Stevens Expands Use of Web Conferencing after Transition to Wimba

After successfully migrating the school’s web conferencing operations to the Wimba Classroom system, the WebCampus division at Stevens has begun drawing up plans for expanding the use of the application. 

“About a year ago when we began the whole transition process, we knew that there would be a much bigger role for web conferencing at Stevens,” said Associate Provost Ralph Giffin.  “The migration to Wimba Classroom went very smoothly, and we have just completed our first full semester of operations using the new system. We expect not only to see the tool utilized in more classes, but employed for a wider variety of other uses outside the online classroom.” 

Those other uses are starting to multiply.  They include supporting faculty & staff meetings, marketing and recruitment projects, public relations initiatives, business continuation, student services, internal staff training, and (somewhat ironically) enabling new options for conventional on-campus classes. 
Such new efforts will need to be balanced with primary purpose of supporting the communications needs within the school’s fully-online courses.  “Right now we have over 50 classes per semester utilizing web conferencing features,” said WebCampus Associate Director Wendy Pate.  “This represents roughly one-third of all the classes we conduct via the Web.  Each semester we see this technology being used in more classes.” 

The majority of the time, instructors use the system to conduct real-time lectures and question & answer sessions.  Using features such as application sharing, web tours, and a virtual white board to display lecture slides, instructors are able to highlight and review course study topics.  Sessions are recorded, allowing students to review the lectures as many times as needed.  (This feature is particularly useful if a student is not able to logon during the time that the lecture is actually delivered.) 

"The ability to meet up with students from all around the world and very easily show the software running on my computer makes teaching online a much better experience,” said computer science Professor Steven Gabarro.  “I almost feel like I'm in a classroom with a projector on. I can show the students code, compile it, and run it in a way that they can see it and feel like they are actually interacting.”  Gabarro also noted how his students use the text chat feature to send him questions.  “Sometimes they prefer not to speak using the session’s VOIP capability; other times they may simply not want to interrupt when I’m in the middle of explaining something,” he said. 

Several instructors give control of virtual conference sessions to students so they can deliver presentations to their classmates.  Other instructors opt not to use the system’s real-time capabilities, but instead use the system to post pre-recorded lectures.  WebCampus has also seen the increased use of the technology by student teams – without the instructor present -- as they collaborate on special projects. 

But even after six years of promoting web conferencing at the university, the WebCampus staff is occasionally surprised at some of the uses that students and faculty have found for the system: 

• During her on-campus information systems classes, Professor Christine Bullen began opening web conference sessions so members of her online section could participate.  “All students from both sections were attending the weekly lectures and had access to the recorded archives,” said Bullen.  “This not only enriched the experience for the online students, but helped to expand the experience base for both sections.”    Bullen also noted how the system was also useful for hosting open webinars, faculty meetings, and “lunch & learn” sessions for prospective students.

• In his online process management class, Professor Don Rheinstein arranged for guest speaker Rod Lane from the Arizona Department of Transportation to give a virtual presentation about the effort to widen Interstate Route 10 through the city of Tucson.  “Rod was able to learn the software very quickly, and we had no technical issues,” said Rheinstein.  During a faculty colloquium in February 2010, Rheinstein noted how the technology did not get in the way of what was being taught.  Feedback from the students was overwhelmingly positive:
“I would like to thank you for inviting Mr. Lane for a great live lecture. I enjoyed listening to him.  He was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the subject matter and presented the material in a captivating and persuasive fashion,” wrote one student.  In the future, Rheinstein plans on arranging more sessions with guest lecturers – particularly ones that represent the industries that are of interest to his students.  “Ideally, I would like to get a good balance of live and recorded guest lectures,” said Rheinstein.  

• During his on-campus lecture sessions, Professor Phil Leopold learned to utilize the polling feature of Wimba to give his undergraduate bio-engineering students impromptu quizzes.   Part of what makes Leopold’s case unique is that he mastered this advanced online teaching technique before he ever considered teaching an online class.
• The use of Wimba for producing publicly-accessible webinars has generated interest in the school’s research community.  One example is a day-long conference on Alternative Energy & Security, which is being arranged by the school’s Enterprise Development & Licensing Division on April 30, 2010. The use of Wimba for webcasting special lectures and events for the School of Systems and Enterprises and the Howe School of Technology Managements is also gaining momentum. 

• Wimba sessions have also been successfully integrated into outreach activities for Stevens' corporate and governmental demand-based on-site programs.  "We had an extremely interactive Q&A session with over 50 participants newly enrolled to our program from multiple sponsor sites recently that was only possible via a web conferencing tool," according to Dr. Michael Pennotti, Associate Dean for Academic Programs, and Distinguished Service Professor.   This session was recorded and posted to an internal corporate website, and the FAQ generated distributed as well by email.

• Pronto Instant Messaging, a companion product of Wimba Classroom, is being considered as a tool for helping to provide better student support services.  Although the product has not been fully implemented, the campus library has already expressed interest in using it. 

• Some instructors teaching on-campus utilized Wimba to salvage classes that were cancelled due to bad weather.  “They sent their students logon instructions for a web conferencing session – and now we’re in the preliminary stages of planning out strategies that would enable us to use our online systems to continue holding classes in the event of future emergencies on campus,” said Pate.  The web conferencing system is now being considered a critical component in the school’s  business continuation strategy.  This will require extensive system capacity planning, a wide-scale training program for faculty members who do not normally deliver their courses online, and close coordination with the vendor.  “It is really exciting to see how Stevens Institute of Technology is utilizing Wimba to facilitate collaboration in so many ways across its entire institution – supporting both academic and administrative goals,” said Carol Vallone, CEO and Chairman of the Board at Wimba.  “I commend them for making collaboration a strategic and competitive advantage that benefits students, faculty, and administrators,” said Vallone.

Analysis of Web Conferencing Usage
In the most detailed analysis to date of how the school utilizes web conferencing technology, the WebCampus Division scanned system usage logs for the Fall 2008 and Spring 2009 semesters. The findings indicated that there is a significant use of web conferencing technology in about 1/3 of the school’s online courses each semester. (Currently, between 155 – 165 online courses are conducted each semester at Stevens.)  “The next step is to compare the last year of data from the old system with the first year of data from the Wimba system,” said WebCampus Instructional Designer Julie Tausend. 

The Transition to Wimba Classroom
Stevens began using web conferencing features in online classes in 2004, making the school an early adopter of the technology.  By 2009 it became clear that a more scalable and robust solution would be needed to address new growth and technology challenges.  “People with Apple computers tended to have more problems – particularly when they were not running Internet Explorer,” said Tausend. 

Stevens successfully migrated its web conferencing operations to the Wimba Classroom platform in 2009, completing a transition project that lasted six months. The project was led by the schools’ WebCampus Online Learning and Information Technology divisions, and involved the participation of dozens of members from the Stevens community.

“We put out an RFP and began evaluating vendor proposals back in March 2009,” said Pate. “In all, we evaluated five different systems. We made our final selection in June, and by the end of August 2009 had completed the migration.”

A team of faculty and administrators formed the core of the testing team. The first group of students got a look at Wimba during the summer term, and their feedback was favorable.

Over the next several weeks, 50 faculty members took advantage of an aggressive training program that was developed and delivered jointly by the vendor and by Stevens staff members.

All indications from the Fall 2009 term showed that the adoption of the tool had gone smoothly, with few issues that needed to be corrected. Several instructors noted big improvements over the previous system.

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