Jul 18 2013

Colleges Take Different Paths to Distance Learning

Some universities dive in with studios while others take a low-cost approach.

Old Dominion University in Virginia has bet big on a distance learning program based on webcams and telepresence gear.

Miguel Ramlatchan, assistant vice president for academic technology services for Old Dominion, says professors record both synchronous and asynchronous broadcasts from the university’s production studio. “Roughly 15 minutes before the professor comes to class, a technician tests all the cameras and microphones to make sure everything is ready to go,” he says.

Cisco Telepresence equipment forms the underlying infrastructure of the system, along with the Cisco Jabber Video for Telepresence client software.  For webcams, Old Dominion uses a combination of the Logitech ConferenceCam BCC950 and Cisco Telepresence PrecisionHD USB cameras.

Ramlatchan says the college aims to offer students online education in the form that works best for them. For example, students can load a Cisco Jabber client on a computer equipped with a webcam and view a telepresence session remotely. Or, they can attend the class in one of the college’s many video conferencing centers.

Old Dominion has video conferencing facilities on its main campus in Norfolk, Va., as well as classrooms in Virginia Beach, Portsmouth and Hampton. The institution’s conferencing system also connects to all of the colleges in the Virginia Community College System and numerous military installations in the state, including Fort Belvoir and Fort Myer.  

“We’ve had the capability to do video conferencing for a long time, but the technology has come such a long way in the past couple of years, especially since most students are walking around campus with one or two webcams on their devices anyway,” says Ramlatchan. He adds that Old Dominion also uses Cisco Show and Share, which lets instructors archive videos of classes that students can view on their own time. 

3 in 10

The number of colleges surveyed that have 24/7 help desk support in place for distance learning

SOURCE: “Managing Online Education Survey” (WCET, August 2013)

Kenneth C. Green, founder of the Campus Computing Project, an annual report on the state of university IT, says Old Dominion typifies many campuses in that it is striving for the right mix of technologies.

“We are still at the early stages where people are figuring out what works well for different academics and different contexts,” Green says. “There’s no one formula that works for everyone.”

Inexpensive Options

Other colleges may opt for a more modest approach by choosing low-cost ways to deliver online education rather than outfitting specially equipped classrooms.

Stephen Franklin, director of academic outreach in the Office of Information Technology at University of California, Irvine, says UC Irvine has adapted TechSmith’s Camtasia Studio to build UCI Replay, a screen and audio capture service that creates a repository of online lectures and videos that students can view on their own devices.

Professors and instructors typically develop PowerPoint presentations that are posted on the site. The presentations often are interspersed with video, and there’s also a search tool, which lets the student search for places in the presentation where the professor mentions a certain topic.

Franklin says the tool makes it easy for professors to post information in 10- or 15-minute increments. “Let’s say a professor has a follow-up to a point he or she felt wasn’t made clearly in class — with UCI Replay, they can make a quick presentation and post it later that night,” he explains.

“What we’ve done is opted for low-cost tools that reach the broadest number of people,” Franklin says. “Our use of video fits well with a student population accustomed to YouTube and video chats done on an ad-hoc basis for various purposes.”

Distance Learning Tips

Russ Poulin, deputy director of research and analysis for the WICHE (Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education) Cooperative for Educational Technologies, offers some suggestions for establishing a distance learning program.

  • Consider technology strategy. Decide if standardized technology such as video conferencing gear and webcams or web-based tools like Google Hangout or YouTube are more appropriate.
  • Closely examine bandwidth requirements. Consider internal and external bandwidth needs; the network or Internet connection may need to be upgraded. Also determine whether students have sufficient access to the Internet. Colleges with rural or inner city students may want to research federal and state grants and find ways for those students to attend sessions in nearby libraries or community centers.
  • Incorporate online learning into a disaster recovery plan. Some colleges are building distance learning into their disaster recovery strategies, so that if a disaster closes down the main campus, classes can resume online.
  • Plan for success. Develop a plan for measured growth over three to five years, with replacement schedules for servers and contracts to scale as needed.

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