By Donna Smith | University Communications and Marketing
From instructors driving through the streets of Morocco, to paddling down the Santa Fe River or even swimming underwater surrounded by colorful marine life, USF’s Innovative Education is taking online courses to the next level. Its cutting-edge technology – technology that is parallel to some of the world’s most renowned production studios – not only enhances student engagement, but also provides student interns with hands-on experience working behind the scenes.
Innovative Education’s media production team, InEd Studios, partners with InEd Digital Learning designers and faculty to create innovative content for online courses. They recently expanded production to two state-of-the-art studios inside the former WUSF television studio, most recently becoming the first American university to partner with virtual studio tech company Zero Density. Its advanced technology allows faculty to see and interact with a virtual environment and 3D objects around them.
“Most of their other clients are broadcast television, such as the Weather Channel, BBC and Fox Sports,” said Jared Brown, creative director for InEd Studios. “We are their first non-broadcast company using it for education. We worked closely with them to beta test their new software, which means our students are the first to see this kind of tech in their classes, because it's not being used anywhere else in America.”
The technology is also available to several student interns each year who are introduced to and quickly immersed in the use of the technology and equipment. They assist with shoots and video editing, developing modern skills needed in the workforce. Mass communications major Ben Consigli is currently an intern with InEd, and he will graduate in the spring with experience working with some of the most modern technology in the industry.
“I do think the best experience I’m getting from this internship is from just being in the studio,” Consigli said. “It’s definitely a good way to understand how to be on a studio set, and using the technology they have to work with is a huge learning experience.”
Professor T.H. Culhane in the Patel College of Global Sustainability was recently recorded in a firelit cave scene in order to use Plato’s cave allegory to illustrate how people are affected by their biases and backgrounds. He has produced several courses with Innovative Ed, but this is the most advanced approach yet.
“I always knew that production and pedagogy went hand in hand,” Culhane said. “Creativity is the best way to not just create content for the students, but to also have the students learn the material by engaging their own creative facility.”
Culhane is seen on a monitor placed in a cafe scene
In InEd’s second, larger studio, the team partnered with longtime collaborator and donor Vū studios, whose founder and CEO, Tim Moore, attended USF. Vū built an LED volume wall in the studio, which offers high-quality displays for use in virtual production. This involves manipulation of photorealistic backgrounds, including campus locations such as the MLK Plaza or the Marshall Student Center. It’s the same technology Vu uses to produce its nationally-televised commercials and other high-end productions.
“With the click of a button, suddenly you’re lit by the moon instead of the sun, or maybe you’re teleported to Mars,” said Christine Brown, associate vice president for Innovative Education. “The limitations are just your imagination, so instead of having a faculty member standing in front of a blank wall telling you about the Everglades, we are actually able to put the instructor in that environment, which is 100 percent more engaging.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, InED was able to help rapidly convert thousands of courses online because it already had processes in place. This shift has helped catapult public perception of taking courses online. In end-of-course surveys, students have reported increased levels of engagement, feeling like part of a learning community, and that such creativity has helped reinforce education materials. Brown said that they develop courses with this generation of students in mind.
“We are reimagining learning for a digital environment,” Brown said. “We analyze student demographics, their prior experiences, and their expectations. We take a student-centered design approach to ensure online courses meet the highest quality standards, and students are supported and engaged.”