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Meeting up Virtually

An immense, cost-effective statewide web conferencing system is bringing people together in the California Community Colleges System.

The following article, "Web Conferencing Cuts Costs for California Community Colleges System" (, ran on July 16, 2008.

Meeting Up Virtually

FACULTY AND STUDENTS throughout the California Community Colleges System can log on to their CCC Confer portal for instant collaboration, online classes, virtual office hours, and more.

WITH 2.5 MILLION STUDENTS and 75,000 faculty, the California Community Colleges System has considerable shopping clout with vendors. Using those numbers to its advantage, the CCC has created an immense and cost-effective statewide web conferencing system for its 109 member colleges. The CCC Confer conferencing system allows administrators, faculty, and students at any member college to log on and use the system's toll-free number for meetings, classes, and other events. That adds up to tremendous savings for the state's community colleges, which are spread up and down the state across 72 community college districts.

Growth and ROI

The eConferencing system's popularity is evident in its growth: In 2003, fewer than 1,500 meetings among 15,000 users were held on the CCC Confer system. In four years, usage has grown to 10 times that figure, and numbers for 2008 will almost certainly be significantly higher as the program continues to expand and is further publicized, according to Project Director Blaine Morrow. "We took a gamble [in setting up the system originally]," Morrow says, "and it's really paying off now."

Web conferencing has helped curtail travel time and expenses for meetings, reduced staffers' time away from work, and saved valuable staff work time. As Morrow estimates, the total savings are so widespread and immense that they can't really be calculated.

With headquarters in San Diego, California's southernmost large city, CCC Confer serves community college districts ranging in size from a few thousand students to more than a hundred thousand in some districts, and everything in between. The system uses video cameras and optional connections with ordinary telephone services via a toll-free conference call. It relies on web conferencing and eLearning software and services from Elluminate called Elluminate Live!, to which the CCC switched last year after using a system from another vendor.

Though Morrow says he sees the raft of currently available web-conferencing products as much the same in their basic features, he reports that Elluminate offered some additional features specific to teaching, which clinched the bid.

"Elluminate has some things that we did not see from any other vendor," he explains. These include a note-taking feature that allows students to use a notepad during a class without opening a second application, a timer that clocks meeting length, and the ability to include synchronous video from a web camera on each participant's browser during a meeting.

The product also offers application sharing, so that instructors can share their desktop applications or allow students to control a shared virtual desktop, as well as a whiteboard on which anything displayed is an individual object that can be moved around the board by participants. That means that in a brainstorming session, for example, every student can individually add comments to the whiteboard-- a feature that is also handy in business meetings, enthuses Morrow.

Administrative and Faculty Benefits

CCC Confer was originally launched in 2001 with a five-year, $11.5 million grant from the statewide chancellor's office to one member of the CCC system, Palomar College in San Diego County. The program has gradually been expanded since then, and the grant was renewed in 2006. Information about how to sign up and use the system is disseminated from the CCC Confer portal, which includes an online training center with live help or self-paced training, demonstration rooms, and other resource information.

Uses of the system include administrative meetings (which Morrow estimates make up perhaps a third of the usage) along with distance education, meetings of professional organizations, and office hours between professors and students. Faculty throughout the state also use the system to teach online classes, either by integrating CCC Confer into their course management system, such as Blackboard or Moodle, or by directing students to the CCC Confer portal.

A key benefit to planning, managing, and funding the communication system at a statewide rather than local level, Morrow says, is the ability to leverage the numbers. The sheer size of the state's community college system gave him flexibility in selecting a vendor, since it meant that several eConferencing vendors were eager to work with him. The size of the CCC also has given him clout in asking for specific features, and for support and training as part of the deal.

Along with the dollar savings, Morrow says he likes the environmentally friendly savings in reduced carbon emissions from cutting travel. Unfortunately, he doesn't yet have a way to specifically calculate savings from the web conferencing system, either in real dollars or in quantifiable environmental benefits. "If we could figure out how far people would have to travel, even if they were going to a central site in California, the savings would be [huge]," he insists. "We know that we are saving people a ton of money; we just don't have a good way to calculate it right now."

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