Using Versatile Web Conferencing Technology

As one of the premier graduate business schools in the US, the Darden School at the University of Virginia takes every opportunity to adopt best-in-class technologies, whether it is fostering learning and collaboration among our students, or communicating with alumni, or improving school administration. Like many universities, our programs and activities have become increasingly decentralized, and we support a wider range of students, faculty, and outside learning partners. A primary challenge, of course, is ensuring that everyone has easy access to reliable, high-quality services that are personalized and cost effective.

Four years ago we identified that standardizing on a Web conferencing solution would not only support distance learning but would also give administrators, faculty, and students immediate anywhere, anytime access to information and to each other. The idea was to leverage Web conferencing across the three main Darden School of Business programs--Executive Education, the MBA program, and our MBA for Executives program--as well as for ongoing school administration.

When evaluating Web conferencing options, several criteria quickly rose to the top of our list, including a proven technology, ease of deployment, and ease of use. The reality is that our IT team typically manages several projects simultaneously, so any solution had to have a solid track record and be easily deployed. We did not have the time or the resources to individually train every possible user of the system. Plus, there was no way for us to know exactly which computing systems and platforms people would ultimately use.

Driving Academic and Administrative Success

After adopting Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro for Web conferencing, the benefits became evident. In our Executive Education program, faculty can take advantage of Web conferencing to work with corporate clients, especially for pre- and post-course informational and feedback sessions. For instance, in online meetings, professors can engage with executives from a range of industries worldwide to provide them with interactive overviews and discussions about the Executive program curriculum.

Web conferencing is now a critical tool for online distance learning classes--both through real-time meetings and recorded sessions for students unable to attend regularly scheduled hours. During real-time meetings, students can interact directly with faculty by voice or text online, asking questions and sharing their computer screens with professors to go over specific problems. Paul Simko, Associate Dean of the MBA for Executives program, sees much of the value coming from the flexibility Connect affords to both student and faculty.

"Since they travel during the semester, teacher and student can be anywhere, yet still be connected. One of our recent MBA for Executives classes featured the professor in China and students located in England, Mali, and the United States."

Students missing these sessions can easily catch up on subjects by viewing recorded sessions that faculty post on their sites. The recorded sessions provide students with a valuable, efficient way to review material and access new information at their convenience.

Because team learning is integral to many of our courses, Web conferencing offers obvious advantages, especially because our dispersed students need more flexibility than ever in how and where they participate in meetings. In many programs, students are put in teams right away and need a way to work together anytime, anyplace. For Web conferencing to succeed in these collaborative environments, it is essential that both faculty and students can quickly prepare and post content for discussion using familiar, widely adopted tools. Also important is the ability to support a variety of content--video, static presentations, voice, text communications--in an environment that is at once interactive and easily accessible.

Enhanced Responsiveness, Expanded Reach

Beyond the MBA programs, Darden has integrated Web conferencing into many everyday marketing and administrative activities. For example, we have offered targeted recruiting presentations online so that potential students can learn more about our programs. For potential students and recruiters alike, there's little or no need to travel when up-to-date, dynamic presentations can be viewed at home or at work.

The school's admissions office leverages online meetings for last-minute sessions with potential students who might have questions about Darden and its programs. Everyone from the admissions director to the financial director can interact with students and address questions. Web conferencing has helped give all prospects more ongoing, direct interaction with the school; this can definitely make a difference in helping to make Darden a prospect's first choice.

Stay Open to New Opportunities

By adopting a flexible Web conferencing solution, we continue to discover new ways of using the technology on campus and beyond. For example, at least one department has used Adobe Connect to interview job candidates who live in distant locations to engage with the individual (and perhaps review an online work portfolio) before inviting them to our campus.

The same Web conferencing technology is also being used to deliver a series of career services tutorials that focus on professional topics, including how to create a great resume and ways to network effectively. Additional modules focus on salary negotiation and alumni online resources.

Clearly, an important aspect of any Web conferencing strategy is the ability to use the tools across many areas to maximize the benefits. For schools, it is not unusual to have to operate under tight budgets, and recent financial news has made things even more challenging. If done properly, deploying the right Web conferencing solution can deliver major, tangible benefits across diverse communities within a university--a definite win for students and faculty and for administrators looking to succeed in today's economic climate.

About the Author

Christian Lehmbeck is Director, Darden Media at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business.

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