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Teaching & Learning Technology


Teaching and learning is reaching new heights via powerful (and sometimes, unexpected) collaboration tools: meeting, conferencing, class capture applications--even wikis and open source course management systems. Find your campus collaboration model here.

Collaborate!Years ago, as a Spanish instructor, Stacey Powell developed some pretty hefty biceps. No, she didn't tone her arms lugging textbooks or dictionaries; she built them up carrying audio cassettes. In those days, in addition to workbook assignments, students were required to record themselves pronouncing different phrases and words, and submit the tapes each week. With 30 students in each class, toting those tapes soon became a weighty task.

Things certainly have changed since then. Today, as director of Auburn University's (AL) Foreign Language Multimedia Center, Powell has eliminated the tapes completely, turning instead to web-based collaboration tools from Wimba. From the privacy of their own dorm rooms, students simply log in to the school's Blackboard interface, then access Wimba Voice Tools to download sample pronunciations, record themselves repeating the pronunciations, and then upload their work to the virtual classroom, for teachers to evaluate. All the students need is a microphone (they can either purchase one themselves, or rely on the equipment in the school's computer lab).

"With these tools, I can hear every student practice pronunciations, and I can send them feedback on an individual basis," says Powell, who notes that all of the university's introductory programs in French, German, and Italian currently use the technology. Because the school does not assess student performance vis-à-vis teaching methods, she admits,

"We don't know how the technology is impacting their performance overall. But it definitely is enabling them to practice oral language skills more than ever before."

Auburn isn't the only school to enjoy the benefits of next-generation online collaboration tools; across the country, a number of schools have embraced the technologies, as well. These new tools aren't simply extensions of existing content management systems or newfangled fads in distance education. Instead, most seek to "virtualize" different aspects of the classroom experience, providing online environments that facilitate collaboration in the form of discussion, document sharing, knowledge transfer, and more. Some of these institutions include Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (IN), Southern Utah University, The University of Kansas, Case Western Reserve University (OH), Whitman College (WA), and the University of Michigan. Each school has approached the enabling of online collaboration differently, and all six strategies-- from wikis to open source collaborative environments--are proving to be successful.

Collaborating for IT

MOST COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES have embraced collaboration tools to recreate the classroom environment between students and teachers online. Yet, at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, technologists recently deployed a new collaboration tool to help each other as they develop new programs and products for the College of Arts and Sciences.

The software they use is Central Desktop, offered by the vendor of the same name. According to Dale Pike, associate dean for instructional and information technologies, IT workers use the tool much like they would a wiki--it's a place where they can share knowledge, answer questions, and exchange documents pertinent to particular projects in the works. In fact, the program establishes a collaborative environment that operates in a standard web interface. This interface helps track document versioning, and creates a knowledge database with hotlinks to important files. Pike says that perhaps the biggest benefit is that the technology integrates seamlessly with the school's Microsoft e-mail client, enabling users to send and receive updates through their Outlook application.

"When you're tackling as many projects in a given day as we are, having something that fits seamlessly into your standard approach is a huge benefit," he says. "That kind of flexibility makes our jobs easy."

While the university's College of Arts and Sciences doesn't currently utilize the technology outside of the IT department, Pike notes that he and his colleagues are lobbying to roll out the technology to faculty members. He estimates that, provided the school earmarks appropriate funding, this transformation could take place as early as the 2007-2008 school year.

Wonder of Wikis

The newest efforts in collaboration revolve around wikis (a contraction of "wiki wiki," the Hawaiian term for fast). These websites allow visitors to add, remove, edit, and change content directly online. They also allow for linking among any number of pages. The ease of interaction and operation makes wikis effective tools for mass collaboration (think Wikipedia, only on a smaller scale), which may be why, in recent years, many schools have embraced these and similar technologies for academic program and tool collaboration (see "Collaborating for IT," side bar).

The largest effort and most renowned of these wikis is Case Wiki, a comprehensive site that is the brainchild of Case Western Reserve University. The site debuted in 2005, and was built with MediaWiki, a free software wiki package available online. Today, the Case Wiki site offers an encyclopedic reference about the school and its surroundings, via information contributed by members of the university community. Information generally falls into one of six categories: People, Academics, Organizations, Campus Life, Around Case, and Other, which contains data about school policies and IT.

Site administrator Jeremy Smith says that as of April 15, the site contained 787 substantial articles and 2,390 uploaded files. What makes these files unique is that while they can be created only by members of the Case Western community, they are viewable by everyone in the world. The whole idea of wikis is to encourage collaborative editing of files, Smith says, but he admits that Case Wiki still has a long way to go; although the site has 600 registered users, Smith says only 13 percent of them account for 65 percent of the changes.

