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Getting Face to Face with Distance Learning

New York Institute of Technology's videoconferencing capabilities have brought the school closer to its overseas learning partners.

To call Stan Silverman an online education guru would be an understatement. After all, this director of technology-based learning systems for the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) has been teaching online for 25 years. It all started back in 1985, long before concepts like e-commerce would come to be, and when the "Web" was mainly reserved for conversations about arachnids.

"Our online course delivery system was launched 25 years ago and was primarily text-based," recalled Silverman. The system worked for a few years until graphics and moving pictures made their way onto the Web. "As technological expectations rose, it became obvious that we needed to introduce a robust, synchronous component to our online education system."

When video, audio, and social networking infiltrated the Web, NYIT went in search of a new way to deliver online course content to the state of New York. The solution had to work in either a Windows or Mac environment, said Silverman, and had to be robust enough to serve the entire state of New York.

"I assembled a team and started surveying what products were out there. We came up with a list, and matched our needs against it," explained Silverman, who also came up with an inventory of everything that would make up NYIT's "21st century learning experience" (video, audio, chat, virtual laboratories, and so forth), and used it during the selection process.

NYIT adopted technologies from Elluminate for the program, according to Silverman. The solution was installed about six years ago and has since been upgraded to include a central learning portal. "We created a Facebook-like environment on the Elluminate engine," said Silverman.

The technological implementation and subsequent upgrades went smoothly, according to Silverman, although the IT team did encounter several cultural issues. "Getting people to transition from text-based communication to this rich, interactive environment took some work," recalled Silverman, whose team met with faculty, students, and other users to introduce the system and ensure a smooth transition.

"Our students have gone from being bored by professors lecturing to them, to experiencing an interactive environment," said Silverman. "It took them a while to get acclimated to that." NYIT's faculty went through a similar adjustment period. "Most have a tradition of being 'experts' in their fields, and don't necessarily have to be experts in the 'delivery' of that content," he said. "It was definitely a cultural shift."

Today, the collaborative videoconferencing system is in use across various NYIT departments and initiatives. Through the Educational Enterprise Zone, for example, the institution works with more than 100 museums and cultural organizations, helping them bring their resources to school systems nationwide.

"Many of those institutions were using old legacy videoconferencing, which limited their ability to reach remote schools or those that weren't wealthy," said Silverman. "Through our solution, we've enabled them to reach a broader audience."

With about 3.2 million K-12 students being taught by 257,000 instructors in New York State, there's also a real need for state-of-the-art training systems. NYIT uses its videoconferencing system to support those initiatives, and works with the state's education department to administer remote training for both higher education and K-12 teachers.

NYIT also uses its system to deliver a masters level program in instructional technology through its School of Education and, in doing so, supports an audience of more than 250,000 teachers. Finally, the institution used the solution to develop a strategy for remote instrumentation. The latter allows students to access scientifically active locations and utilize the system's built-in applications to manipulate those locations and retrieve and compare data.

Silverman said the videoconferencing system's collaborative elements come in particularly useful during online instruction, where an assignment to "create a spreadsheet" would traditionally produce isolated spreadsheets that didn't relate to one another. Using the collaborative system, however, teachers can create a more "shared" environment where students participate as a group, rather than as individuals.

The school has also benefited from the investment, which has reduced its reliance on physical facilities and the electricity and heat needed to run them. "We've offloaded some of that cost to the student, who also saves by not having to travel to and from school," said Silverman. "The vice president of financial affairs and the provost are both smiling because of how well technology is helping us meet their goals."

In the interest of carrying on its commitment to technology, NYIT is also using its videoconferencing capabilities to form a link with Safari Montage Live, with the goal of exchanging recorded video sessions between different classroom locations.

The institution is also working to change the way it uses interactive whiteboards. Intent on making these tools "more than just glorified projectors," Silverman said he wants to enhance their capabilities and use them as portals for interconnectivity between classrooms. "That's something we're concentrating on right now," said Silverman, "and so far it's going well."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].

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