More off-site learners at Colchester Institute are now able to study ITQs thanks to web conferencing software. The technology has made it possible to hold online classes with break-out sessions, voting, testing and application sharing, as Colchester Institute explains in this article.

Colchester Institute provides further education and training for North Essex and adjoining areas. 10,500 students are enrolled at the college, which offers ITQ (National Vocational Qualification for IT Users) courses to prospective students. Even there are several campuses in North Essex, it can be difficult for some learners to attend seminars. Therefore, members of the ILT department felt there was a great need for a support system that could enable distance learning.

The first stage was to explore different products and services that could enable students to learn off campus. Ideally, the department wanted a package that could enable remote application sharing, allow video-conferencing and schedule meetings. 'One of the main issues for us was the maintenance of the tool,' comments Adrian Rowe, MLE trainer at the Colchester Institute.

'We needed a service that was maintained externally, as a new rebuilding programme at the college was putting extra strain on the IT services team, leaving them without the resources to maintain a new package themselves.'

The college found initially that there were many suitable products on the market that could accommodate these prerequisites, but many were incompatible with the college network.

The college has a Cisco Systems internal telephone network installed, which coincidentally worked perfectly with WebEx, another Cisco product, which therefore made it first choice over others in the market.

Colchester Institute therefore picked and implemented WebEx - a multi-faceted tool, which is primarily designed for the corporate sector but can be used as an online learning tool. Its features include Meeting Center, Training Center and an Online Classroom Presentation studio, making is suitable for staff meetings, remote one-to-one training and group learning sessions.

Rowe says: 'Set-up was simple, as all staff were able to take one of three training options: online tutoring from a Cisco WebEx trainer, online self-paced tutorial or on-site training from an Institute colleague.'

For learners, too, little instruction was required, so even those with almost no IT skills were able to use the tool straight away, as a teacher would guide them through the induction process.

'Joining a WebEx meeting simply requires clicking a link and dialling a number, so everyone was able to take advantage of the technology without a complicated installation process,' adds Rowe.

The Training Center and Online Classroom features are currently being used to help engage distance learners. The interface is very intuitive and can be used with learners for polling, testing, hands-on labs and breakout sessions.

'For interactive lessons, classes are kept to a maximum of 15 learners to enable more engagement, while "virtual lectures", constituting the pure dissemination of information, are given via Event Manager and can sometimes involve 200 students at a time,' says Rowe.

In a classroom scenario, learners have the option to share opinions. There is a built-in 'pass the ball' function which allows each participant to talk in turn, thus allowing the presenter or facilitator to hold control through each session.

In addition, students can also gain remote access to the facilitator's screen and similarly they can share their own applications to demonstrate working methods. For staff, the meeting facility offers scheduled videoconferences online and allows application sharing, which is particularly useful for staff wishing to communicate and share working documents across campuses.

Although the use of WebEx is still in a pilot phase, it will allow the college to offer more courses to distance learners, thus increasing student enrolment and retention. The online courses are not offered on-site, allowing the college to expand the number of courses on offer and students possible to reach.

Web-Ex has also significantly improved institutional effectiveness. Cross campus communications via WebEx has improved standardised practice (i.e. sharing), which in return has helped enhance teaching practice.

'The use of WebEx has slowly developed since we first took up the contract,' says Rowe. 'Once new account users got over the initial shyness of using the product their confidence has soon grown, especially when they have seen how it has proved so useful in communicating with others and the savings that are made in their use of time and travel.

'Being able to have the flexibility of starting a session immediately or run one on a scheduled basis has proved very useful, especially when working with distance learners that need to receive a live demonstration of the use of software applications.'

Although assessing the use of online applications can sometimes be tricky, the features of WebEx meetings allow users to measure their own progress through the tool.

'Different courses take different lengths of time, but we are able to assess the technology via the polling feature. We can get the students to assess their own progression and see how they are benefiting from the course. We also assess the students in other formats and use the findings to evaluate our use of the tool,' says Rowe.

Although distance learners can sometimes let their daily life pattern intrude on their learning, completion rates for distance courses are still high, and the college has plans to develop use of the tool in the future.

'The use of WebEx for the training of hourly paid staff will be developed more in the future,' says Rowe. 'It will help employees and college alike in the effort to provide training and instruction to people whose availability is restricted outside of their teaching hours because of family commitments or other constraints.'