He writes in a recent blog post: "I think those numbers are still soft, because many of those persons play inside of 'walled gardens.' That is, they spend a lot of time editing their own pages (just a lot of times)." He uses the phrase "self-correcting" to describe the process of collaborative editing, and adds, "There isn't a lot of cross-pollination going on." At least, not yet.

Cross-pollination is, however, alive and well inside a new wiki at The University of Kansas. There, Nils Gore, a professor of architecture, has turned to the technology to coordinate a joint project with architecture students at Tulane University (LA), to help rebuild a New Orleans community center ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. The effort revolves around a new tool from wiki software provider PBwiki. The community center, located in the city's Seventh Ward, is known simply as The Porch.

Technically, the project is called Rebuilding the Seventh. Through it, students use the wiki as a passwordprotected place to share and edit documents. If someone in New Orleans needs an image, for instance, students in Kansas upload it to the wiki, where students from Tulane can view or edit it. And when Gore gets new students, he has them search the web for contextual background material to add to the site. In one year, users have added nearly 1,000 documents to the site overall. Gore says it continues to grow.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of this particular KU wiki is cost. Some schools might pay thousands of dollars a month for a content management system to enhance collaboration. Gore, however, parts with just $5 per month (even though it's from his own pocket). He's quick to note that basic PBwiki service is free, and that the Rebuilding the Seventh project is charged only because it requires five gigabytes of storage capacity.

"It's cheap, it's easy, and it works," boasts Gore. "When you're looking for a tool to enhance collaboration, what more could you possibly want?"

Welcoming Collaboration with 'Open' Arms

As Gore can attest, wikis are a relatively inexpensive way to facilitate collaboration among students and other users. Another fairly affordable approach involves open source, a programming language that is, in many ways, collaborative itself. Currently, in the higher ed arena, the most well-known open source effort is Sakai , which provides a set of collaboration tools including e-mail archives, chat room, and message center. These core tools can be augmented with others designed specifically for teaching applications.


CASE WIKI offers site visitors an encyclopedia of information about Case Western and its surroundings.

Such has been the case at Whitman College, a small liberal arts school in Walla Walla, WA. After years of frustration with its Blackboard course management system (CMS), the school embraced Sakai in fall 2006 and launched its open CMS environment CLEo, which stands for Collaboration Learning Environment Online. Today, according to Middleware Analyst Mike Osterman, 1,131 students use the system every day--notable, when you consider that there are only 1,454 students at the school overall.

Teachers who use the system build portals for each and every class. Students also can log on to check e-mail, run synchronous and asynchronous discussions, share documents, and more. School developers have added scheduled document release and an RSS generator that supports authenticated podcasts and provides text feeds for non-audio content. Osterman notes that the biggest investment in the new system was $18,000 up front for new servers, but reports that the school also has embraced customization, enabling faculty members to tinker with their own portals and provide features unique to each and every class.

"The success of CLEo is wholly due to strong faculty involvement throughout the pilot process that continues now that we're in production." He adds, "CLEo's biggest evangelists are the faculty who are using it."

Sakai efforts at the University of Michigan are considerably more expansive. Statistics from Jeff Ziegler, CTools help desk supervisor (CTools is UM's web-based system for coursework and collaboration) at the institution's Usability, Support, and Evaluation Lab, indicate the school has 3,179 individual course sites, almost 17,000 daily users, and more than 5,500 concurrent users at the system's peak. These users collaborate via e-mail, document sharing, chat rooms, asynchronous message boards, and more. The school also offers a news service through the Sakai system.

Ziegler notes that with so many users, one of the university's biggest challenges has been support. UM offers pre-term training sessions for faculty members in each department, as well as "low-stakes" introductions to the system, for students in each class. Another way the school teaches users to take advantage of the system is through frequently asked question (FAQ) documents on the portal. (However, Ziegler says just 16 percent of teachers and 7 percent of students list these as the most effective way to get help.)

In a completely separate project called the Michigan Grid Research and Infrastructure Development initiative, the school is using open source to promote a shared cyberinfrastructure for the university community. The effort is a spin on grid computing, and is a new and innovative push to enable university researchers to solve scientific and engineering problems that are significantly more complex than the problems it is possible to solve using the current infrastructure. MGRID, says Ziegler, will create a collaborative research and development center.

