Theory and Cinematic Technique

Applying Insights from Film Theory and Cinematic Technique to Create a Sense of Community and Participation in a Distributed Video Environment

Joan M. Mazur
University of Kentucky

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Problems with Responsiveness and Interaction
  • Film Theory and Cinematic Technique
  • Implications for Creating Climates of Interaction
  • References
  • About the Author

  • Abstract

    New tools for mediating interaction require fresh theoretical perspectives that can assist in creating constructive climates for communication and learning. In the past decade distributed video systems have proliferated as tools for instruction and communication. These systems promise increased personal interaction by approximating natural communication through visual contact and verbal exchange. However, research on the use of these tools has consistently pointed out the dissatisfaction of users and the limitations placed on meaningful, engaged communication (Debough, 1999; Simonson et al., 2000). The problem centers on fostering co-presence and engagement among those who use interactive, video-based systems for distance education or work-related activities. The purpose of this paper is to enrich the conversation regarding how to address these issues of communication and engagement. I argue that because most distance education or electronic meeting systems employ variations of two-way compressed or digital video, they are essentially filmic media, and as such users of these distributed visual environments can capitalize on insights from the rich theoretic base of film theory and cinematic technique to engage meaningful interaction and support responsive communication. An illustrative case study in which these techniques are used is presented.

    Problems with Responsiveness and Interaction

    Globally, emerging technologies have been employed to provide distance education and training to thousands of schools at all levels (Ding, 1994; Chronicle of Higher Education, 2000; Keegan, 1994; ; Simonson et al, 2000; US Department of Education, 1995). Despite the proliferation of distributed, interactive video systems for instruction, students consistently complain about the qualitative experience in these courses (Biner, Dean & Mellinger, 1994; Fast, 1995; Gallagher and McCormick, 1999; Ross et al., 1991). One recent study found that instructor experience with the technology was the highest predictor of student satisfaction. However, experience and approach vary widely. One problem is that teachers or trainers continue to use lecture modes of didactic instruction in environments designed for interaction and students are frustrated (Schoenfelder, 1995). The reasons for persistence in didactic method are unclear. Some instructors see technology as neutral pr are not motivated to change their approach to fit the changed instructional environment. Others yield to institutional pressures to use newer distance learning technologies but harbor serious doubts regarding their effectiveness (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2000). However, even instructors wishing to create dialogue and interaction have difficulty (Riedling, 1999). Primarily, they lack skill in techniques that utilize the technology to foster a sense of community and participation for students at geographically dispersed locations (White, 1999).

    In fact, the lack of co-presence leads the list of complaints voiced by participants in interactive video classrooms. Students at the so-called ‘remote sites’ — those where the instructor is not present — often feel ignored. Moreover, they have difficulty gaining “the floor” in these virtual environments. Since most remote equipment at distant sites uses voice-activation as the means to alert the instructor, students feel particularly awkward. Instead of raising a hand to signal the instructor, one must raise the voice — an activity clearly at odds with traditional classroom discourse protocols. Imagine students in a typical classroom or training session shouting out “I have a question!” while instruction is underway. Many such complaints center on barriers imposed by the technology. For instance, students do not know who is at other sites. Teachers routinely ask questions directly only to those students at the originating site. Rather than mediating communication, the distributed video tools often exclude participants visually and virtually from involvement in the communicative activity.

    One issue that circumscribes the many problems faced by those using distributed environments is the lack of adequate theory specifically related to the mediating video tools to guide practice. How can participants use the media space of distributed video environments in creative and effective ways? The preponderance of theory in distance education has focused on systematic descriptions of the delivery system and the organizational or political ramifications of operating such systems (Evans, 1995; Noble, 2000; Peters, 1988). Holmberg (1995) developed principles of interaction and communication for application to distributed educational environments. As part of these theoretical constructs, Holmberg emphasized the importance of cooperation and feelings of belonging in concert with the exchange of questions, answers and arguments in mediated communication (Simonson et al, 2000). While Holmberg suggests organizational procedures to facilitate activities such as tutoring that may foster inclusion, he stops short of describing how to use the mediating features of the distributed technology itself to bring about the sense of belonging and cooperation which seem central to a satisfying experience. Recently, White (1999) has emphasized that users of these systems need to view the medium as a transformative tool that can create a climate of interaction by focusing on the individual within the environment.

