Breaking down the laptop wall with conferencing software

Breaking down the laptop wall with conferencing software

Summary: 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.

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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.

Topics: Hardware, CXO, Enterprise Software, Laptops, Mobility, Software

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Adobe connect

    Just finishing up my webinar class, we were trained to use Adobe connect. Most of the time it works like a champ -- but it has its days. In my recent practice, I had to go live to the desktop even though my presentation was uploaded.

    It is much easier to manage than Centra and seems to be just a bit more stable than Eluminate.
    weemooseus@...
  • Alternatives for interactive distance learning.

    Hi Chris,

    I'm curious; have you evaluated Saba Centra and Citrix GoToMeeting? How does Adobe compare with them?

    I am the unpaid support for our local school system (the budget crisis doesn't allow the librarian to contract real support) and there has been talk of conferencing for our AP students. As a tech I know a lot about the technology, but not about teaching methods ... distance learning in particular ... the more information I can gather from skilled education professionals (like yourself) the better off we will be.

    Thanks in advance!

    Regards,
    Jon
    JonathonDoe
  • RE: Breaking down the laptop wall with conferencing software

    While we too looked at Adobe Acrobat Connect--formerly known as simply Adobe Connect, or even earlier as Macromedia Breeze--we settled on Elluminate Live!. It did not require any special hardware and scaled far more economically than Connect--not to say that it is cheap by any sense of the word. It just seemed to fit a classroom environment better than Connect, which is more business oriented.

    The other issue is that to reliably use Connect, you need a separate conferencing line, which Elluminate does not, though it does supports this. We live in a state where DSL and Cable are not widely available outside of city limits, so being able to push sessions through dial-up connections was a must. Connect simply does not perform well in this environment. We were able to get Elluminate to work via a 28.8K dial-up connection, and while it was not the greatest in terms of quality it was still usable.

    Thus far, it has worked pretty well for us and has been pretty stable. The only issues tend to be getting students' mics to work, which I suspect is a problem with any conferencing system.

    I have been keeping an eye on Dimdim, as it is open source--though a support option is available--and provides a lot of the same functionality as Elluminate. The only key thing lacking at this point is polling.

    I'd suggest taking a look at both Elluminate and Dimdim, in addition to Connect. We too are looking at how to use a conferencing system in a room full of laptops, so your insights will be helpful. Keep up the posts! They've been very interesting reads.
    Jägs
  • RE: Breaking down the laptop wall with conferencing software

    As a parent going back to school for my Masters, I didn't to turn my $800 laptop into a game machine. I kept only the software I needed on it and keep focus why I had this machine with me everyday. This is hard for students ( 18 - 32 ) because gaming is part of there life, hopefully they will see what we have learned and move forward in learning that technology is a tool not just a app to them.
    eshinaultsr