Penn State World Campus Adds Live eLearning to Online Curriculum


In 1892, The Pennsylvania State University became the first American university to offer correspondence courses in agriculture. This initiative was later used as a model for other academic institutions to provide instruction-by-mail programs in a wide array of subjects. Now one of the nation’s ten largest universities, Penn State is a recognized pioneer in online education, continuing more than a century of innovation and commitment to distance learning.

Ten years ago, it would have been hard to imagine that we would have the ability to interact with people across the country and around the world in a real-time Web-based classroom. Today, our World Campus, which uses the Internet and other new technologies to offer instruction on an "anywhere, anytime" basis, provides distance education programs for more than 23,000 students from all 50 states and 44 countries.

Challenge: Add Affordable, Dynamic Interaction, Real-time Discussion
In 2002, the World Campus was challenged with finding a synchronous tool to support our asynchronous, Web-based courses--e that enabled students to hold real-time small group discussions and also allowed faculty to conduct interactive tutoring sessions and keep virtual office hours. We also wanted a collaborative environment that would support both PC and Macintosh platforms.

In addition, while initial price points for some synchronous tools appeared low, the cost dramatically increased when a phone bridge was required. As a result, we focused on evaluating solutions that offered integrated, high-quality voice over IP technology, so students wouldn’t need two phone lines or a high-speed connection.

The Solution: Multi-platform Technology, High-quality VoIP, Hosted Service
After reviewing several collaboration software products, we determined that Elluminate Live! Academic Edition(tm) was the most appropriate solution to support synchronous events in our online distance education environment. Our testing revealed that the product worked seamlessly in both PC and Mac environments and had a well-developed VoIP component. Most important, it worked the first time, which is critical when dealing with students using diverse computing environments.

Implementing the solution was easy and painless because weopted to deploy the application as a hosted service. With the vendor acting as an application service provider, we aren’t responsible for maintenance, and we don’t have to worry about adding servers on top of those we use for course content. In addition, since the students just download a simple Java client to use the application, there are few technical issues to deal with.

Once we conducted initial training for our faculty and staff, we were up and running pretty quickly with our pilot project, which was to add dynamic interaction capability to our iMBA, Penn State’s online MBA program. Initially, the pilot was to last for two terms, but the project was a success, so we continued to expand our usage of the synchronous environment during subsequent semesters.

The Result: Expanded Opportunities for Distance Learning, Collaboration on Global Scale
Today, our iMBA program is in its second full year of using the live eLearning solution, with four instructors having integrated synchronous content into their courses. The iMBA students also set up their own sessions for group meetings without an instructor. The tool provides an environment for interactive discussion and application sharing, enabling the students to work together regardless of where they are located throughout the U.S. and around the globe.

We’ve added synchronous content to our Masters in Curriculum Instruction program and will also incorporate the technology into our Masters in Project Management for use next spring. This year, our biggest undertaking was to conduct a federally funded pilot program integrating live eLearning into two introductory Spanish courses. With language study, it’s important that students have the ability to listen to the instructor and have conversations online. We’re putting the updated language programs together now for the spring semester.

We think of the live eLearning environment as a supplement to our online courses, providing students and faculty with another way to communicate, teach, and learn. Along with adding synchronous content to courses, instructors also hold virtual office hours, interact in real-time with students on assignments, and present just-in-time class material to small groups. While its use is not required, we’ve found that the instructors who have experience with the virtual classroom become good spokespeople to promote its further integration into our distance education programs.

World Campus tech support also uses the product for training of new instructors who are not close to any of the campus locations. The staff conducts real-time reviews of online course materials for new instructors and uses application sharing to train faculty on specific tools. We find the record and playback capability very valuable for those that can’t participate in the live sessions. It has been a real benefit for students as well, many of whom work full-time and require some flexibility to keep current with their studies.

All in all, adding dynamic interaction to our existing asynchronous online course content has been a very positive experience for us at the World Campus, and we’ll continue to expose additional faculty and students to the synchronous technology. You could say that live eLearning and Web conferencing was just what Penn State needed to help continue its history of innovation and commitment to distance education.

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