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Web-Based Learning at Dalhousie U Connects Canadian Students

Software tools that allow colleges and universities to deliver classes over the Internet, either standalone or as a component of a traditional face to face class, are nothing new. But personalizing the online experience beyond slides can be a challenge.

At a leading institution in Canada, Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, students can attend interactive classes online that are complete with slides, voice, white board capabilities, polling, chatting, application sharing, and, soon, live video as well.

Live Classroom, from Wimba, formerly Horizon Wimba, is a Web-based learning environment that enables students and faculty in online courses to participate in highly interactive online sessions. Dalhousie University, with 15,500 students, has been using Live Classroom since 2002. Live Classroom is tightly integrated with WebCT, so students and faculty can log onto the Wimba product without any special password or access codes. (The product can integrate with content management systems from Angel, Blackboard, and Moodle.)
The university isn't primarily a distance school--although its social work program is fully online--but it has a large commuter and adult student population. "We're still a farm university," according to Phil O'Hara, assistant director for academic computing services. So students need flexibility in order to fit studies around work and other commitments.

O'Hara also teaches courses part-time as a lecturer in Dalhousie's School of Business Administration and has used Live Classroom over the last three years to teach a course called An Introduction to Computers in Business to more than 250 students per term. During the course, he conducts weekly face to face classes before students, with perhaps another 70 to 90 students online. He then archives the content for a week for other students to play back. As many as 120 to 150 students play back the archive during the week it's available.

In a recent class, O'Hara had students conduct interviews with self-selected "celebrities." In one instance that he vividly remembers, a student in Halifax interviewed a friend working at a hospital in Poland, with both the student and the friend running Live Classroom. The friend in Poland stayed on the line and next heard another student interviewing her brother, on a peace mission in Africa, then a third student interviewing her lively four-year-old sister back in Halifax.

Experiences like that make O'Hara a big fan of the possibilities of online learning, he said. "What really excites me is what we can do with Live Classroom," he said. "We can globally connect. I always want my students to do effective presentations, [so, to demonstrate], I present using this tool, not just [Microsoft] PowerPoint. It's about walking the walk, not just talking the talk.... I tend to use this tool for virtually everything I do."

In addition to formal lectures, O'Hara has set up a room in which students can meet online at any time to chat and share ideas. Usage is heavy; in a four-month period he measured in 2006, his students connected more than 1,500 times for a total of almost 300 hours. Students also take advantage of the shared chat facility to go over a collaborative quiz that O'Hara offers each week.

A common use of Live Classroom by other faculty members at Dalhousie is to deliver a class when the professor is elsewhere. Often, O'Hara said, that single use introduces the product; professors then see the value and ease of use and start using it more frequently.

One big plus with the product is its simplicity of use. Installation and training are simple, O'Hara said: "Within an hour, people are ready to roll."

A feature that makes Live Classroom easier to use and maintain than some other products, O'Hara said, is the fact that it requires only a small client installed on the user's system. Any student or professor can then access Live Classroom through that client.

The just-released Version 5 of Live Classroom, which O'Hara has tested but not yet installed, will offer some key benefits, he said. Those include two-way video, which will allow the university to deliver content via slides, voice, and video all at the same time. Other features include multi-way and follow-the-speaker video, expanded phone conferencing capabilities, enhanced breakout rooms, and new emoticons. 

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About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at [email protected].

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