Penn State prof uses technology to help students think about race

Katie Bohn
January 25, 2017

The production crew arrives early, quickly setting up their equipment. There’s a lot to do before filming begins. Cameras must be in place, microphones switched on, and the computers ready to stream video to the internet and the rest of the world. And they only have 15 minutes.

But despite the sophisticated setup, it’s not a TV show they’re filming. The team is getting ready to live stream Sam Richards’ SOC 119 Race and Ethnic Relations course on its own YouTube channel.

The course encourages students to question and push the boundaries of their beliefs about issues related to race and culture, and Richards — a senior lecturer in sociology at Penn State — has been live streaming the class to the world since 2013. Anyone with an internet connection can tune in to listen to his lectures each week, and Richards says this use of technology to extend the reach of his classroom is an essential part of the experience.

“I want the conversations that are sparked in this class to go beyond the classroom,” Richards said. “A subject like race and ethnic relations is a national and global issue. To be successful, we have to bring many different voices and perspectives into the conversation. We can do that with the live stream.”

In addition to live-streaming technology, Richards has also experimented with a plethora of mobile apps and social media platforms to boost engagement in the course. Twitter, in-class polling, Twitch -- a video platform and community for gamers -- and blogging have all played previous roles in the class. Although there’s rarely a dull moment in Richards’ class — he routinely calls on students to come to the front of the class and participate in activities — Richards has long believed technology can enhance a student’s experience.

And this semester, Richards is continuing to innovate new ways to keep students engaged in class.

Throughout the spring semester, Richards’ students are participating in a new assignment designed around Facebook. Every week, each student chooses a video clip from class to post on their account, along with a good question to start a discussion. After someone responds, the student takes a screenshot of the conversation and uploads it to a virtual drop box.

Richards says the exercise is designed to spark more interest and conversation about topics they discuss in class.

“I want to encourage my students to reflect on what we talked about and ask even more questions,” Richards said. “The best thing, in my mind, is for the students to take the material from class and engage their family and friends in it, too.”

Getting students to share what they learn in class is one of the reasons Richards wanted to live stream his class in the first place.

A little over a year ago, Richards approached one of his students — Jacob Sparrow, a sophomore in the College of Information Sciences and Technology — about finding a way to upgrade the equipment used to run the live stream.

After Sparrow agreed, Sparrow met with Justin Miller, project manager with Penn State Teaching and Learning with Technology. Miller helped select equipment and design a system that would use four different cameras to capture Richards’ classes and live stream them online.

“Part of getting an education is getting a better understanding of the world,” Miller said. “Bringing the world in via livestream, and allowing them to communicate with the class through chat, creates a conversation that widens your worldview.”

But in order to make that happen, Richards also needed a team of students to film, direct and produce the video.

Currently, the team is comprised of 11 students. Before each class, the camera crew assembles to prepare their equipment for the lecture. Once the cameras are rolling, the video is sent to a switcher run by Claire Schmitt, a sophomore film major that took the course in spring 2016. She watches the four feeds and decides which point of view should be visible to online viewers. The switcher then feeds that video to a computer that makes it ready to view online.

In addition to the live stream, social media plays another role in bringing people into the conversation. Schmitt, along with four other students, runs the class’s social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Although she originally got involved by helping with the live stream, Schmitt soon realized her social media background — she also does social media for THON — might be more useful to the team.

“Using social media and other technologies doesn’t work for every class,” Schmitt said. “But this topic pertains to everyone. Sam doesn’t pick sides — he wants all people to look at things from every perspective. I think it’s important that more people outside Penn State get to hear what he has to say.”

Although the way Richards uses technology in the classroom has changed over the years, his overarching goal has remained the same: to get his students to think. Richards says, above all, he wants his students to question and gain new perspectives on their beliefs.

“If I can spark that conversation into the world, then I’ve achieved the goal of the class,” Richards said. “If you come in as a conservative, I want you to have to be challenged by liberal ideas. If you come in as a liberal, I want you to be challenged by conservative ideas. And then, everything in between. So for me, that's the ideal class on race.”

  • A screenshot of a tweet about Sam Richards' class

    Richards encourages his students to have conversations about his class on social media.

    IMAGE: Celia Parkin
  • A student holds a camera to film Sam Richards' class

    One of the members of the film crew gets ready for class to begin.

    IMAGE: Celia Parkin
  • The live stream team sit in front of the class looking at their computer monitors

    The live stream team monitor their computers during class.

    IMAGE: Celia Parkin
  • A wide shot of students filling Sam Richards' class

    Professor of Sociology Sam Richards teaches Soc 119, Race and Ethnic Relations, to a packed classroom at Penn State.

    IMAGE: Penn State
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Last Updated January 25, 2017