    I propose that classic film theory and cinematic techniques can be applied synergistically to the problems encountered in distributed video environments. While users may be unaware of these concepts and techniques they will not find them unfamiliar. Generations have been exposed to filmic narrative and the use of cinematic technique to convey meaning and create viewer involvement in film and video. Indeed, the subject of the case study which follows was applying an empirical rather than a conceptual knowledge of these techniques. In combination, these approaches offer a framework that emphasizes the mediating properties of technological tools and draw upon knowledge of the visual language of filmic narrative to create a communicative environment in which dialogue and interaction are supported.

    Film Theory and Cinematic Technique

    Foundational Concepts

    Film theorists, directors, and cinematographers have struggled throughout this century to understand the development of filmic meaning through the concepts of narrative, apparatus and ideology (Rosen, 1986). How does one tell a coherent story given frames of visual information that can be sequenced and cut and edited in virtually any order? How does one use the features of the camera apparatus (e.g., the lens or the use of light) to portray certain actions or emotions or to capture natur
    al effect or shape viewer response? What are the ideological implications of any of these techniques? What is the relationship between the filmmaker and the viewer? Who controls the meaning and to what extent is interpretation a collaborative effort? There is no direct analogy between the use of distributed video environments and the making of a film. However, as we use video to mediate educational or communicative activity, we can benefit from the insights and reflections discussed and refined by 20th century filmmakers and directors. In fact, participants may benefit from conceptualizing their roles as collaborative co-producers in multi-point video conferencing environments (Dolhon, 1999).

    The early film theorists (Eisenstein, 1926/1947; Balasz, 1923/1952) sought to account for the disjointed nature of film form. The problem was first acknowledged in 1901 when D.W. Porter defined the “shot” as one or more film frames recorded contiguously and representing a continuous action in time and space. Thus visual information, Porter noted, could be segmented and juxtaposed in such a way as to give the illusion of continuity over time, even though the viewer saw only individual segments of visual information (the shot). Film theorists addressing the problem of segmentation in film developed a number of conventions to convey meaning using the shot, which, joined together with other shots, comprised a scene.

    Bellour (1986) describes a number of factors which characterize a film segment. Non-discursive elements such as the visual framing of shots (e.g., close-up, medium, long), camera angles, and lighting are combined with discursive spoken elements (who is speaking and in which order). These factors become critical elements in building coherence. Two conventions that provide continuity in a segmented visual medium are repetition and juxtaposition. Conventions of pattern are established through repetition (e.g., several close-up shots) or juxtaposition (adjacent positioning of two shots or elements) and these patterns convey a rhythm which defines the coherence of action. Bellour used these elements to create a system for analyzing the development of meaning in the visual narrative from filmed segments. Again, while editing and intention re-positioning of filmed segments is not possible in distributed environments, the medium nonetheless produces segmented visual elements (shots at various locations) and thus application can be extrapolated.

    Basic cinematic technique has derived from the work of the early film theorists. These conventions and techniques are ubiquitous in modern video and feature film. It is through the creative and artistic application of these basic conventions that filmmakers and directors offer “fresh” presentations and new technique. In fact, users of emerging three-dimensional interactive environments are beginning to see the value of visual aesthetics and technique to sensemaking and the promotion of telepresence (Barbatsis, 1999). The argument presented here is that application of cinematic technique begin with prolific distributed two-dimensional systems.

    The following basic cinematic terms are paraphrased from Davenport’s “Cinematic Primitives for Multimedia (1991).”

    Shot: Consists of one or more frames generated and recorded contiguously and representing a continuous action in time and space.

    Sequence: A collection of shots forming a natural unit; the shots are no longer perceived as a set of individual shots.


    Close shot: Above shoulder frame of character in shot.

