Collaboration

SJSU Brings Online Students Face-to-Face

San Jose State University embraced online learning back in 1998 when many colleges were still skeptical about the budding educational channel's value.

Over the last 11 years the institution has experimented with technology tools to enhance its Web-based course offerings. One of San Jose State's most recent additions to that lineup is a videoconferencing system that allows faculty and students to interact in a "face to face" format online.

"We wanted a tool that would help students feel less isolated when taking Web-based classes," explained Debbie Faires, assistant director for distance learning for the School of Library and Information Science. After reviewing the various products available on the market, the institution selected Live and Next, both of which are developed by Elluminate of Pleasanton, CA.

Live enables real-time collaboration between instructors and students and allows for the addition of synchronous content to asynchronous distance learning. The Next suite comprises two different products, Plan for organizing, scripting, and packaging content and activities for live, online sessions; and Publish, for the creation of standalone recordings or industry-standard audio files from session recordings, and the storage of those files on a computer, learning management system (LMS), Web site, or other media.

Elluminate offers both a hosted solution and a traditional software purchase option. San Jose State chose the latter, according to Faire, who said the selection was made based on the school's wish to host the software itself. The installation process went smoothly for the school, which has one main campus and about 30,000 students. Professors decide whether they want to use the online collaboration tool with their Web-based courses, with many of them using the utility to conduct synchronized class meetings.

"They'll meet once or twice a week online, with a professor working through a PowerPoint presentation," explained Faire. "Students can react to the presentation online and then break out into smaller groups to discuss the content. They then regroup and bring their results back to discuss with the entire class."

Getting faculty up and running on the new program posed challenges, according to Faire. The first semester that the videoconferencing was in place, "a few early adopters tried it out," she said, but others were reluctant to jump in so quickly. After a few successful tests--and a promise to help students learn the system--Faire said that use of Elluminate began to take hold around the campus.

Peer pressure also came into play during the first year that San Jose State was using the videoconferencing utility. "As students got enthusiastic about it, they started asking their professors why they weren't using it in their online sessions," said Faire, who also developed a peer-mentor system to get faculty members onboard. "Many of them got into it on their own, but others were more comfortable learning the ropes from us."

Guest lecturers also use the system, which allows them to either meet with students directly online or record their lectures in advance for later use. Faculty members rely on the videoconferencing utility to establish "office hours" online, thus freeing up their time and allowing students to log in and meet with their professors from anywhere.

"We have students all over the world, and many of them never even come to campus as a result of our Web conferencing system," said Faire, who estimated that about half of the system's usage hours involve student-to-student meetings. "We have a lot of student groups that meet online and get their agendas taken care of without ever having to set foot on campus."

Faire said the system, which includes closed-captioning capabilities for the hearing-impaired, is used extensively by San Jose State's School of Library and Information Science. A 3,000-student graduate program with participants in 40 states and 14 countries, the school's online program enables students to keep their jobs as they work on their degrees, said Faire, "and our videoconferencing capabilities help create an interactive, collaborative environment for them."

Since implementation, Elluminate's usage has grown to the point where more than half of the school's faculty rely on it as an instructional and administrative tool. Nancy MacKay, a lecturer for the School of Library and Information Science, is one of them. "There is something magical about hearing the human voice that makes online classes more personal," said MacKay.

The system has also helped San Jose University meet its goals of becoming more environmentally friendly. "With Web conferencing there are no travel costs, and there's a reduction in pollution and energy usage," said Faire. "We can hold classes and meetings without interruption when buildings on campus are closed." (The school is planning to close campus buildings on Fridays next summer.)

Based on its successful use of two Elluminate products, San Jose State will soon add Elluminate VCS, a multipoint video collaboration product for desktop users, to its technology lineup. Faire said it's a natural progression for the university, whose students reportedly think that they "learn better" when the online environment is collaborative and interactive.

"Students are enthusiastic about their ability to hear each other's voices and talk face-to-face with faculty members in a group setting," said Faire. "It's difficult for them to get that kind of synchronized interaction in any other way on the Web."

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