Until recently, the words "web conferencing" conjured up the image of small-framed and jerky video that was akin to bad cartoon animation. Voices would speak, but there would be no movement on screen. Video would often freeze. Viewers would have to draw on stores of patience as they helplessly waited for the picture and sound to adjust to each other.
During the past few years, a number of companies have improved web conferencing software, making it more of a viable option for online learning and other applications. The proliferation of broadband has also helped push the trend, allowing senders and receivers to stream rich media right to the desktop with fewer snags.
Web conferencing can refer to a simple online setup-an instant messaging program that allows for group discussion-or something far more sophisticated. In most cases, each participant in a web conference has a web cam to capture video, a mic to capture audio, speakers, and a software program to bundle everything together and help broadcast it on the web. New voice-over IP technologies (VoIP) are creating the possibility for the mic and the speakers to be housed in a computer, but many systems still use telephone technology and speakers attached to a computer to deal with the audio portion.
Overall, participants can view video, see slide shows, participate in posting to an interactive whiteboard, view information on a computer desktop, share files, or answer questions through audio chat. Unlike video conferencing, a forerunner in the field, web conferencing typically services many users at once. Video conferencing systems are usually geared for a limited number of defined users-sometimes two, perhaps 10-but deliver high-resolution video images.
Currently, almost half of college campuses (45 percent) have some type of digital delivery system, a category that includes both video and web conferencing, according to this year's College Technology Review, published by Market Data Retrieval. This year was the first that the survey asked about such systems, which at least will give higher ed a baseline on the use of this technology. The survey reveals that close to 30 percent of those who have such systems allow access from on and off campus. Users at 25 percent of the campuses that have web conferencing or digital delivery can access the technology from multiple campuses. That means there are a lot of people online in higher education, doing everything from streaming lectures, to pushing rich media and video clips, to instructing students in real time with slide presentations and other text material.
Web conferencing use has extended beyond the classroom, though. There are more administrative meetings and interviews happening online. Some colleges and universities, such as the University of Phoenix and the University of Akron (Ohio), have web cast commencement ceremonies.
Installing conferencing equipment was an expensive proposition only a few years ago. Costs have dropped from a minimum of $40,000 to outfit a classroom with cameras, microphones, and other equipment, to perhaps as little as $10,000 today.
Web conferencing allows people in different states or different countries to "meet" in cyberspace. The technology is not lost on higher ed's distance education administrators.
Babson College (Mass.) has been working with web conferencing technologies since the 1990s, says Tova Garcia Duby, operations and ePlatform manager. "The technology has gotten better," she says. Previous incarnations of the technology yielded poor resolution and audio that would "flip in and out."
"It sounded as if the speaker was in an airplane or underwater," Garcia Duby recalls. Often the audio was out of whack with the video. "It was like watching an old Godzilla movie where the words were being spoken but the mouths weren't moving."
Recent advancements in web conferencing have helped replicate a true classroom feeling online. Garcia Duby uses Elluminate's web conferencing program to enhance distance learning. The program allows students to share data-a key application and one of the newer ones in web conferencing. "Professor and students can share a desktop. Anything the professor does can be shown to students online." All participants can enter data on a spreadsheet, for example.
The technology has been blended into Babson's MBA program, which has a distance ed component. Garcia Duby expects new web conferencing capabilities to allow enrollment to grow to 200 in September, at least double the number of students now. Her Elluminate site license allows for 150 users online at the same time, which gives the program room to grow.
Garcia Duby uses Macromedia's Breeze software for other web conferencing applications. "We do a lot of international interviewing," she says. The technology is especially helpful to follow up with international students who have graduated and moved back home.
"We try to be on the leading edge, not the bleeding edge," says Garcia Duby. "We never install version 0 of a software. We are always waiting for version 1." Web conferencing is at that version 1 level for her. "It is less likely these days that a professor will get in there and the software will bomb on them. Over the past year it has really become part of the standard package."
The instructors are using web conferencing almost as much as the course management system, she says. In fact, professors access web conferencing applications via Blackboard, the college's course management program, thus eliminating the burden of accessing a separate system in order to use the technology.
Case Western Reserve University's School of Medicine in Cleveland is experimenting with a new program to move web conferencing beyond academics. "We use this for staff interviews and for student placements," explains Lev Gonick, CIO. He estimates that the university captures thousands of minutes of digital video each month to enhance its programs.
Most recently, CWRU began beta testing high-definition software from LifeSize, the same company that helped stream real-time music instruction between Northwestern University and the New World Symphony in Miami.
Gonick has conducted several conferences with the new software and notes some helpful applications. The video is captured by a wide-angle lens, eliminating the need for the camera to be directed at different participants at different times during the conversation, he observes. Virtual participants are shown on a large screen monitor, allowing those off-site to appear at "full size," far larger than the postcard-sized video image that is typical of many systems.
Johns Hopkins University (Md.) has been contracting with Sonic Foundry to use Mediasite software for webcasts of medical instruction on HIV/AIDS treatments. The university expanded the agreement earlier this year, so that the Johns Hopkins Center for Clinical and Global Health Education can do additional web conferencing to international medical centers and hospitals. With the help of the rich-media technology, the university's center will broadcast lectures and educational presentations to doctors and medical personnel in Africa, India, and other locations.
"We are using the Mediasite box to stream over the web," says Alex Nason, assistant director of Johns Hopkins Interactive. One of the center's first uses of the technology under the expanded agreement was to stream lectures on sleep deprivation and other disorders to a client hospital in Lebanon. At least 85 medical professionals participated in this lecture, broadcast on a morning in late February. A camera captured a Johns Hopkins specialist, who also enhanced the remarks with PowerPoint slides. Two-way communication allowed doctors in the Middle East to ask questions of the Johns Hopkins specialist in real time.
Mediasite compressed and recorded the presentation, allowing the health center to add it to a library of medical instructional content.
"Here I am doing two things at once," explains Nason, referring to the broadcast and the recording. And he does it without the need of an AV/IT professional. The technology is contained in a portable studio that immediately captures audio, video, and text data, such as slide shows and written material. "The tools are integrated into the software, so that someone like me who is not a video expert, nor a designer, can make good-looking presentations within a matter of minutes." The center's staff is already repurposing the medical lectures for other clients. In total, 40 to 60 such lectures have been created.
The Johns Hopkins center's rich-media technology can record at different levels, allowing for playback on different types of modem speeds. Lectures can be viewed at 56K or 128K, Nason notes. This is an important point, given that some lectures will be played at medical facilities in the Congo or Ethiopia-places that may only have dial-up, he says.
Look for even newer versions of web conferencing software to better help navigate such global differences. Distance education and other global applications will continue to push the use of web conferencing. Analysts with IDC, a consulting firm that monitors IT and technology applications, note that the need for global communication will drive the web conferencing trend. The web conferencing industry, expected to grow from $600 million in 2003 to more than $1.1 billion in 2007, has no doubt come a long way from its not-so-distant early days.