    Close-up: Camera tight in on object or character.

    Medium close: Above hip frame of character.

    Long shot: Full body of character or full scenery viewed.

    Camera Angle: Camera position simulates the eye of viewer looking at shot from straight on, right, left, up, or down.

    Moving/Static: Refers to movement of camera, not movement of character in shot.

    Cuts: Abrupt transitions of visual content from one shot to another

    Pans: Camera moves the viewer’s eye right or left across screen (as in a panoramic view).

    Zooms: Camera moves the viewer’s eye into (zoom in) or out of (zoom out) the shot.

    Backlit: Light shines from behind characters

    Spotlit: Light trained directly upon character or object

    Descriptions of lighting also include brightness, hue, and tone (harsh/soft).

    Foreground: Visuals that appear in front of the character or object viewed.

    Background: Visuals that appear behind the character or object viewed.

    The Apparatus of Distributed Video Environments

    Features of the camera apparatus used by the filmmaker or videographer are available in rudimentary form to anyone using a two-way video studio or web-based video conferencing tools. Two-way compressed video systems commonly used for distance education include the following features: (1) two adjacent large 50-inch video screen monitors attached to the video compression output sources (the cameras in the origination and remote site classrooms) and,

    (2) a computer and videotape player which can be broadcast through the compressed video channels (usually partial T1 phone lines that provide high bandwidth). Other peripheral devices such as a document camera or slide projector may also be connected.

    Most distributed video classrooms have one camera located at the front of the room and one at the rear of the room mounted on the wall above the class seating. Individual microphones are located at each seat for use by participants. These system components are controlled by central controls usually located on a podium or small controller station that can sit on a desk top.

    A typical control panel used in distributed, compressed video classrooms and meeting rooms is shown in figure 1. There are camera control options for using zooms, pans, controlling angles and for sequencing views among the various sites. The controls at all sites control the use of the cameras at the particular site and have some control over the access of the visual output from other sites. In other words, while it is not possible to control the camera at a remote location, it is possible to switch to the “view” of a particular site from a remote control panel.

    Could an instructor using these control features use the visual conventions and film language to structure the virtual environment to be more inviting, informative, collaborative, and engaging? Is it possible to incorporate concepts and techniques from basic film language to capitalize on the visual literacy of participants who daily view television and video (and now Internet digital video) to develop an atmosphere of cooperative experience and co-presence?

    As I was experimenting with the application of film theory and cinematic technique in my own distributed video course offering, a serendipitous opportunity to analyze a colleague’s distance education class arose. During lunch at a training session this colleague commented how much she enjoyed her distance learning course and that most of her students enthusiastically signed up for other distance courses she offered. Her class evaluations were high and students reported thoroughly enjoying the course. These comments ran so counter to the usual reports of disaffected students and frustrated instructors that I became intrigued. I requested, and she provided several taped classes. The analysis of these sessions are detailed in the case study which follows.

    Lights – Camera – Interaction! Participants as Co-Producers of A Distributed Video Class

    Located in a sparsely populated rural region of a southeastern state, Mountain State College has developed a distance education program supported by an integrated state telecommunications system. Over the past six years the distance components of their teacher preparation program have grown and many schools in which prac
    ticum students are placed have two-way compressed video classrooms which were set up as part of a multi-million dollar federal grant.

    Seventeen students in three locations had signed up for a methods and supervision of practicum class that used two-way compressed video. The class met weekly and the student teachers were assigned to school districts throughout the region during the first semester for their practicum work. Various readings and assignments comprised the topics for discussion and students were encouraged to frame their reactions and studies in the context of their field placements. The instructor was a highly experienced teacher educator who had supervising field placements for more than fifteen years. Before the use of the two-way video set up, these students would have had driven for hours to return to campus for the class. Obviously, the distance education option was convenient. But what accounted for the extremely positive responses to the environment and why were these students so satisfied with the class, in fact eager to have others using this technology?

