I've talked before about the so-called "laptop wall" that an increasing number of college lecturers (and even secondary school teachers) face. The challenge, of course, is to turn those laptops into learning tools instead of distractions, machines that engage students rather than letting them disengage.
Last week, I had a very interesting conversation with Kathy Hoellen, the Director of Teaching and Learning Services of the IT division at Clemson University. Although Clemson began seriously exploring conferencing software to accommodate the needs of traveling graduate students who couldn't always attend class in person, they stumbled across a comprehensive solution that allows innovative instructors and students at all levels to really engage each other via software.
I say "conferencing" to encompass a robust set of tools that can meet a variety of needs for students (both on- and off-site) and instructors. Video, audio, screen-sharing, and text/chat all come into play. Although Clemson began some time ago using a Macromedia Breeze server for synchronous distance education, they quickly began exploring other solutions as part of their "enterprise video project." The school settled on Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro, in part, because it was easy to scale as resources and needs allowed or dictated.
The school now uses 4 servers and a load balancer to deliver conferencing in a variety of settings. In class, instructors can turn over the lecture to a student or group of students to present work and ideas. As Ms. Hoellen noted, "Something that happens when a student is in the virtual conference and you pass on control to the environment to them."
Obviously, their ability to serve distance education needs has grown, but on-campus use has exploded as professors become more comfortable with the technology. Again, Ms. Hoellen pointed out that while her IT group initially acted as the primary trainers and advocates for the system, instructional staff are now driving innovative use of the conferencing solutions. One professor has integrated it into a virtual world environment, while others use it for office hours.
IT support staff frequently use the solution to provide direct troubleshooting and instructional support, while faculty have significantly reduced travel expenses through the use of video conferencing. Perhaps most importantly, the IT department has observed students using the system with increasing creativity.
Adobe was kind enough to set up a test account for me in Acrobat Connect Pro. Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be using the system in various ways and will report back. For now, though, it's great to see a university simply attempting to meet student needs and simultaneously turning ubiquitous student laptop access (it's actually a requirement at Clemson) from a teaching challenge into a learning opportunity.