Virtual Classes

School of Communication instructor Charles Twardy finds that Centra software helps him connect with his distance education students. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

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.

Twardy shows his students images on his computer as part of an online class meeting using Centra software.

“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 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.


Tough Times

Ballard: ECU will survive tough times

GREENVILLE, N.C. (Feb. 2, 2011) — College and division cuts of 9 to 12 percent along with tuition hikes may be necessary to make up state budget shortfalls, East Carolina University Chancellor Steve Ballard said Wednesday.

Those steps could mean fewer and larger classes for students as well as increased teaching loads for faculty, Ballard said.

In his second-annual State of the University address, Ballard praised ECU’s accomplishments while warning that the next budget year will be the most daunting faced in 60 years. The state budget is expected to have a $3.7 billion gap — a 20 percent shortfall — for the fiscal year that begins in July.

Ballard cautioned that state lawmakers are not expected to approve the 2011-2012 budget for several months. But if public universities are asked to cut 20 percent, he said, ECU will lose $60 million — on top of $106 million that’s vanished from its budget in recent years.

“One can certainly hear estimates ranging from 8 percent to 20 percent, depending on assumptions about sales taxes and economic performance in the state,” Ballard said. “While I ask everyone to pray for 8 percent, as a chancellor I must plan for 20 percent.”

For students, the cuts are likely to mean higher tuition and fees. Under the scenario Ballard outlined, students could fund at least 20 percent — or $12 million — of the $60 million gap. Such hikes would come on top of substantial increases approved in previous years by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors.

“We have always prided ourselves in being an access institution and our first university priority is student success, so making higher education less affordable is a painful option for me,” Ballard said. “I would not propose it if I did not consider it necessary to protect the quality of their academic experiences.”

Even with tuition increases, ECU will remain either second- or third-most affordable among peer universities, Ballard said.

Faculty and staff could be affected by 9 percent to 12 percent cuts to colleges and divisions throughout the university. Ballard said those reductions would generate $30 million in savings, or half ECU’s $60 million target.

“While I hope that we can keep the overall size of our faculty close to what it is today, many schools and colleges will have no choice other than to use faculty openings and academic resources to reach their goal,” Ballard said. “The availability of classes will be reduced, while class size and teaching loads, on average, will increase.”

Ballard said ECU could use as much as $15 million from its emergency fund to avoid further cuts as well as look for ways to consolidate services to further fill the gap. The university has used its emergency fund to pay for clean-up from disasters such as Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and other unforeseen expenses.

ECU has already done its best to cut costs, Ballard said, citing UNC system data that indicate the university is one of two state campuses in which the rate of administrative growth has been less than the rate of student population growth.

Ballard said he’s asked Marianna Walker, chair of the Faculty Senate, to work with its Educational Policy and Planning Committee to recommend ways to consolidate academic units and reduce administrative costs.

Such cuts would make the fiscal year that starts in July the fourth that state universities have lost money. Last year, the UNC system accounted for 20 percent of cuts, though it represented 13 percent of the state’s budget, Ballard said.

Much of the cuts have come from administrative positions and functions. Two years ago, 92 percent of ECU’s cut to its budget base came from those areas, Ballard said.

He pointed out that a majority of states have experienced worse cuts than North Carolina. California, for instance, has a $20 billion gap while Illinois faces a $25 billion shortfall. University of California system tuition has tripled since 2002.

ECU will focus on the long-term and be strategic as it deals with cuts, Ballard said.

“We will define where we want to be at the end of this recession and stay focused,” he said. “We won’t eat our seed corn. We will protect our fundamental commitments as a public university.”

ECU is a “vital part of the solution” to the state’s problems, Ballard said.

“ECU is about the promise of opportunity — giving students access to an excellent university and a chance to realize their dreams,” Ballard said.

Ballard highlighted several of the university’s accomplishments in job creation, including:

•The engineering program, which began in 2004 and was accredited in 2009, attracts more applicants with higher academic credentials each year. Half of its students are from eastern North Carolina and more than 90 percent of graduates have found jobs in the field or have enrolled in a graduate program.

•More than 90 percent of hospitality management majors are employed upon graduation, despite a severe recession in the industry.

•More new N.C. teachers come from ECU than any other institution.

•All nurse anesthesia, occupational therapy and physical therapy graduates are employed after graduation.

ECU also is improving the health of eastern N.C. residents, Ballard said. He cited, among other things, the Brody School of Medicine’s No. 2 national ranking in producing primary-care doctors and its rank of seventh nationally in meeting its overall social mission.

ECU knows how to survive tough times, he said.

“On the other side of this great recession, we will not only be here, we will be proud of the difference we make,” Ballard said. “And we will never lose sight of the opportunities we provide.”

The university has to preserve its academic core, said the vice president of the Student Government Association, who listened to Ballard’s message.

“If the choice is between cutting away things that make the academic core strong or raising tuition, then it probably would be necessary to raise tuition,” said Josh Martinkovic, a senior. “During hard times, you have to do the best you can with what you have.”

Dr. Paul Cunningham, dean of the Brody School of Medicine, said Ballard delivered his message with honesty and confidence.

“He expressed great resolve and optimism about our future as a university,” Cunningham said.