EDUCAUSE 2006 – Evaluating Web Conferencing Systems for Instructional Use

Andrea Eastman-Mullins from Alexander Street Press and Robert Hambrick  from North Carolina State University presented.  At the time of the study, Andrea was employed by NCSU.

The speakers were part of a task force to evaluate four web conferencing systems:

  • Breeze 5
  • Centra Symposium 7.5
  • Elluminate 6.5
  • Horizon Wimba Live Classroom 4.2

What is a Synchronous Learning Management System (SLMS)?  It’s a virtual classroom system that brings together voice, video, data and graphics in a structured group-learning environment.  Robert stressed that the products are all good, and that what they will present is the process of evaluation, which is more important than determining the one solution for everyone to use.

Bringing asynchronous and synchronous learning systems together allows you to reap the best elements of both.  Robert reviewed the features that you’ll find in the different systems, including live audio and video conferencing, whiteboards, integrated text chat, polling and quizzing, application and file sharing, and more.  Not all systems have all features, and part of the review process is identifying which features your institution needs.

The instructional benefits of these systems are:

  • Student-Centered Learning
  • Interactive Discussions
  • Lifelong Learning Styles
  • Media-rich Course Materials
  • Immediate Student Feedback
  • Flexibility
  • Intimate Community of Learners

Video-conferencing works for the first five minutes to establish the presence of the instructor, but after that people are self-conscious and lots of bandwidth is consumed.

The UNC SLMS Task Force was asked by the TLTC Board to evaluate a system for system-wide use.  The task force included 36 members representing 14 of 16 UNC campuses.  The evaluation process developed an evaluation rubric, hosted group demos and small workgroups, and used a listserv and a Wiki to communicate and document the evaluation process.

Robert spent a good bit of time going over a web conferencing rubric (in an Excel spreadsheet) that was used in the evaluation of the tools.

Centra Symposium 7.5 strengths included threaded text chat, high quality VoIP, video, whiteboard and application sharing.  It was a good content management system and had a very intuitive interface.  Text chat is un-docked, so it must be launched to be accessed.  Version 7.5 allowed the instructor to launch text chat on the student’s computers.  There is a toolbar that allows you to print, save or reply to a student’s message.  By selecting a topic first, you can keep the conversation threaded, something NCSU found to be powerful.  Symposium also has auto-swtiching for video so that the application replicates a face-to-face environment as participants talk via video.  You can display up to 6 concurrent videos at the same time.  Audio features were also strong: you have a full range of control over the quality of the sound.  From 2K per second to 13K per second.

Weaknesses of Symposium incliude that it was PC only at the time, and worked best only with Microsoft products, there was no integration with Blackboard.  Symposium 7.6 has a recording studio that allows faculty to capture and edit audio and post it to Blackboard.  There is also Surgient Virtual Lab Integration for lab control.  The application will be integrated October 1 with Blackboard and Vista.  There is also Mac Intel support, and closed captioning has been added to the application.  If the instructor has Dragon, it will caption his discussion.

Elluminate 6.5 has high quality VoIP, video, whiteboard.  It came out on top in terms of accessibility.  Good integration with Blackboard and WebCT and it has nice participant management (you can see what the students are doing).

Drawbacks included single microphone use at one time, which was too structured (this has changed).  Converting a PowerPoint slide into Elluminate is fuzzy, and there is no text wrapping in the whiteboard.  There was no strong content management library, but there is now.

Horizon Wimba 4.2 strengths included LMS integration, and cross-platform support.  Assessment tools were the most robust of the four they evaluated. Wimba voice tools were good and external user devices

Weaknesses feedback tools archive feature and the whiteboard. Stopping a session briefly generated an archive separate from the other parts of the event.  The whiteboard is not object oriented, but they are working on that.

Macromedia Breeze 5’s strengths include a customizable interface, a hands-free microphone, a good content library and that it is a Flash-plug in.  Since Breeze is based on Flash, there isn’t much download or setup involved.

Weaknesses that they observed include inconsistency in audio quality; participants do not have the ability to interact unless “promoted” to presenter; Fewer options for feedback; customization increases the learning curve.

Breeze is now called Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional.  New features include improved VoIP capabilities, always on personal meeting rooms and other server-side enhancements.

The needs of the different campuses pushed UNC into purchasing several of the systems.  NCSU has chosen Elluminate after first choosing a different product.  There is a web site where you can learn more.

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