Case Study

VoIP for Synchronous Learning

The challenge facing every online instructor and every university that supports an online curriculum is creating engaging materials that make online courses more than glorified textbooks with links and e-mail.  Adding personality to our classes and drawing students into articulate and considered conversation on an academic topic is an ideal we all strive for, whether the discussion is in a discussion thread asynchronously or in the classroom face to face. At the University of Advancing Technology, bringing new technologies to education, whether online or on campus, is encouraged and experimentation in new teaching technologies is supported by the IT department.

At UAT, a new challenge has emerged.  One of the faculty was delivering a pilot course in leadership using a commercial Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) and wanted to use VoIP technology to talk with her students during the "in game" portions of the entirely online course. As a small university, it is often easier to use commercial solutions than to design our own in house software. And it was certainly true in this case.  As time was short, UAT opted to let the faculty member choose her own interim solution, specifying that it be hosted outside the university’s technology department for the moment.  

Here is what she discovered.

There are essentially two general applications out there supported commonly by the gaming community that use VoIP technology.  Normally these technologies are used to support large groups of gamers (typically 20 or more) that are simultaneously "raiding" and need more communication and coordination than can be afforded by text based chat channels. The first application is TeamSpeak (www.goteamspeak.com). TeamSpeak (TS) is a free VoIP application available for download for gamers who are using it for non-commercial purposes.  Teamspeak provides both server and client software for download. For the University, Teamspeak would very inexpensive, approximately $0.14 per user per month for up to 1,000 users. With TeamSpeak, a decent sound card on the client machine, solid Internet connectivity with the server, and a good headset/microphone combination, VoIP was easy to achieve for the course in question.  However, as the course was being hosted remotely, and students were using their home machines, a quality sound card could not be guaranteed, and therefore clarity of sound on Teamspeak seemed to suffer.  

Based on this, the second inexpensive VoIP solution, Ventrilo (www.ventrilo.com), emerged.  Ventrilo is free to non-commercial users who wish to support less than 8 users at any given time.  Unlike Teamspeak, Ventrilo (Vent) already supports both Macintosh and PC users. Both server and client software are free to download.  However, the course supported more than 15 students, so the free version of Ventrilo was not an option in this case even though the faculty member was supporting her own TS and Vent servers.  However, space on Vent servers can be rented with a high-quality sound connection for 50 users available through a commercial server site for only around $10 per month (www.nrgservers.com). Switching to Vent solved the sound quality problem and allowed Mac-based students to interact verbally during in game interactions.

Using the cost sample from nrgservers,  one can expand these costs for a small school to see if externally hosted VoIP (to support synchronous distance learning) is really affordable.  Consider a population of approximately 1,200 students and 70 faculty members with 300 course sections of 20 to 50 students running each semester.  Further, consider only external server hosting to relieve the IT department of server maintenance and to relieve loading on the school’s Internet connection and bandwidth.  

For 300 course sections of 30 students each, the cost breakdown looks like the following:

  • 300 course sections x 1-50 slot server connection per section x $10 per month x 12 months = $36,000 per year.

This means that each course would have access to its own VoIP Ventrilo Server. Not the most elegant solution, nor the cheapest, but certainly viable.

Even more elegant and less redundant would be to give each faculty member access to their own 50 or 100 slot server to support their classes. Assuming again a faculty size of say 70 members including adjunct and full time, the numbers now look like the following:

  • 70 faculty x 1-100 slot server connection per faculty member x $20 per month x 12 months = $16,800 per year.

This means that each faculty member could share their Vent Server information with their classes each semester and provide channels (rooms) to align with each course they are teaching that semester. Even classes as large as 99 students could be accommodated at any time. Since students and faculty can only be in one course at a time, redundancy by course section is not needed in this case. This solution would provide faculty an opportunity to schedule a time to talk with all their distance students and present materials, go over homework and tests, and otherwise interact online in a synchronous way. If your online coursework is only asynchronous, it would also provide the students and faculty a way to interact that would create synchronous online office hours, or tutoring hours, without the requirement of being on campus on the part of the faculty member or the student.  Given this information, and the growing desire to preserve a campus’s on sight bandwidth, off site, inexpensive VoIP hosting services may be one more technology tool in the teaching arsenal of the future.

About the Author

Rebecca R. Whitehead is dean of academic affairs at the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, AZ.

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