    As I sat in the viewing room initially reviewing the videotaped classes, my eyes were riveted to the set. It was clear as I watched each class develop that my colleague was using video techniques that were highly unusual in distributed video classes. I should digress here to mention I have viewed many hours of tapes of such video classes, participated in and conducted training sessions using these tools and talked with many students who have taken classes in this format. Typically, the instructor is at the front of the room lecturing, usually framed with a medium or medium long shot showing the front and center lectern. When a question is asked (usually at the origination site), the camera operator (often a technician assigned to the room) seeks out the student for a close up. Usually, the question has already been stated by the student when the camera zooms in for a close-up. Afterwards, the camera hastily returns to the primary subject, the instructor, to view the response.

    My colleague’s class was vastly different. To document her use of the camera apparatus, I used a modified version of Bellour’s (1986) model. The graphic analysis protocol is shown in figure 2 below. Framing, static/moving, angle, characters in shot, who speaks, dialogue, time and a narrative shot description were noted.

    Figure 2: Modification of Bellour’s Model for Use in Analyzing Cinematic Aspects of Distributed Video Environments

    Time (minutes)
    Characters in Shot
    Shot Description

    Sample Analysis: The Initial Class Meeting

    The charts below provide a sample analysis of the beginning of class and the first 50 minutes of the initial class meeting. Note that not all time in the analysis is devoted to instruction. Rather, visual establishing shots and other contextualizing techniques are integral to creating the shared visual environment.

    Prior to Class

    Time (minutes) Prior to Class
    Framing Long Shot of Lectern
    Static/Moving Static
    Angle Back Camera/Down
    Characters in Shot Instructor/Students seating
    Speakers None
    Dialogue None
    Shot Description As students come into the classroom, the camera shows the front of the room, with lectern, whiteboard, and two-way video monitors and computer apparatus
    Time (minutes) Prior to Class
    Framing Close-up of College Logo on Document Camera
    Static/Moving Static
    Angle Overhead document camera
    Characters in Shot None
    Speakers None
    Dialogue None
    Shot Description Alternates with long shot of classroom as students enter
    Time (minutes) Prior to Class
    Framing Long Shot Pan of room
    Static/Moving Moving
    Angle Front Camera/Angle Down
    Characters in Shot Students entering at all three sites
    Speakers None
    Dialogue None
    Shot Description

    The use of these alternating shots and the juxtaposition of students entering at all three sites serves as the establishing shots for the classroom media space and acknowledges the presence of students at several locations. Note the camera at the remote sites had been set to long shot of the seats (apparently by default when the system logs on) and is not panning at this point.

    During the first twenty minutes of class as shown in the table below, the instructor’s use of the zoom from long shot, to medium, to close up draws in visually the viewers at the remote sites. The immediate relinquishment of control over the remote site video controls and the requirement of student participation and responsibility for operating the communication tools engages the remote locations and enlists their assistance in creating communication and contact as a collaborative effort. The instructor notes that students will have to speak up to get her attention at the remote locations and asks that students in the originating location do the same, even though she could see their hands if raised. She asks them to interrupt by saying “Ms ____, I have a question (or comment).” Setting these ground rules initially clarifies expectations for discourse. She asks two students she selects to try out their microphones using this statement. Not only does this exemplify the technique, students see she wants the
    ir participation and takes the procedures for asking questions seriously.

    Minutes 1-19

    Time (minutes) 1-20
    Framing Long on lectern, zoom to close-up of instructor

    Alternate with document camera on graphic of control panels

    Alternate with Power-point Slides of course purpose and schedule.

    Static/Moving Primarily static
    Angle Back camera/ angle down
    Characters in Shot Instructor
    Speakers Instructor
    Dialogue Questions posed to students at remote sites regarding the use of the control panel and subsequent responses.
    Shot Description The class is called to attention by the instructor framed initially from long shot/zoom to medium while the instructor cycles through to each site which appears on the second screen at the originating site. She greets each site at they appear and then returns to the medium shot at the originating site. The camera zooms close up at she begins to speak. She welcomes the classes and describes the remote sites and again cycles through them visually to punctuate her words. She then asks one student (she selects) to go to the control panel at the remote site and a student at her site is asked to join her at the podium.

