WebEx 101: A Technology Revolution

   

It’s frustrating when students have questions on assignments after 10 p.m., when professors are not available on campus.

 WebEx, a video chat meeting software conversationally described as “Skype on steroids,” can keep this from being an issue.

 Bridging communication between students and professors is one of many potentials WebEx internet meeting software offers, and what Wake Forest students have at their fingertips every time they sit down to their ThinkPads.

Every Wake Forest student who uses the school-issued Lenovo ThinkPad laptop has access to WebEx software, beginning this semester.

Information Systems adopted this program with the vision of expanding the campus beyond its physical boundaries and academic limitations.

“We thought there was a great possibility of expanding student and faculty interaction beyond the classroom and being able to expand the classroom beyond the campus by adding some very powerful collaboration tools like WebEx,” Rick Matthews, associate provost for Technology and Information Systems, said.

According to its website, Cisco Information System’s WebEx Company, founded in 1996, was one of the first collaborative internet technologies developed.

The university’s version of the program consists of three main parts: the Meeting Center recreates face-to-face meetings with real-time data, application, voice and video-sharing capabilities; the Training Center provides facilities for trainers, including breakout-session support and learner testing, tracking and reporting; and the Support Center allows support agents to identify, resolve, and track customer issues within a secure, online support session.

Although it was originally created to service the business realm, the university found that WebEx also provides distinct opportunities for institutions of higher education.

 Several schools, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Notre Dame and the Minnesota Community College System, are making school-wide use of WebEx technology but with minor variations to the version Wake Forest owns.

Wake’s partnership with WebEx began in May 2010, when Information Systems received 100  trial licenses to give out to chosen faculty, staff and students.

During the six-month pilot program from May to October, early adopters of the WebEx technology included a traveling faculty member who conducted a class that would normally have been cancelled, a class of MBA students who were able to collaborate on group assignments outside of class, and professors who showed they wanted to explore new and creative uses of WebEx tools.

Steve Nickles, C.C. Hope Chair in Law and Management at the Wake Forest School of Law, was one such professor.

“I was given a license just to try it because Rick and his folks know that I play around with technology a lot,” Nickles said.

“For years my classes have had a website for all kinds of supplemental things. I am an early adopter of technology. That is why I started using WebEx. I used it for several classroom purposes during the pilot period and they all were so successful.” After the trial period ended, the university decided to upload WebEx to all university computers and set into motion a variety of WebEx initiatives, which mainly focused on encouraging faculty usage. After the launch of the software, the university worked to familiarize faculty and staff with the program.

Since August, Information Systems has held five training sessions to educate faculty on the potential usages of WebEx in their classrooms.

One idea in particular was for faculty to host office hours from home via WebEx.

“We have had faculty hold late evening office hours at a time that is better suited for students,” Matthews said.

“This is best after students have had a chance to jump in and think about the homework. It would be like evening time, put the kids to bed, hold an office hour, and then go to bed yourself.”

In addition to these office hours, professors have been able to have guest speakers address their classes via WebEx.

Furthermore, Nickles spoke to how technology such as WebEx can improve the quality of education students’ receive. The ability to enhance the opportunity for guest speakers can effectively broaden students’ perspectives.

“For me, what is not important is the facts but the perspective. And a teacher only has one,” Nickles said. “Reading is not always grand or efficient, plus you are still getting just one voice. This idea of storytelling among people and to have practicing professionals coming in from different places in the world and to give their view is important.”

While there are faculty members who have taken advantage of WebEx, there are some students and student organizations in particular who have as well.

Nilam Patel, president of Student Government, hosts meetings with other student government leaders from across the nation using WebEx.

Several other campus organizations, including Wake Student online magazine, Volunteer Service Corps, and many Greek organizations, regularly hold meetings through WebEx in order to more easily share documents or to accommodate members who are traveling or otherwise unable.

WebEx is easily facilitated through the unified platform of the Lenovo ThinkPad laptops and the auxiliary software.

“One advantage that we have compared to other universities is that we have the solid platform of shared computers,” Matthews said.

“We do technology together at Wake Forest, that is not true at most other universities. Wake has one platform and that has a lot of advantages — you don’t have this software just because you are in this class, your roommate has the same software even though you are in very different classes.”

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Article originally printed in The Old Gold and Black, Wake Forest University’s Newspaper on December 8, 2011 by Renee Slawsky, Executive News Editor.

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