How Collaboration Improves the Classroom Experience

Online classes are improving every day thanks to advances in unified communications.

Some educators may continue to debate whether online classes measure up to face-to-face instruction, but there’s no debate when it comes to the value of online classes today compared with just a few short years ago.

Collaboration tools — from presence and video conferencing to instant messaging and social connectivity — have done much to enhance the online learning experience. Students no longer feel like outside observers watching classes on a grainy video stream. Instead, they actively participate in each and every lesson or lab.

We recently showcased how the University of Maryland School of Dentistry has recorded and stored classroom and laboratory lectures for more than a decade. Each classroom offers professors a smart podium with tablet controls and a headset microphone, along with annotation features. Students can stream lectures live and participate in the class session as it’s unfolding. They can also view lectures later.

96%

Students at the University of Maryland’s School of Dentistry who say they were drawn to the program because of the video lecture options

SOURCE: University of Maryland School of Dentistry

Institutions frequently leverage products such as Cisco Systems WebEx and TelePresence to create hybrid online classrooms, which come close to resembling in-classroom experiences.

The Maryland dental school’s online classes are incredibly popular: A student survey revealed that 96 percent of students were first drawn to the program because of its lecture options.

Attracting Students with Online Options

California Baptist University in Riverside, Calif., has seen similar results. More than 35 percent of CBU’s 5,500 students now take online courses — up from about 500 students two years ago.

The reason, in part, is the quality of the online courses. CBU opened an Online Professional Studies Division to accommodate the rising demand for an online curriculum. Cisco UC tools played a key role in the university’s success. Officials say WebEx delivers high-quality video that lets professors interact with students just as they would in person.

“Education isn’t about a physical classroom anymore,” says Tran Hong, CBU’s associate vice president of technology. “UC allows us to reach out to our students anywhere in the world.”

Indeed, that is essential as higher education institutions compete for new students. Progressive UC technology appeals to top-notch students looking for a unique learning experience. The technology also attracts quality faculty members who want to integrate the latest advances into their teaching.

These tools extend higher education’s reach to engage more students, more effectively and more often. What’s more, UC provides analytics for evaluating and improving curriculum.

But it takes time for professors and instructors to learn and adopt these tools. To help grow use, IT leaders must ensure they provide training that lets professors tap into the power available from UC.

Looking Ahead in the Digital Learning Space

In the future, hybrid classrooms will leverage online collaboration tools so that students can build off one another’s knowledge.

The reality is that many students prefer these learning environments. The days of lugging a backpack full of books across campus are coming to an end, especially at institutions with large, part-time student populations.

The ability to provide such students with an integrated classroom experience online may be the reason they decide to choose your institution over another.

If you aren’t getting the most out of UC, your institution won’t be a competitor in the future.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s new UniversITy blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #UniversITy hashtag.

AdamGregor/Thinkstock
Jul 17 2015