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.

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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 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.

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Emerging Technology

ECU hospitality management student Erin Carson, left, checks out an Apple iPad from Pam Evans, head of service – circulation for ECU’s Joyner Library, as part of the library’s pilot program that allows patrons to test drive new technology. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

Patrons queue up for new technology at Joyner Library

Response was immediate.

East Carolina University faculty, staff and students quickly snatched up 10 Apple iPads offered for checkout in a Jan. 31 e-mail announcement from Joyner Library. All available devices left the building within two hours; 30 people joined a waiting list.

A similar reaction greeted the library’s pre-Christmas offering of the e-readers Kindle and Nook.

The offers were made as part of a Joyner Library pilot program designed to provide both access and opportunity for patrons to test drive emerging technologies. Kindles and Nooks may be checked out for two weeks, while the iPad loan period is three days.

“Providing these devices to our users to gauge their use and acceptance is an important part of our ongoing efforts to meet the changing information access needs of our users,” said Larry Boyer, dean of Academic Library and Learning Resources.

Boyer said that publishing and information delivery industries have undergone drastic changes in the past decade, with even more rapid changes to come. “E-books and e-book readers will be an important part of that story,” he said.

During the 2010 holiday season, e-book downloads outstripped the sale of hardback bestsellers, Boyer said. A Kindle user himself, Boyer gave his wife and two daughters each a Kindle for Christmas. They were a “big, big hit,” he said, “although all of us continue to love and appreciate the printed book.”

While many readers have checked out a Kindle or Nook to investigate them prior to making a purchase, many faculty members are reserving the iPads with specific plans for academic use, said Pam Evans, head of service for Circulation at Joyner Library. “iPad technology has entered the classroom, with professors using the electronic devices for instruction,” she said.

The library has 10 iPads, six Kindles and six Nooks for checkout, and requests for the devices have been so overwhelming that circulation staff are reviewing alternative booking methods just to keep up, Evans said.

Users returning the devices have completed a survey about their experience, submitting comments such as “This gave me the opportunity to explore before buying”; “I used it at a conference. It was small and easy to pack”; and “I liked the iPad so much, I just bought one.”

College of Education professor Beth Fine checked out four iPads to use in a face-to-face course in educational technology as part of a discussion on incorporating emerging technologies to enhance the curriculum and improve teacher productivity.

Many of her students had never used iPads before and were excited to have the opportunity for some hands-on exploration. The library’s program is “an amazing idea,” she said.

“The power of this new technology with teacher education students is something that can be understood only when it is used,” Fine said. “Providing opportunities for new teachers and teachers in training to interact with emerging technologies is a key idea that we, as a university, can focus on in our attempt to provide them with a rich and diverse experience prior to their field experiences.”

Faculty, staff and students may also take a look at the electronic devices during an e-Book/e-Reader Education Exposition March 22, sponsored by Emerging Academic Initiatives, Joyner and Laupus libraries. The exposition will be held from 10 a.m. to noon in the Mendenhall Student Center Great Room and from 2 to 4 pm. in the College of Nursing and College of Allied Health lobbies.

For additional information, contact the Joyner Library circulation desk at (252) 328-6518.

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A list of books pre-installed on the e-readers is available at http://media.lib.ecu.edu/techsrv/E-Books-List.cfm. Pre-loaded applications on the iPad are listed at http://blog.lib.ecu.edu/announce/?p=1145.[HTML3]



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Second Life

lbert Réveillon, president of the jury, presents the International Intraverse Award for Education to ECU via the same Second Life technology used to develop and deliver ECU's virtual 3D online early college program. (Contributed photo)

ECU’s virtual early college top in state

GREENVILLE   (Feb. 21, 2011)   —   A virtual early college program at East Carolina University has been recognized as the top program in the state for course content and its unique delivery platform.

ECU’s Early College Second Life Program (ECSLP), which uses 3D virtual technology to let high school students take college classes in their high school environment, won the Best Practices for Distance Learning Programming award from the North Carolina Distance Learning Association.

That honor follows an international prize the program received earlier this month. ECSLP accepted its Feb. 4 International Intraverse Award in Education, presented in Monaco, using the Second Life distance learning technology that supports the program.

“It is successful because it captures the student’s attention, challenges them, and allows them to interact with each other for projects,” said Sharon Collins of ECU Emerging Academic Initiatives. “It truly is the way students desire to learn these days, by advancing with technology.”

The awards recognize the quality of the course material ECU developed for a virtual environment targeting high school students, said Collins. Some 40 students in Pitt and Lenoir County classrooms are enrolled in the program.

“There are other Early College High School programs that are very successful, but ours allows students to stay in their high school spaces and not travel to a community college or university campus to obtain their learning since we can offer it through Second Life,” said Collins.

Second Life is a virtual 3D world, designed for high school students. In that world, students have an “avatar” (a virtual presence) and attend a real-time class. ECU is the only campus using Second Life to offer classes that let students earn college credit and high school credit at the same time.

The ECSLP is a partnership between ECU, Pitt County schools, Pitt Community College and Kinston High school. Students can take classes in anthropology, personal finance, child psychology, introduction to computers, English, sociology and web site design and maintenance.

To read more about ECU’s Second Life program, go to
http://www.ecu.edu/cs-admin/news/poe/2010/210/earlycollege.cfm .

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