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Higher Education Moves to Online Classrooms

Web conferencing, eLearning allow students to progress with confidence
University Business, Dec 2008

Jason Shaeffer expected that improving eLearning services at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco would lead to better recruitment of national and international students. What he wasn't quite anticipating was how much it would change the way students learn and pursue their passions.

After the university adopted an online recruitment and education program, it increased recruiting efforts by 30 percent and saved thousands of dollars in travel costs. Perhaps even more important were the practical applications of eLearning technology for students trying to earn art degrees from remote locations.

The new technology helped students have lessons similar to an on-site class or personal meeting with a professor using a laptop computer. The phone calls and e-mails between students and professors were replaced with streamlined web conferencing, and classwork seemed more like an interactive lecture and less like a reading assignment.

"A lot of students have jobs and families and lives and it's very difficult to make it to a class at 8 in the morning," Shaeffer says. "And to make it to San Francisco isn't possible for a lot of students. The latest eLearning tools allow us to recruit and teach these students."

The Academy of Art, which boasts 11,000 students from more than 40 countries, is the largest private school of art and design in the United States. It's also one of the many higher education institutions in the United States and abroad that are offering better and more sophisticated eLearning tools to help students learn with confidence without spending a moment in class.

Students are increasingly able to chat with professors about projects via computer using tools like Adobe's Acrobat Connect Pro. Schools are integrating software like Connect Pro into existing computing systems to help deliver courses and allow students to chat.

Students can even take care of complicated tasks like defending a thesis or an academic presentation online. Aspiring artists can show others their work by sharing a computer screen and record classes or tutoring sessions for later use.

"In the past our student's computers weren't fast enough but we're at a nice point in online education where everything is coming together," Shaeffer says.

Improved eLearning and web conferencing tools also allow universities to "surround" students with content appropriate to their particular learning style. Students who are visual learners, for example, can participate in a narrated slideshow on a certain period in art history.

Students are also finding that they can share work with peers or chat about a project while in two different locations. Web conferencing systems allow them to meet in real-time and see who they are talking to with web cameras.

The Academy of Art even holds community building sessions once a semester using web conferencing. "It allows us to meet as a community," Shaeffer says. "It provides a direct and human experience, just like chatting."

Art students aren't the only ones benefiting new eLearning technology. The latest eLearning tools are helping busy executives earn master's degrees while continuing with their business careers.

The University of Virginia's Darden School of Business offers a master's in business administration for executives program similar to an on-site MBA. Remote students might only visit the Charlottesville, Va. campus once a month but most spend about 20 hours a week studying for the program. The bulk of that work is done via computer, sometimes when students are commuting via train.

The executive MBA program was started two years ago to give people in the business world a step up in their careers. The trick is in balancing a job and a family with the full academic load of a committed MBA student.

"One challenge was to keep students involved when they are off-site," says James Weissman, a multimedia developer at the Darden School of Business. Tools like Connect Pro allow students to meet with professors during "virtual" office hours or even meet with other students and use an online whiteboard to work on a business presentation.

Faculty needs the same flexibility. In one instance, a professor traveling to Spain was able to hold office hours using web conferencing with students who were on the East Coast.

"It allowed him to go abroad but it was still a completely smooth experience," Weissman says. "The whole point of this program is to give people the flexibility to do their work."

Distance learning institutions—schools where students might never set a foot on campus—are also able to offer students a more "immersive" experience. Excelsior College, an accredited, private, non-profit college in Albany, N.Y., serves primarily working adults through its 36 degree programs in areas such as business, health sciences, liberal arts, nursing and technology. With an enrollment of 35,000, Excelsior's online courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels include subjects as diverse as criminal justice, nuclear technology and health care informatics.

"We are exclusively a distance learning college and constantly seeking ways to improve our online services," says John Prusch, a senior instructional designer at the school. "Just a few years ago distance learning courses were primarily handled using CD-ROMs and e-mail. With persons located in different states, meetings among faculty and staff were difficult to organize and often awkward to conduct. Student contact with instructors was via general e-mail and an occasional telephone call."

E-Learning and web conferencing are quickly changing things for both faculty members and students. Faculty meetings with staff around the country, even an assistant dean who lives in Georgia, are now held using web conferencing. Cameras for the online conferences are set up via tripods. Faculty development and training courses are also conducted via web conferencing.

Prusch says that in the past staff and faculty would be sending e-mails back and forth, correcting things, and then trying to tie something together for an end product. "It could be really confusing," he said.

E-Learning tools like web conferencing are also catching on with students and will be used more regularly in the college's virtual classrooms. Students now participate in online tutorial sessions where they study collaboratively in groups using Connect Pro and the college hopes to use web conferencing soon for more advanced remote learning sessions.

"It really adds a whole other, valuable dimension to the classroom," Prusch says. "Students and faculty interact and collaborate on a scale not previously available."

What the push toward eLearning on college campuses means in the long run that students will have more flexibility and options when it comes to earning advanced degrees.

While spending time on a campus will still be a part of the learning experience for most, the move toward eLearning will allow all students to get a leg up on their careers, deal with family needs and even pursue other passions without taking away from academics.

It's a case of the best new tools offering students fewer obstacles as they pursue their dreams — whether it's a career as an art historian or a climb to the top of a corporation.

"We work hard to make sure the concepts come alive and these tools allow us to do that," the Academy of Art's Schaffer says.

Megan Stewart is director, Worldwide Higher Education, for Adobe Systems.