E-learning goes to head of the class

College and university IT professionals gathered at a recent conference to discuss the extreme nature of their business – meeting the demand for advanced e-learning services while finding ways to provide day-to-day support to a diverse group of technology users.

The Northeast Regional Computer Program conference provided a forum for IT professionals and educators from Northeast colleges to exchange best practices for using technology to improve how schools educate students and operate daily.

“Demand for multimedia has been one of our biggest challenges,” said Paul Fisher, associate director of the Teaching, Learning and Technology Center at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. Fisher helped install a system that lets students view classes and lectures archived as RealNetwork video files over an intranet.

Two years ago, a chemistry professor asked Fisher’s department to tape his courses and put them online. “After doing that, [the professor] found that 80 per cent of his students did better on tests,” he said. The system now provides archives of lectures for up to 12 courses per semester.

At Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., accounting and taxation courses are offered simultaneously in class and online for remote students. The school uses an IP voice collaboration server called Centra Symposium by Centra Software and Blackboard, an online interactive classroom application that integrates digital course material – such as presentations and texts – into a database and lets students access the material online. Centra lets the professor and remote students interact over IP voice or text chat, while Blackboard combines audio and visual elements into a single extranet Web page for students.

While the Centra server also is capable of supporting video, the quality of the video is poor because the school has to account for remote students with slow dial-up connections, said Phillip Knutel, Bentley’s director of academic technology.

“Once the novelty wore off [with online video], we found that students would rather use available bandwidth for faster downloading of PowerPoint slides and for better sound quality,” Knutel said.

At the University of Rochester in New York, students and faculty put IP distance-learning to more artistic use. Students at the university’s Eastman School of Music connect regularly with instructors from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow and the Queensland Conservatorium at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, for music lectures, lessons and drama coaching. The school uses H.323 video and audio over Internet2, a high-bandwidth sister network to the Internet available to education and government institutions. Rochester plans to change its encoding technology from H.323 to MPEG in the near future, which will allow for CD-quality sound over the school’s connection to its education partners across the Atlantic, said Kevin McPeak, director of technology and music production at the school.

In addition to multimedia distance learning projects, university IT shops are introducing applications to better manage the day-to-day task of supporting a large campus network with thousands of users.

The University of New Hampshire (UNH) in Durham recently installed call centre software and reorganized its IT help desk to act more like a business customer service desk. UNH has combined help desk groups across campus into a single call centre and introduced a rotating schedule that has involved more of the university’s IT workers in the help desk.

“Having different people coming in and out gave us a broader base of knowledge [to help answer questions] at any given time,” said Petr Brym, director of telecommunications and client services at UNH.

To better manage how the IT staff handles calls, UNH installed call-management and reporting software from Metis. The software lets UNH set up automated messages that can give quick answers to questions if there are systemwide problems. The software also lets the help desk track incidents and view statistics on call patterns and lost calls over time.

Since the Metis installation and reorganization of the help desk, Brym said, the number of dropped or “abandoned” help desk calls has decreased from 29 per cent to 3 per cent.