Spotlight

Web Conferencing Cuts Costs for California Community College System

With 2.5 million students and 75,000 faculty, the California Community College system has considerable shopping clout with vendors. Using those numbers to its advantage, the CCC has created an immense and cost-effective state-wide Web conferencing system for its 109 member colleges. The conferencing system, originally set up in 2001 and moved to a new vendor in 2007, allows administrators, faculty, and students at any member college to use the system's toll-free number for meetings, classes, and other events. That adds up to tremendous savings for the state's community colleges, which are spread up and down the state across 72 community college districts.

Growth of Electronic Conferencing
The e-conferencing system's popularity is evident in its growth: In 2003, fewer than 1,500 meetings among 15,000 users were held on the e-conferencing system. In four years, usage has grown to 10 times that number, and numbers for 2008 will almost certainly be significantly higher, according to Project Director Blaine Morrow, as the program continues to expand and as he publicizes it further. "We took a gamble [in setting up the system originally]," Morrow said, "and it's really paying off now."

The savings in travel time and expense, as well as reduced time away from work and staff time savings, Morrow estimated, are so widespread and immense that they can't really be calculated.

With headquarters in San Diego, California's southernmost large city, CCC's e-conferencing project, called CCC Confer, serves community college districts ranging in size from a few thousand students to more than a hundred thousand in some districts, and everything in between. The system uses video cameras and optional connections with ordinary telephone services via a toll-free conference call. It relies on Web conferencing and e-learning software and services from Elluminate called Elluminate Live!, which the consortium switched to last year after using a system from another vendor. With either vendor, Morrow estimated, CCC Confer was the company's largest customer.

Part of the reason for the switch was features in Elluminate, although the deal Morrow was able to negotiate using the size of his constituency was a factor as well. And though he said he sees the raft of Web-conferencing products that are currently available as much the same in their basic features, Morrow said that Elluminate offered some additional features specific to teaching that clinched the bid. "Elluminate has some things that we did not see from any other vendor," he said. These include a note-taking feature that allows students to use a note pad during a class without opening a second application, a timer that clocks meeting length, and the ability to include synchronous video from a Web camera on each participant's browser during a meeting.

The product also offers application sharing, so that instructors can share their desktop applications or allow students to control a shared virtual desktop, as well as a whiteboard in which anything displayed is an individual object and can be moved around the board by participants. That means that in a brain-storming session, for example, every student can individually add comments to the whiteboard. That's a feature he also finds handy in business meetings, Morrow said.

Cost Savings and Green Appeal
The conferencing system was originally launched in 2001 with a five-year, $11.5 million grant from the statewide Chancellor's office to one member of the consortium, Palomar College in San Diego County. The program has been gradually expanded since then, and the grant was renewed in 2006.

Information about how to sign up and use the system is disseminated from a portal site, www.cccconfer.org, that includes an online training center with live help or self-paced training, demonstration rooms, and other resource information.

Uses of the system range from administrative meetings, which Morrow estimated make up perhaps a third of the usage, along with distance education, meetings of professional organizations, and office hours between professors and students. Faculty throughout the state use the system to teach online classes, either by integrating CCC Confer into their course management system, such as Blackboard or Moodle, or by directing students to the CCC Confer portal.

A key benefit to planning, managing, and funding the communication system at a state-wide rather than local level, Morrow said, is the ability to leverage the numbers. The shear size of the state's community college system has given him flexibility in selecting a vendor, since it meant that several e-conferencing vendors were eager to work with him. The size of the consortium has also given him clout in asking for specific features, and for support and training as part of the deal.

Along with the dollar savings, Morrow said he likes the environmentally friendly savings in reduced carbon emissions from cutting travel. Unfortunately, he doesn't have a way yet to specifically calculate savings from the Web conferencing system yet, either in real dollars or environmental benefits. "We have talked about that with the vendor," Morrow said. "If we could figure out how far people would have to travel, even if they were going to a central site in California ... the savings would be [huge]. We know that we are saving people a ton of money, we just don't have a good way to calculate it right now."

Morrow said he speaks regularly with other state college systems who are interested in emulating what California is doing, and he encourages schools to contact him for advice and suggestions.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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