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Schools Get Virtual

New flexible collaboration tools can enable a better student-instructor distance learning experience.
University Business, Jun 2005

Capitol College was in the distance learning business long before it became an ubiquitous phrase. Founded in 1927 as a correspondence college, Capitol now has about 600 undergraduate students on its campus in Laurel, Md., and 600 online students every semester earning their master's degrees in engineering, computer science, information technologies or business.

In the 90s, courses were delivered via satellite videoconferencing, but this didn't offer the kind of breadth Capitol felt it could achieve using the internet, says Dianne Veenstra, vice president of Information and Outcomes Assessment at Capitol. "We had a home-grown [web-based] system in place, and that gave us an advantage over our competitors," she says, but the system wasn't sufficiently robust. Danielle Safe, director of Online Learning Support, could only run one or two classes per night. "Capitol had experienced too much growth, the old system couldn't keep pace. Centra offered us the capability to do as many as ten multiple simultaneous classes a night."

When the college went looking for a new delivery method, Centra Software's ( Centra 7 collaboration system fit the bill. Capitol implemented the Centra software in spring 2002. "We were committed to using voiceover IP. It's what we had and what we wanted to keep," Veenstra says. The internet interface is "ubiquitous and familiar" to their student population, making it the logical choice to reach the greatest number of students.

Demand for Capitol's master's in network security degree spiked after 9/11, making the expansion even more necessary, Veenstra says, and enrollment still shows a steady increase.

A typical class is comprised of eight live sessions and eight asynchronous units that enhance what the students have learned in class. Classes average ten students, with no more than 25 allowed to enroll in a single course. This small class size maximizes the interaction possible and keeps the quality of the class experience high. "We're a small college," says Veenstra. "We pride ourselves on being small. We're not going to change that in the online environment."

With Centra handling the server maintenance, IT hours for Safe and her department are drastically reduced. "We had expected to do that ourselves," she says, but "when you're a small organization you're better off letting the trained professionals handle the big stuff." Her department deals with the clean-up aspects of the process, taking down older recordings after a certain date and generally keeping things tidy. And because Centra works well on a dial-up connection--was designed that way, in fact--there are no issues with students who don't have broadband access. As Capitol adds video features and undergraduate courses to its online offerings, that may need to change. Centra will be rolling out higher bit-rate audio, more video options, multiple video windows, and webcams to take advantage of what broadband can offer.

Unlike many distance learning courses, the bulk of Capitol's programs are not available anytime, anywhere. Students are expected to "show up" for class by logging in at the designated time. This method allows for real-time interaction between the professor and student as well as collaboration between students. Class presentations are given from remote locations, PowerPoint slides can be uploaded on the fly, and student groups can brainstorm ideas on a virtual whiteboard. In the asynchronous portion of the course, students use Blackboard ( to access assignments, view the course syllabus and instructor information, check up on their grades, take online tests, interact with classmates through the discussion board, use file sharing and chat sessions, and participate in groups. Recorded classes are made available to people who've missed a class in the same way that lecture notes might be shared with a student who missed a class. Even students who attended class can refer back to the recording to refresh their memories and study for exams. "You feel like you're in a class," Veenstra says. The idea, as Veenstra would have it, is to mirror the classroom environment without requiring students to travel to the campus--except for graduation. That happens only on campus.

As web-based learning grows more and more ubiquitous, the question has to be asked, how does the use of these tools change what students experience as "higher education"? "People come to us with a conception of what online education is," says Veenstra, "but [the way we're doing this] is completely different from other online classes." Veenstra insists that the students "know" their classmates and professors by voice if not by face, and that the experience of attending and interacting within these classes is no less rich than in a classroom environment.

Perhaps the subject matter makes a difference. Capitol College classes are geared toward technology, science, and business, not a liberal arts curriculum. Susan Crane, a history professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson, feels strongly that, in her discipline, distance learning should not displace conventional classroom instruction. For her students, "interaction, spontaneity, and discussion all take place in the classroom in ways which I don't believe can be duplicated online."

