Apr 02 2012

Three Must-Have Virtual Learning Tools

Lecture capture, webinars and interactive web conferencing are the primary tech tools for virtual learning.

Most virtual-learning technologies fall into three broad categories. These are not precise divisions — technologies and functionalities overlap as each category evolves.

Lecture capture: These technologies have come a long way from their roots in rough audio and videotape recordings of class sessions. A lecture capture system (LCS) records every aspect of the presentation, including all the ancillary materials, such as PowerPoint slides, interactive whiteboard annotations or output from a document camera. The recordings are then edited and annotated to create rich, complex presentations for asynchronous viewing by students. Many lecture capture systems also stream live audio and video, offering remote real-time access to the presentation.

In a software-based LCS, an agent is downloaded onto the presenter’s computer, which is networked with the other hardware (microphone, video camera and interactive whiteboard) used for the session. The software agent integrates the output from the various tools, including keystrokes on the speaker’s computer. When the edited recording of the session is complete, the LCS automatically distributes a link to students registered in the course and others on a predetermined distribution list.

Instructors can also release the lectures on a set schedule. Many systems include tools that promote student interaction, such as polls or requests for responses to the captured content. Results of the polling and student commentary are then integrated into the presentation. They also offer high-definition recording and playback at a pixel resolution of 1920x1200 or better.

Webinars: These interactive online presentations are usually delivered first in real time and then recorded and made available for review or first-time viewing by a new audience. With their highly structured format, webinars offer an excellent platform for professors to tighten the class focus or expand on important topics in the course. The original live sessions usually feature question-and-answer components, either via voice or text chat. At Northeastern University in Boston, for instance, a professor uses a weekly webinar to provide extra guidance in an online graduate educational administration course in organizational change. Using remote desktop sharing, instructors can talk students through complex topics while using a variety of tools and applications to display information on their computer screens.

The technology needed to support a webinar varies with the technical complexity of the presentation. Webinars work best if everyone in the audience has a high-speed Internet connection. There are many stand-alone software offerings on the market that let colleges or instructors create and deliver webinars. That functionality is also available in many course or learning management systems. Hosted webinar applications are also available as cloud services.

Interactive web conferencing: Most web conferencing systems are based on two-way communication over a distance, with the Internet providing the link between locations. Interactive web conferences can range anywhere from an online chat about homework to a lecture delivered via telepresence.

Colleges and universities often use interactive web conferencing to extend the geographic reach of classes, lectures and meetings. Web conferencing can let a professor or expert speaker deliver a lecture simultaneously to multiple classrooms located on separate campuses in various parts of the country (or world) and respond to questions from students in any of the locations in real time. For instance, West Hills Community College District in California uses web conferencing to offer real-time instruction simultaneously to students at the college’s three campuses in Lemoore, Coalinga and Firebaugh, as well as at the Lemoore Naval Air Station.

The requirements for the most basic forms of interactive web conferencing are pretty simple: a software application and an Internet connection. Many colleges use web conferencing for virtual-learning courses, virtual review sessions for traditional or blended classes, or collaboration among professors and/or students at separate sites. The technologies necessary to support web conferencing are readily available: microphones; webcams or digital video cameras; network connections to stored content; and additional hardware tools such as document cameras, projectors and interactive whiteboards.

For more information turn to the CDW•G white paper on Virtual Learning in Higher Education.