Also here and on the horizon

WHILE THE WORLD of collaboration tools has matured significantly since the birth of distance education, higher education institutions are set to welcome a slew of new collaboration tools to the table in the months ahead.

Perhaps the most remarkable of these technologies is the Halo Collaboration Studio from HP.With a combination of hardware and software, participants see each other in life-sized images projected on high-resolution displays, and can communicate with no perceived delays. The price tag is hefty, however, and starts at $329,000.

A more affordable alternative to consider: MeetingSense, new software from Yon Software. The product, which sells for $99 per license, allows students to easily capture the notes and discussions that are taking place in certain classes, archive the material, and access it at any time. Of course, there is also a more familiar name in the class capture space: Tegrity, with the highly flexible Tegrity Campus product.With Tegrity Campus, students--individually or in collaboration groups--can access classes and notes via desktop, laptop, podcast device, even cell phone. Annual subscription fee is based on number of FTE students.

Then there are new technologies from Saba, which facilitate virtual classes, web seminars, eMeetings, and document sharing. A special module targets the academic enterprise specifically, usually incorporating audio and video. Products are branded under the Centra name; prices vary depending on number of users.

Finally, Cdigix, which formerly provided a music and video file distribution service, recently redoubled efforts to develop C-Labs, a similar service for the distribution of original content. While the technology doesn't facilitate direct user collaboration, it does enable schools to share files with other schools, and thus collaborate on that level. Pricing varies per user.

Comprehensive Approach

While Sakai and wikis may be the latest and greatest technology routes to collaborative learning, even traditional and more commercial approaches have reinvented themselves. Services from vendors such as WebEx, Autodesk, and GoToMeeting each have been upgraded in recent months. While most of these are geared toward the business world (yet have education applications and clients), a number of other vendors have released products specifically for higher education.

Take Convenos, for example. The vendor's web conferencing solution powers a new hybrid Master of Leadership Development distance education program at Saint Maryof- the-Woods College, the nation's oldest Catholic college for women. The school uses the technology to produce webinars; online lectures that each student can follow from home. Students can "watch" the lectures live, and access archived lectures on demand. Both services are included in the cost of tuition.

DJ Wasmer, director of the Master of Leadership Development program, says that since Saint Mary-of-the-Woods launched its new program this winter, results have been impressive. Though it's too early to provide specific data, he notes that both instructors and students have noticed an improvement in their teaching/ learning relationships, and have cited a more personal touch to the education process overall. He adds that the school also has launched an in-person component to the program at the beginning of each semester, so students enjoy the experience of interacting face-to-face, as well.

"At the graduate level, you learn just as much from the people you're in the class with as you do from the instructor," he explains. "So, we wanted them to be able to get the full benefit of interacting with the cohort that they're in the program with, yet still have the flexibility of being able to harness technology to collaborate in real time from home."

Southern Utah University is accomplishing similar collaboration with the Connect Professional service from Adobe. Formerly known as Macromedia Breeze, this technology offers a secure and flexible web communication solution that enables students anywhere, and with a reliable internet connection, to "sit in" on lectures. At Southern Utah, the technology is so reliable that students in the US Marine Reserves have used it to continue their education while serving their country overseas, in Iraq.

Funny thing is, administrators at Southern Utah didn't exactly plan on opening up the program to so many students. But when enrollment in the Master of Education program swelled from 140 students in 2003 to 1,400 in 2004, officials sought a way to collect revenue and involve students without worrying about how to bring all of them to campus. Ean Harker, senior instructional technologist, says collaboration tools that facilitated distance education were a perfect solution. The rest, he notes, is history.

Today, all of the university's education courses are offered as physical classes on campus in Cedar City. When the in-person classes fill up, the school automatically adds overflow students to an online class. Harker says that in some cases, Southern Utah also will create online classes when there is not enough interest in the conventional courses on campus. This way, he notes, students always get what they want, and the ability to collaborate in one form or another remains intact.

"A lot of universities cap enrollment at a certain number, or administrators say, 'We can't afford to have one or two students in a class,' and so they shut down a class that doesn't get enough interest," he explains, but adds: "We like to think we've used collaborative technology to find a better way."

::WEBEXTRAS :: Learn more in the session, "Building Innovative Formal/Informal Learning Spaces for Collaboration," at Campus Technology 2007 in Washington, DC, July 30-Aug. 2. On-demand webinar: "The 3Rs-- Relevance, Retention, and Recruiting: Gain Competitive Edge with Web-Based Class Capture."

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