Helping Hands Solve Equipment, Software Problems
By Chris Stansbury
Few things are more gratifying to educators than receiving new equipment that will improve their education methods. Frustration may quickly set in, however, when that equipment proves difficult to use.
In June 2006, Dr. Paul Alston, chairman of East Carolina University’s Department of Rehabilitation Studies, wanted to implement some new, expensive and complex video production equipment capable of capturing audiovisual recordings of students’ counseling sessions. The recorded sessions could then be viewed and evaluated by students and instructors.
The goal was to have the students operate the video cameras themselves, creating an audio-visual recording through cameras set up in several counseling rooms. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before all parties involved faced major obstacles.
“Our students found the system complex and difficult to use,” Alston said.
Some of the issues involved switching between servers while others related to faulty recordings or erasure of previously recorded sessions.
“The goal was to have a user-friendly system for students while at the same time freeing up much needed time for our faculty and staff,” Alston added. “Instead, our departmental assistants and program operators were often forced to stop their normal workload to set up sessions or attempt to salvage an erased recording.”
Alston was faced with two options: hire a private software company or find some help on campus. He choose the latter, and in a spring a partnership begin.
Altson teamed up with ECU’s Department of Computer Science to assess the problem and find maximum results at minimum expense.
ECU computer science professor Dr. Nasseh Tabrizi, along with students Chris Westbrook and Mitzi Ponce, attacked the problem head-on to develop a user-friendly version of the same system and eliminate excessive intervention from faculty and staff.
“Too many times technology tends to change us, when it really shouldn’t be that way,” Tabrizi said. “We really need to create technology to meet our (customer’s) needs.”
In the following months, Tabrizi and his team developed methods to streamline teaching and student activities, while identifying ways to reduce the learning curve for new students each semester.
“We developed a system using software engineering practice specifically for Rehabilitation Studies and the problems they experienced,” Tabrizi said.
“Some students would record a session in one room, but it would end up on a different server unless it was properly configured,” Alston said.
“The training was too intense and students were opting against using the equipment because they were losing projects and costly time was wasted in failed attempts.”
Tabrizi and his students developed a series of interface capabilities that allow students to use dropdown menus in each counseling room to properly route the recording to the proper server.
Additionally, students could save sessions under their own names, eliminating lost files or erased recordings. Faculty and staff now serve merely in informational and security capacities while instructors and students communicate more clearly and effectively.
After about five weeks of implementation, Tabrizi’s team developed a single screen that accepts input from all users and passes it on to the software.
“Dr. Tabrizi and his team continued to work with us even in minor adjustments needed, and we were fully functional by the start of the second summer session,” Alston said.
“I really believe partnerships like this one can pave the road for future projects between departments on ECU’s campus.”
Tabrizi agreed that more departments at ECU should adopt this approach. “Everyone wants the most highly qualified persons addressing their problems. We have that caliber of expertise all over our campus and Ph.D. level specialists who can find solutions in a very cost effective manner,” he said.
Tabrizi developed ECU’s Software Engineering program and directs the Technology Innovation Lab.
“I am always available to help other departments with all their software development, e-commerce, mobile and wireless computing, virtual reality-based and assistive technologies in distance education and medicine, and other related needs,” he said.
“Students working on these projects gain real world professional software engineering experience while at ECU and are better prepared for high tech job opportunities.”
Several of Tabrizi’s students received other “real world” work experience during the spring semester when they collaborated with students at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in India to create software using the latest software engineering practices.
The advantages of the international collaboration for the ECU students were the exposure to international team collaboration and telecommuting, which is fairly common among larger software companies, and the chance to produce software for Unisys under the supervision of software engineers from that information technology services company, said Tabrizi.
Students from both universities were divided into two work teams with students from each university on each. Even though the time difference of nine and one-half hours was an added challenge, the students presented their collaborative projects to Unisys at the end of the semester.
Tabrizi and Carol Collins, the other ECU faculty member from the Department of Computer Science involved in the project, plan to pursue similar international student collaborations in the future and to publish a paper on the course.