The University of Alabama

Learning Online In Real Time

By Vanessa Rusch

When chemistry graduate student Jacquelyn Turri found herself stuck in an ice storm more than 800 miles away from campus this past February, she immediately knew that missing her Bioorganic Reaction Mechanisms class wasn’t an option.

“With this type of course, it’s difficult to keep up with the material, so missing even one lecture would have put me behind in my studies.” This left Turri with one option:  She immediately contacted her professor, Dr. Patrick Frantom, to alert him to the situation.

“When Jacquelyn emailed me on Sunday, Feb. 20, that she was stuck in Madison, Wis., due to heavy winter storms and that she wouldn’t be able to leave until Tuesday, I wanted to make sure she wouldn’t get behind in class. Since this class is participating in the College of Arts and Sciences iPad initiative, I first attempted to find an app that would allow me to stream the class over the Internet, but was unsuccessful.

“When I checked the Faculty Resource Center website to see if they had any suggestions, I noticed Wimba was software the University had and it did exactly what I needed,” said Frantom.

Wimba Live Classroom software allows faculty and students to share virtual space in real time, including audio, video, applications, files and other content. Across UA’s campus, classes in every college have had much success with this software in their distance learning programs. For a traditional, lecture-based classroom to set up a virtual classroom with such short notice highlights the accessibility and ease of using this software.

“It was simple to add Wimba to my eLearning class page, and it was the best option since Jacquelyn had access to a computer and the Internet. That Monday morning, we gave it a try right before class. She was able to see everything I did on the SmartPodium white board [interactive classroom monitor] and we were able to hear each other as well. This allowed her to actually ask and answer questions during class. The live broadcast went very well, and Jacquelyn stayed current with the class despite being over 800 miles away!”

As director of emerging technology and research for the Faculty Resource Center, Dr. Rachel Shuttlesworth was very pleased with Frantom’s success in using Wimba.

“One of Wimba Live Classroom’s main strengths is its ability to bring real-time collaboration and interaction to the online environment.

Participants can easily give feedback to a presenter, making the class go more smoothly,” said Shuttlesworth. “However, as with any technology tool, users may face technical issues and need to have contingency plans and flexibility.”

According to Turri, “The best aspect of using Wimba was that because I could  participate in the lecture  by asking questions and answering example problems — it made me feel like I was actually there. There were some problems though,” she continued. “For example, after I would virtually raise my hand to speak to the class, my screen would freeze for  approximately 30 seconds. This was a little frustrating since the class was waiting for me to say or type something and I was unable to do so.

“But overall, Wimba was really easy to set up and very simple to use. I was really happy to have this type of alternative available, and I would definitely recommend this tool to other professors and students in situations like mine.”

Frantom agreed with Turri’s assessment. “I think, for a small class, if a student does have to be away for some reason, this is an easy way for the student and professor to stay on the same page.”

This scenario of using a new technology to solve a problem is the standard method Dr. Marilyn Staffo, director of the Faculty Resource Center, finds most faculty members turn to when it comes to integrating new technologies into the classroom. “Most faculty decide to adopt new instructional technologies to help solve an instructional problem. They are usually pleased after they have learned to use a technology that meets an instructional need.”

The Faculty Resource Center has several methods of keeping faculty aware of the availability of new technologies like Wimba on campus.

“The FRC sends communications about new technologies to faculty through various lists and through the college and school technology support staff,” said Staffo. “We provide workshops, online tutorials and individual assistance for the wide variety of instructional technology resources available campuswide.”

“As enrollment increases and more programs are offered online, UA’s use of instructional technology tools like Wimba Live Classroom will certainly grow,” said Shuttlesworth. “Online learning won’t replace our campus learning experience, but it will augment it.”

For a detailed listing of UA instructional technology, workshop information and registration, tutorials, support and solutions, please visit the Faculty Resource Center at frc.ua.edu.