities to provide instruction to agricultural engineers across the state. Greg Moses took his lectures out of the classroom, reconceptualizing the learning process; John Norback designed an entire online learning system incorporating eTEACH that is available around the globe; and thousands of students have completed the UW-Whitewater online MBA program, constructed primarily through eTEACH.
And now, more than 20 years later, the eTEACH program has come to a close.
The Birth of eTEACH
eTEACH was originally born out of a desire to shift the traditional classroom lecture paradigm. Moses and his co-instructor John Strickwater redesigned the CS310: Problem Solving Using Computers, a large undergraduate course, to improve the teaching and learning environment. The lectures were taken out of the classroom setting and transformed into eTEACH presentations accessible from the labs, dorms and students’ homes.
As Moses says, “If you’re teaching a 3-credit course and you’re going to meet with the students roughly 40 times in a semester, you want to make the best use of the time that you have with the student. And the conventional lecture, in my opinion, doesn’t really do that, because if you feel obligated to spend the majority of that time just lecturing to people than that could have just as easily been done using one of these kinds of presentation tools. And I try to take people to a different level in the face-to-face meeting, because they’ve had the opportunity to sit and listen to [the lecture] before coming in.”
As the development of eTEACH progressed, so did its reach both inside and outside of the UW-Madison campus, but the program’s scope was limited by its reliance on Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player.
The next major step forward came through an Engage Innovation Award which, along with the assistance various staff members within DoIT, allowed eTEACH to be completely rebuilt. The reliance on Microsoft’ Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player was eliminated and replaced by Flash, allowing the tool to be used on all operating systems. This partnership continued into the final version of eTEACH. Working in conjunction with the Digital Media Center, Engage and the core eTEACH team brought the authoring tool from the web to the desktop, enhancing both the speed and reliability of the program, and integrated even more advanced editing and captioning capabilities.
Although eTEACH provided educators with a groundbreaking new way to deliver lecture materials, this innovation pales in comparison to the strides made in improving accessibility. From the outset, eTEACH had been recognized as a tool that addressed the needs of a variety of students by removing the traditional limitations of in-class lectures and allowing students to control the information. Lectures can be reordered, repeated, and processed at a pace dictated by the learner. However, although eTEACH incorporated common web accessibility features such as ALT tags for images, it was not originally compatible with the screen readers used by the blind or persons with visual impairments.
When originally approached about making eTEACH fully accessible, Litzgow was skeptical. How would a tool that relies so heavily on video translate to a non-sight medium? A meeting with Bradley Kadle, a visually impaired student, to test the programs compatibility with screen-readers opened his eyes:
“And the revelation there was ‘This thing has video, but a blind student is used to sitting in class and not seeing the professor.’ And because the PowerPoint slides were still slides and not images, [the screen-reader] was able to read the slides, if you could get it to focus there.”
Following this recognition, eTEACH was re-designed to incorporate features making the software accessible to all. The support for video tracks containing closed captioning, which can be turned on and off at the touch of a button, was the first to be incorporated. Later incorporation of the WorldCaption software, developed by Brian Deith, streamlined the creation of closed captioning video. This not only provided support for persons with hearing disabilities, but also for those students who simply learn better when presented with text in addition to audio.
For those learners who are blind or use screen reader technology, eTEACH goes one step further, automatically generating a separate webpage without any of the video incorporating only the audio track and the slide text. Coupled with specific tags and ALT text designed to be compatible with all screen readers, these sites provide full access to all, regardless of learning style.
Despite these accomplishments, eTEACH, like any software, was not perfect. The program relied upon a central server to incorporate the audio and video and add the subtitles into each slideshow. As happens with technology, the server began to fail.
Members of the eTEACH production and design team worked closely with representatives from Microsoft and Adobe, consulted technology experts from across the UW-System, and were left with a clear message. The eTEACH system cannot be made as reliable as it needs to be to maintain the service and community, nor can it be replicated or transferred to a newer, more durable system.
The decision to close the chapter on eTEACH was not an easy one, but it is a necessary one. The original concept behind the program has proven successful, as evidenced by the rise of similar commercial products, and the lessons learned by instructors, staff, programmers and students continue to shape the evolution of teaching through technology at UW-Madison and beyond.
eTEACH has acted as a stepping stone for integrating video and technology into the classroom and transforming the learning experience, filling a gap few recognized when eTEACH was created. By providing a technology years ahead of its time, one which is still largely unmatched by the offerings in the commercial sphere, eTEACH set the standard for accessibility and online learning. At the same time, the eTEACH team and UW-Madison technology community can no longer compete with the existing commercial alternatives, nor can they justify continuing to duplicate services at the expense of continuing the tradition of innovation. By sharing what we have learned with others in the field and continuing to push the envelope of online learning technologies, we hope to extend the integration of accessibility into the commercial sphere.
For current users, a number of alternatives have been identified and steps have been taken to provide a user-friendly system for current users to export their existing eTEACH projects. The consultants and staff at the Digital Media Center are available to assist users with the transition, and offer training and assistance with each of the alternative programs. For more information regarding training or program selection, please contact the DMC at email@example.com or visit https://dmc.wisc.edu.