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The Synchronous Campus

How one university took web conferencing capabilities beyond eLearning courses.

The Synchronous Campus

THE CLEMSON-HOSTED virtual glass class allows students to collaborate on projects across institutions via discussion, brainstorming, collective thinking, and critical feedback.

WEB CONFERENCING TOOLS started out on campuses primarily as delivery technologies for eLearning courses. But their use has steadily broken out into other applications as campus personnel experience flashes of insight that Kathy Hoellen describes as: "Wow, we could use this eLearning tool for (fill in your favorite use here)."

Hoellen is the director of teaching and learning services at Clemson University. The South Carolina institution offers an interesting case study of how an early-on adoption of a synchronous web conferencing application (Macromedia Breeze, which is now Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro) for distance learning projects is now being deployed across campus to serve needs as varied as consortial campus courses, call center support, and staff training.

No longer confined to eLearning, Clemson's web conferencing system is now a 360-degree campus application that's become integral to the functioning of the university. Let's look at a few of the ways in which the university has adapted the tool for uses beyond the standard eLearning course.

Consortial Learning

Clemson is a land-grant university and, as such, is accustomed to functioning as part of a consortium; indeed, collaboration and outreach are a part of its mission. Therefore, it only made sense that when enrollment in a highly specialized graduate class in materials science-- Ceramic and Materials Engineering-- fell too low to be offered at Clemson, Professor Eric Skaar, with faculty from other universities, decided to collaboratively offer the course in a synchronous online environment. Skaar, a professor in the School of Materials Science and Engineering at Clemson, hosts and jointly teaches the class with faculty from Alfred University (NY), Coe College (IA), Iowa State University, Missouri University of Science and Technology, University of California-Davis, University of Florida, Pennsylvania State University, University of Michigan, The University of Arizona, the National Science Foundation, and the International Materials Institute for New Functionality in Glass.

For the course, familiarly known as the "virtual glass class," each institution takes responsibility for three to four lectures. The technology allows students to collaborate on projects across institutions, via discussion, brainstorming, collective thinking, and critical feedback. The class has had enrollments of about 40 students over two terms. Student response has been positive: Interaction among students and faculty across many institutions means students are able to access more research, expertise, and perspectives than they would otherwise have in an on-site course.


WHEN LOOKING FOR a synchronous web conferencing solution, the features you need will depend on the intended use of the application. For example, if your initiatives are going to require multiple lecturers, as Clemson University's (SC) multi-institution "virtual glass class" does, you'll want an application that easily allows for more than one presenter. Not every product necessarily boasts every feature, and some do certain functions better than others, so you'll need to comparison shop. A few functionalities to consider:

  • Video. If you want videoconferences, rather than audio-based meetings, be aware that not every solution provides for video and that it will require cameras at participating sites.
  • Multiple presenters. If you're teaching a course with lecturers on multiple campuses, you'll want a service that allows for easy hand-offs to and from more than one presenter.
  • Cross-platform functionality. If you're looking to web conference with other institutions (over whose systems you have no control), you'll need a solution that works with different operating systems and multiple browsers (and multiple versions of those browsers).
  • Application sharing. All web conferencing products allow presenters to share the documents on their desktops; some go further and allow presenters to share (and even highlight) their applications.
  • Whiteboard capabilities. Some web conferencing programs feature a function similar to interactive whiteboards, enabling group collaboration and brainstorming.
  • Recording. Capturing these meetings or classes may be important to you; most applications allow for this but check to be sure.
  • Teleconferencing and VoIP. Depending on how you want people to participate remotely, you'll need call-in options. If your campus is already using VoIP, look for a web conferencing solution that uses it as well.

Following are a few of the web conferencing vendors and products available to higher education institutions:

Staff Development

An ongoing challenge in any IT organization is keeping faculty and staff updated and aware of new initiatives, technologies, and programs. For Clemson, the challenge is even greater as the university has outreach obligations to agricultural experiment stations across South Carolina. Travel to these outposts is time-consuming and costly. As one land-grant university educator put it: They needed a budget line item for car repair due to "deer encounters."

To help keep travel costs in check, Clemson is using its web conferencing solution to broadcast a weekly Tech Talk series, providing staff development to the many research centers it works with as well as its 46 county extension offices around the state. Dubbed an opportunity to "learn tips and tricks from the trainers," the series features topics chosen by participants, including everything from quotidian knowledge ("Intro to Vista"), to instructional support ("Creating Resources for your Online Courses"), to more tantalizing topics like "Taking the Dum Dum out of Dimdim," in which participants were able to log in and play with Dimdim (a free web conferencing tool Clemson is promoting for student use) during the course of the presentation.

Call Center Support

The call center at Clemson uses Acrobat Connect Pro to manage communications for outreach as well as for staff communications within the center. The system provides a place for updating and archiving support issues, so that call center personnel can quickly familiarize themselves with the activity from the last shift. Users calling in for support use web conferencing and screen sharing for quick and easy resolution of technical issues.

To reduce travel costs, Clemson uses its web conferencing solution to broadcast a weekly Tech Talk series, offering staff development to participants across South Carolina.

Conference Participation

The university is also using synchronous tools to reduce travel expenses associated with presenting at conferences. A team of two who had submitted a conference presentation reduced expenses by having one person go to the conference and his colleague co-present via web conferencing.

The Ripple Effect

Synchronous online learning events are now standard elements of higher ed eLearning programs, and their success as learning tools-- thanks, perhaps, to their ever-increasing ease of use and access-- is proving contagious to other campus initiatives.

In this era of budget cutting, it just makes sense to look closely at the tools that we have and see how they can provide value in ways that go beyond their initial purpose. How many ways can tools ripple out from their original starting points? Now might be a good time to look around your campus and see what types of learning, meeting, and support needs might benefit from tools already in place!

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