    She informs students at the remote site they will rotate responsibility for controlling the camera and on-line tools such as the video or computer. The control panel graphic is displayed on her document camera (ELMO) and she asks participants at the remote site to change “cameras” (sites) and then to switch to the computer display mode to practice. She asks them to pan the room once right, then left, and then to zoom in on each student. As the camera zooms in, each student introduces themselves.

    She begins the introduction at RS1, then RS2, then the originating site responds. Giggles and reticent comments accompany this activity, but all students introduce themselves. At RS1 another student who has had a video class before joins the “volunteer” at the podium controls to assist. The neophyte technicians have trouble focusing in, often broadcast close-ups of noses or foreheads. Eventually the confusion settles as they develop a cadence of visual zooms that foster the introduction process.

    Minutes 20-27

    The next seven minute period of class begins with a medium shot of the instructor (and her assistant) at the lectern and then moves to primarily medium close and close up. She uses the close-up shots to introduce herself and describe her own teaching experiences and years doing this particular job, office hours, e-mail etc. As she begins with a general description of the class, and assignments, she focuses students’ attention on the syllabus by using the overhead document camera on the text. Whenever she wants to emphasize expectations or grading she uses close-up shots. After the overview she asks for questions and switches to RS2. The use of the close-up and medium close shots, again, draw the viewers in visually and focuses attention and create a sense of intimacy with the instructor. Her features are expressive and she is skilled at maintaining eye contact with remote sites by looking into the back camera. She speaks a bit slower than one might expect in face to face situations and this allows time for switching views and tools (to the document camera for instance). The more deliberate pace also mitigates the effects of the slight audio delay which can occur with two-way compressed video transmissions.

    Minutes 28-35

    In the next class segment analyzed, the instructor switches the second monitor at the originating site to Remote Site 2 and asks the control panel operator at that site to pan the room and asks for questions. No one speaks. She presses the issue. “John?” she asks…”you seem a bit puzzled about the project assignments.” “No…I’m just worried about the controls…do we all have to do that?” “Yes, ‘fraid so. You’ll get the hang of it. and once one person has done it, they can help out the others.”

    She then calls up Remote Site 1. Again she asks the operator there to pan the room and focus in if someone has a question. One students asks about attendance and late assignments. The operator focuses in with a nice medium close shot that shows the other students in the room listening to the question.

    Visual inclusion through display of visuals from the remote locations values participation by privileging them in the sequence of interaction. Students at the controllers are engaged in framing the visual interactions immediately and they see that their engagement will be integral to the course communication.

    Minutes 36-50

    To create a sense of small groups meeting in the same virtual space the instructor uses a modification of the long, establishing shot. The long shot of the groups working establishes the visual context and the alternation among the sites brings each site into visual contact, much the same as ones eyes might gaze around a room as small groups are meeting in a face to face classroom situation.

    Time (minutes) 36-42
    Framing Medium to Long shots panning each of the three sites
    Static/Moving Primarily


    Angle Back Camera/Down or Front Camera/Down
    Characters in Shot Students in groups at the three locations
    Speakers Small group discussants
    Dialogue Intra-group
    Scene Description During this segment the instructor asks the students to break out into groups of three and to discuss their initial impressions of their field placements. On the document camera she lists three focus questions to guide their discussions and asks them to take notes on each other’s placements. The instructor asks the control panel operator at each site to set the back camera at a long shot of the room that will include all groups and to join a discussion.

    Static long shots at each site show the groups of students. The instructor controls the alternation between sites, rotating so each site can see the other as they are engaged in small group work.

    Summary : Applying Cinematic Techniques to Video Distance Education Environments

    The chart below shows a summary of the cinematic techniques used by course participants and the affects of these strategies. The instructor and students are co-producers, each contributing to the screenplay of the class as it unfolds visually from the distributed sites.

