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Penn State World Campus Adds Live E-Learning to Its Online Curriculum

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In 1892, The Pennsylvania State University became the first American university to offer correspondence courses in agriculture. This initiative was later used as a model for other academic institutions to provide instruction-by-mail programs in a variety of subjects. Now, Penn State is a recognized pioneer in online education. And the university’s World Campus, which uses the Internet and other technologies to offer instruction on an anywhere, anytime basis, provides distance education programs to nearly 23,000 enrollments from all 50 states and 44 countries.

The Challenge

Two years ago, the World Campus was challenged to support its asynchronous, Web-based courses with a synchronous tool - one that enabled students to hold real-time small group discussions and also allowed faculty to conduct interactive tutoring sessions and keep virtual office hours. We also wanted a collaborative environment that supported both PC and Mac platforms. In addition, while initial price points for some synchronous tools appeared low, the cost increased when a phone bridge was required. As a result, we focused on evaluating solutions that offered integrated, high-quality VoIP technology so students wouldn’t need two phone lines or a high-speed connection.

The Solution

After reviewing several collaborative software products, we determined that Elluminate Live! Academic Edition (www.elluminate.com) was the best solution to support synchronous events in our online distance education environment. Our testing revealed that the product worked seamlessly in both PC and Mac environments and had a well-developed VoIP component.

We opted to deploy the application as a hosted service, because with the vendor acting as an application service provider we aren’t responsible for maintenance and we don’t have to worry about adding servers on top of those we use for course content. In addition, there have been few technical issues to deal with since students only have to download a simple Java client to use the application.

Once we conducted initial training for our faculty and staff, we were up and running quickly with our pilot project, which was to add dynamic interaction capability to iMBA, Penn State’s online MBA program. Initially, our pilot of the product was limited to one iMBA course. However, based on early feedback from students and faculty, we decided to expand our usage of the synchronous environment during subsequent semesters.

The Result

Our iMBA program is now entering its third full year of using the live e-learning solution, with several instructors having integrated synchronous content into their courses. The iMBA students have also set up their own sessions for group meetings without an instructor. The tool provides an environment for interactive discussions and application sharing, which enables students to work together regardless of where they are located in the world.

We began incorporating the e-learning solution into our Master of Curriculum and Instruction program this past summer, and we will incorporate the technology into our Master of Project Management next spring. Furthermore, this year we conducted a study to determine the usability of the technology in the teaching of language courses online. As a result of the study, we anticipate being able to develop a fully online Spanish course that will rely on the real-time VoIP capabilities of this e-learning solution.

We think of the live synchronous learning environments as supplements to our online courses, providing students and faculty with another way to communicate, teach and learn. Although the tool is not the primary means of delivering content, we have found that instructors are utilizing it to hold virtual office hours, interact in real time with students on assignments, and present just-in-time class material to small groups. In addition, we find the record and playback capabilities valuable for those who cannot participate in the live sessions. These features provide those students who cannot always attend small-group discussions the flexibility to stay current with their studies.

Beyond using the live e-learning solution for online courses, the World Campus Help Desk also employs it for training new instructors who are located far from a campus location. The staff conducts real-time reviews of online course materials for new instructors and uses application sharing to train faculty on specific tools.

We’ve found that adding dynamic interaction to our existing asynchronous online course content has been a positive experience for faculty and students at the World Campus. Elluminate Live! has been an excellent addition to our course design, and has helped Penn State continue in its history of innovation and commitment to meeting the needs of our distance education students.

- Rick Shearer, Penn State World Campus

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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