17:24 PM

‘Jag Studio’ Transforms Online Learning with Serious Production Value


Eduardo Diaz, Audio Visual Systems Designer with South Texas College, sets up Jag Studio, the college’s new high-tech recording studio, which is turning online lectures into interactive experiences for students.

Lights, camera, biology class! Imagine an online course that’s anything but death by PowerPoint.

Not only is the video crystal clear, recorded by television-studio-quality cameras. But your professors can demonstrate science experiments up close and in high definition. And, they can solve math problems in real-time, writing on a white board while facing the camera as easy-to-follow notes appear on your screen.

It’s not science fiction. It’s South Texas College’s new high-tech recording studio –turning online lectures into an interactive experience that feels almost like sitting in a classroom.

“The student has the same, or, in some cases, even better visuals than they would in a face-to-face course,” explains Biology Instructor Dr. Maria Cervantes.

An 11-year South Texas College vet, Cervantes is known for helping biology faculty land the competitive SEA PHAGE research grant in 2019. While conducting real research on beating antibiotic-resistant bacteria, STC students discovered a phage with unique DNA, and their work is being featured by two scientific journals.

The professor’s dream for a recording studio started as far back as 2017 when she became chair of the Biology department. Cervantes uses the board a lot when she teaches and is committed to hands-on learning and classroom connection — especially in her virtual sections.

“It is a true testament of how much all these different departments want to work together to build something that is going to be helpful for the students."
Dr. Maria Y. Cervantes - STC Biology Dept. Program Chair

“So much research shows that students do much, much better in a course where they can see the instructor,” says Cervantes, who believes that a fuzzy head floating over a PowerPoint presentation is just not enough.

Enter STC’s brand-new “Jag Studio,” a state-of-the-art recording facility located on the Pecan campus. The studio opened last November after years of researching, planning and building, employing high-tech equipment to maximize online learning interaction across all disciplines.

“When you see it in action, it’s hard to believe,” says Dr. Rachel Sale, Dean of Distance Learning. The studio can fit about five people inside with social distancing, and its two large, high-definition screens allow instructors to see both their notes and the participants’ view simultaneously. With star-quality lighting in the modern, distraction-free studio, the end product is both powerful and professional.

According to the dean, “The cameras are all 4K, like you would expect in a regular television studio.”

Jag Studio gives instructors a secure, private area to record their lessons. It’s designed to be easily sanitized between uses and contains a completely ADA-compliant podium so that professors can stand, sit, or have a wheelchair accommodated.

There’s also an employee at hand in the nearby Distance Learning office to help instructors set up and record. It’s touches like these that Cervantes says makes the studio exceptionally user-friendly: “They basically press a button, the camera and everything turn on, and it’s ready to go.”

The instructor feels humbled that the idea came to life through the hard work of so many. Fundamental to the project’s vision and creation were Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Anahid Petrosian, Interim President Dr. Plummer, and Director of Educational Technologies Dr. Marie Evans. The Educational Technology department provided funding and took care of equipment specs and studio installation. Now supported by Dr. Sale and the Distance Learning department, Jag Studio is a celebration of innovative collaboration.

“It is a true testament of how much all these different departments want to work together to build something that is going to be helpful for the students,” beams Cervantes.

And the best part of all? Location, location, location.

The studio is right in the middle of campus, which Cervantes believes will encourage broader engagement: “It opens up to the idea that it’s available to all faculty.”

So far, about 25 instructors across disciplines have employed the studio to create course lectures, with many more in line for the Spring semester. Meanwhile, the College itself has used the studio to produce professional conference presentations and is currently developing open educational resource videos. From high-quality production to transcription and ADA services, the studio will allow the school to create top-of-the-line learning resources at no cost to students.

Once the ball gets rolling with recordings, students will be invited to participate in a survey to give feedback on virtual classroom interaction, including ideas on how the school can improve. In the future, students may also be able to access the studio themselves to film class presentations, panels and even debates. And that’s only the beginning.

“It’s not just about teaching, but reaching out to our community as well,” says Cervantes. Community collaborations include a Saturday morning children’s program with Pharr Library. Using adorable puppets, STC faculty will produce segments to showcase STEM opportunities to young learners.

“There’s a lot of potential with the studio,” says the professor. “It’s just a matter of using our creativity and initiative to put some of these ideas into motion.”

In the coming semester, Cervantes will be a part of Distance Learning’s workshops to train faculty to use the equipment. And once the studio gets going, the professor knows that interest will take off. Case in point: as part of their research for the project, Cervantes and the team visited Texas A&M University, which recently created a recording space of its own.

“When they started the studio, they had about 50 faculty use it,” recalls Cervantes. “By the end of their first year, after word got out... they had over 1,200 people sign up!”

The professor is awed that the dream to help online learners has been championed by so many colleagues. She confides that the studio has turned out even better than her initial idea, thanks to the College’s unbeatable teamwork.

“It took the specialties and the funding capabilities of several different departments for this to happen,” says Sale. “It’s just another example of what STC is known for… [and] why we were able to adapt with COVID. Everybody works together.”

Plus, the timing for Jag Studio’s first full semester couldn’t be more perfect.

According to Cervantes, “Now, because of the pandemic and having most of our courses online, this tool is coming to play right at a time when we need it most.”