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Special Annual Awards

2008 Campus Technology Innovators: Web Conferencing / Blended Learning

Innovator: California State University, Fullerton

In an outstanding example of blended learning, web conferencing, and remote-enabled instrumentation, chemistry faculty and students are trained in the hands-on use of a diverse array of sophisticated instruments.

Scientific instruments have been remotely enabled for decades: Research scientists have probed the universe with telescopes in Earth's orbit, and examined the surfaces of distant planets. But at Cal State Fullerton, administrators and educators wanted to share the powerful technology of the W.M. Keck Foundation Center for Molecular Structure, an X-ray diffraction facility and computational laboratory, by exploiting web conferencing applications for research and instrumentation training across the 23 campuses of the massive California State University system.

To enable faculty to incorporate this technology into their undergraduate chemistry courses, the program began in 2006 with a series of webinars and remotely enabled instrumentation training sessions offered to faculty at undergraduate institutions, including several of the Cal State schools. The primary tool used since the program's early inception has been web conferencing from iLinc Communications.

The user community today consists of hundreds of faculty and thousands of students throughout the Cal State system, as well as regional community college and even high school teachers and students. The center also has successfully connected users with a wider range of instruments through remote-enabling technology. The program now offers webinars to its extensive user community, trains students in the operation of the instruments, and allows students access to conduct their own experiments through the web conferencing interface. Online courses in crystallography, the experimental science of determining the arrangement of atoms in crystals, routinely incorporate the technology.

Alternative recording technologies have more recently been added to the technology mix. Camtasia Studio from TechSmith is particularly useful, as it allows a large variety of video formats to be rendered. And Microsoft voice recognition software has been used to quickly generate transcripts of audio recorded during iLinc presentations.

"We were amazed at how quickly people could be trained to utilize web conferencing technology to remotely control instruments, deliver a webinar, or teach a course."

Amir Dabirian, chief information technology officer at Cal State Fullerton, comments on the success of the program: "We and our users were amazed at how quickly people could be trained to utilize iLinc web conferencing technology to remotely control instruments, deliver a webinar, or teach a course. We continue to find innovative ways to extend its applications."

Dabirian "crystallizes" what sets the program apart: "We have successfully connected a diverse array of instruments, whereas other efforts have been focused on one particular type of instrument. What also is highly unique to our effort is the specific engagement of grade 9-12 students and instructors in the design of projects utilizing the remote connections, as well as in research itself with scientists at undergraduate institutions."

Researchers and teaching faculty are grateful for access to high-end technology through a relatively simple web interface, and many have very personal views on where the technology has taken them. "Technology is central to my science and fundamental to my productivity," reflects project lead Katherine Kantardjieff, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Cal State Fullerton. "My field of research-- protein crystallography and biophysical chemistry-- has always relied upon and pushed technology to achieve complex calculations and model complex molecular structures." Kantardjieff adds her perspectives on the directions this unique program should take, going forward: "In this brave, new cyber-enabled world of higher education, we have pedagogically rich cyberinfrastructure- mediated tools to create blended learning and research environments for our students. As we innovate, we should ask ourselves, 'What can we do with technology that we couldn't do before? And what can we do better?'"

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