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University Distance Learning Brings Flexibility to State-wide Training

Conducting disaster preparedness meetings among 14 Pennsylvania universities no longer requires hours or even days of travel time for university administrators. Instead, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) is using interactive collaboration software from Wimba to conduct some of its state-wide staff meetings and training sessions.

The Wimba Collaboration Suite that PASSHE is using offers an array of interactive software tools that allow users to meet online outside traditional meeting room settings and classrooms. Using Collaboration Suite tools, staff can interact online while viewing meeting content in a variety of formats, including slides and video, and can chat, send instant message exchanges, listen to audio comments added to content, use an online "white board," share applications online, conduct polls, listen to podcasts, and more.

Wimba was recently adopted by all 14 universities in PASSHE, the largest education provider in Pennsylvania. The software has been used in classrooms throughout some of the organization's member universities for some time, but its online collaborative abilities are now offering administrators a handy tool for reducing meeting travel time across the state.

A recent PASSHE conference on dealing with a pandemic flu epidemic is a case in point. Distance Learning Coordinator Bob Hails explained that staff from numerous schools first met face-to-face in Harrisburg, where PASSHE has its headquarters. But for follow-up sessions a few weeks later, he used Wimba. That allowed six breakout sessions with 25 people or so per session--representing groups including IT, security, and student affairs--to meet simultaneously via Wimba and discuss how they would handle a massive flu outbreak.

"Wimba was a great tool to use," Hails said. "We just can't be asking people on our campuses to drive to Harrisburg all the time. I've done those drives." Instead, using Wimba for the disaster preparedness meetings, "we had six events going simultaneously in six Wimba rooms" with no bandwidth or performance issues, he said.

Wimba is also used academically throughout PASSHE's member schools. The organization first implemented Wimba Classroom in 2004, where it was adopted by a handful of professors. The software can work seamlessly within existing online courses, making it easy for instructors to add Wimba to their instruction materials. And Wimba can convert Microsoft Word documents into course content or can be used to create and administer tests, quizzes, and exams. "Today, Wimba is used in hundreds of courses, by thousands of students," Hails said.

Having a contract with Wimba for all 14 PASSHE universities simply makes good business sense, he said, by allowing him to negotiate a better price on the software. "It's a substantial [price] difference," Hails said. "We make our money go farther." And with Wimba used as the collaboration software on all campuses, PASSHE not only saves money on the initial contract, but can save on training and support.

Hails said he has also recently used Wimba for basic staff training of various groups and task forces who will be using a newly installed Microsoft SharePoint server. "There's no way we were going to have staff come to Harrisburg just for a 45-minutes training session," he said. And chief academic officers at PASSHE universities "are starting to use [Wimba] when they have CAO meetings," Hails explained. "We're trying to minimize the number of times during the year that they come to Harrisburg... Every other month, they have a Wimba meeting [instead]."

One feature Hails said he hasn't seen in any comparable product is Wimba's integrated ability to handle traditional land-line phone calls, not just voice over IP connections. "Lots of [users]... needed the [conventional] phone bridge" for PASSHE meetings, Hails said. "That made a real difference for us." Also, Wimba "seems to really understand higher education," Hails added.

Wimba has become so useful to PASSHE member schools that administrators have coined a verb to go along with the software, Hails said. "They'll say, 'I can't take a whole day to drive there. Can I Wimba in to this meeting?' "

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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