Centra Software Enables Virtual Classes in Comfort
Announcements of cancelled classes due to wintry weather might some day give way to a much more positive message, perhaps one that reads, “Pajamas Permitted: Faculty and students may attend classes today from home.”
The technology to support this scenario is already in place and popular with thousands of East Carolina University faculty and students.
Saba Centra, ECU’s Web conferencing software, allows ECU faculty to present a live virtual class from any location with an Internet connection and a web browser. From their homes, apartments or residence halls, students may log in and attend.
John Southworth, ECU Centra administrator, said approximately 8,000 people are actively using Centra on campus. In addition to online class meetings, the software is used at ECU for project presentations, office hours, guest lecturers, faculty meetings, streamed online recordings, software demonstrations, student meetings, international exchanges, conference sessions, research collaboration, dissertation defense and hybrid courses, he said.
ECU began using Centra on a limited basis in August 2003, and the program was released campus wide in January 2006, Southworth said. He estimated that as many as 20,000 users have used the program since its release.
The software integrates audio and chat, and allows users to load PowerPoint, mp3, images and video files. Faculty users may share with students any applications running on their own computer, such as Web browsers, Blackboard, Word or Excel.
The program provides features that imitate a face-to-face classroom. Students raise their hands to ask a question; the instructor transfers microphone access, allowing the student to speak. Laugh and applause buttons add a touch of reality as well.
Communications instructor Charles Twardy uses Centra to add a dose of energy and reality to his distance education classes.
“I try to engage students by being enthusiastic about what I am teaching, by using examples drawn from what I perceive to be their interests,” Twardy said. “In teaching online, I find it harder to be lively.” Centra’s features allow more interaction with distance education students, he said.
Twardy encourages students to nurture their curiosity and “take the time to stay informed about the world.” He said he provokes students to “think about why things are the way they are.”
Technology like Centra helps him implement this teaching philosophy with all students, not just those who attend classes face to face, he said.
“We have to find ways to make the online environment more like the classroom – livelier and more interactive,” he said. His greatest satisfaction from teaching is when students “get it” and “in seeing that I have reached some of them and inspired them,” Twardy said. Centra helps him do that.
One of Twardy’s online students, Robin Daigle, said the software improved the course delivery. “This technology improves the rapport students have with the instructor,” she said.
Student Brittany Fish said that live teaching technology in online classes makes “a world of difference” to online students. “I think that every distance education course will one day be required to have live lectures,” she said.
More access to live lectures in all ECU classes might mean fewer missed classes due to weather conditions. And a bit more pajama time.
Contributions by Kimberly Hayes, undergraduate in the ECU School of Communication.
For additional information about Centra, visit http://www.ecu.edu/cs-itcs/centra/index.cfm. Training and support is available.
Responses to a Centra Survey
• After using it for one semester, I think that any online professor should use it or a tool similar to it. It is simply that good.
• I very much enjoyed Centra, versus the old way of having the instructor email presentations for us to look at on our own. It was nice to actually hear a presentation the way the presenters wanted it to be heard.
• I really enjoyed the opportunity for office hours using the Centra chat. I felt like an on campus student with the opportunity to talk with my professor. Great tool!!
• This course was challenging for me, but using Centra helped me a great deal. The real-time discussions brought a deeper level of understanding which was very helpful for me.