    Chart 1: Summary of Cinematic Techniques Applied in the Distance Education Class

    Cinematic Technique Used Created a Sense Of..
    Close-up Intimacy and focus either on instructor or other student participants.

    Dialogue encouraged by focusing on questioning students.

    Medium Shot Drawing in the viewer visually to gain attention and focus.
    Long Shot with pans Establishing context with the shot providing continuity and a sense of co-presence.
    Changing Frame Using Zoom-in or Zoom-out Visual interest and invitation; drawing in from a general to a specific focus.
    Juxtaposing text or other graphic visuals with close-up or medium close shots Punctuating the verbal discourse or didactic instruction with visuals to emphasize or clarify.
    Sequencing the rotation of sites Expanding the visual space to be inclusive rather than exclusive of remote locations.

    Equity among sites, privileging of the origination site decreased.

    Enhanced participation created by the use of student operators at remote control panels.

    Static Long Shots During Group Discussions Providing an analogue to the casual gaze “around the room” which included remote locations in the viewing space.

    This case study illustrates the potential of using the mediating technologies guided by concepts and principles from basic film theory and cinematic technique. The camera had become a character in the unfolding drama of her classroom interactions. When I inquired whether my colleague had any formal training in videography or film making she surprised me when she replied, “No, but I thought I needed to use the control panel for something…it just seemed natural to focus in when I wanted their attention. I got better with more practice!” She had internalized many common conventions of film language and composition simply through prolonged exposure from going to the movies and watching video and television. Her students were clearly the beneficiaries of her approach. Ninety percent (90%) noted on course evaluations that they would prefer taking a two way video class for subsequent offerings because the course was interesting, informative and satisfying.

    Implications for Creating Climates of Interaction

    Theoretical constructs and cinematic from film theory applied distributed video environments may assist users in creating climates of responsiveness and engaged participation. In fact, without the informed use of the technical visual opportunities afforded by the camera controls and system features, we may be using distributed video environments as glorified video phones that do not have the potential to create any expanded or creative visual contexts for interaction.

    How might the experiences of distance education participants be further enriched by the thoughtful use of cinematic technique and application of concepts from film theory. For example, in this case study the instructor attempted to deal with the privileging of the origination site over the remote sites through sequencing the visual “floor.” What might happen if the instructor was alone at an origination site (or at the originating computer in the case of net meetings) andall the sites were remote and controlled by participants schooled in cinematic techniques? What other combinations of cinematic techniques can be developed to create small group interaction among sites? What visual elements can be juxtaposed to what communicative ends? What are the visual messages created by camera angles down due to the wall mounting of cameras? Who is included and excluded using these tools?

    An obvious issue regarding the use of cinematic techniques in distributed video contexts is the problem of training instructors, who are already overwhelmed by the demands of preparing and managing courses, to reconceptualize their roles from deliverers to directors (in the cinematic sense). Many instructors insist on a technician and eschew control of the system. (Imagine a regular classroom where the instructor is lecturing and the assistant is darting behind him or her writing notes furiously on the board). Perhaps training in specific techniques would alleviate reluctance to control the environment. As instructors become more comfortable with the technology and experience more positive results through the creation of a environment which supports co-presence and engagement, the benefits of controlling the video and applying film theory by incorporating even the simplest cinematic conventions may make it worth the effort.


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    About The Author

    Joan Mazur received her Ph.D. from Cornell University where she worked with the Interactive Multmedia Group (now the HCI group). She is presently an Associate Professor in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky in the Instructional Design and Technology Program. She has been involved in several nationally and privately funded development efforts to use interactive technology to promote collegial conversation and teacher professionalism. Her work has been recognized with an Outstanding Practice Award for Design from the Association for Educational Communications Technology (AECT). She has published in the Journal of Research on Computing in Education, Journal of Educational Computing Research, Journal of Teacher Education and the Journal of Computing in Higher Education. Her research interests focus on design to support productive human -computer interaction and design of interactive systems for collaborative work.

    Address: Department of Curriculum & Instruction, 335 Dickey Hall, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40506-0017.

    ��Copyright 2000 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication


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