"The whole idea of collaborative tools is to bridge time and space.
These tools are making possible things that never happened before.
You have to think about a meeting as a different creature."
-Bart Collins, Purdue University

Centra Software Vice President of Product Marketing and Management Rob McKinney agrees--to a point. "You're never going to replace the college experience, the shared experience" of living on a campus and attending classes. "But that's not to say that collaboration tools like these are not effective or that they have no place." What's needed, he says, is a different way of teaching, "a different way of reaching the audience. Teachers have to tailor the content to work in an online environment."

Small schools or large schools, the need to get students, faculty, and administration working together still exists. Purdue University boasts a whopping 69,000 students distributed on campuses all over Indiana. On the main campus in West Lafayette alone there are 39,000 students. Bart Collins, director of Digital Content for Teaching and Learning Technologies at Purdue, says that, given these numbers, the need for long-distance organization is obvious. In an organization of this size, departments are equally large; Collins' IT department has nearly 500 people, plus another 500 IT professionals placed in various departments all over the school. The ability to communicate and collaborate effectively in this kind of environment "works better with a technological infrastructure." Collins began the search for a product that could meet the needs of an extra-large group. "There are alternatives to being there [for a meeting or a class]."

He wanted a web-based system simply because most students and faculty already have a desktop and an internet connection so there is little investment in a new technology. Audio and video together he deemed "expensive," less easy to scale well, and requiring tight scheduling. The challenge then was to discover, "How can the tools in that environment benefit education?" By "playing with" Macromedia's ( Breeze, a web-based application that uses PowerPoint and Macromedia FlashPlayer to build and display presentation materials, he is beginning to be able to answer that question.

The whole idea of collaborative tools is to bridge time and space, he says. In terms of administration and faculty, "finding a room is difficult even when we're all on the same campus." Where before, if you missed a meeting you were out of luck, "recording a meeting and making it available to view on demand is not a bad substitute." Tools that allow this kind of virtual meeting are "getting easier to use every day. Functionality is not the issue: how you utilize the technology to make things possible is."

Collins dismisses the idea that the use of technology diminishes the quality of either the interaction or the educational outcome. "There's the assumption that anything else is a lower quality substitution at best, but these tools are making possible things that haven't happened before. You have to think about a meeting as a different creature."

Students, in Collins' experience, already get it. "In some ways," he says, "they're already past it." Desktops with webcams are already old hat. Student lifestyles are different from what they were a generation ago. They discount the idea that a person needs to be physically present in order to experience fully what is happening at another location. Flexibility is more important to them; how and when they communicate is up in the air. "I walk around lecturing, watching kids send instant messages while I'm talking," says Collins. "It may annoy me, but I have to acknowledge that a classroom is a place to have other relationships, too."

The cliche that "if you build it they will come" does not apply here. "Just because I want to foster communication doesn't mean they'll use this technology," Collins says. Students are just beginning to use the collaboration tools he's providing; they've had to realize on their own that the tools will help them meet their goals, he says. Students have to meet to collaborate on class projects but the teacher is not mandating how they meet. When the group has trouble getting together in real time and space, they turn to the web-based tools. "You can see students grasping that 'this will help me achieve my goal,'" says Collins.

In the end, it's all in the implementation. Collins freely admits that there are plenty of unproductive ways of using this technology, ways that detract from, rather than enhance, the learning experience.

"Effective implementation matters," Collins says. "You have to keep in mind what your goals are. They have to be consistent with the implementation."

Ultimately, it's not how good the tools are or how good the users are at employing them that matters; it is the match-up of a carefully analyzed need and a specific implementation. "These tools create flexibility," Collins says, "and increase the likelihood that everyone can participate in a meaningful way."

Elizabeth Crane is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, Calif.

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