IT lessons: Henley adopts Web conferencing

Web conferencing is proving to be ideal for distance-learning management courses, writes Daniel Thomas.

Web conferencing is proving to be ideal for distance-learning management courses, writes Daniel Thomas.

Henley Management College in Oxfordshire, one of the pioneers of the distance-learning MBA (master of business administration), is using Web conferencing technology to support the delivery of its management training courses.

Henley College, which offers short electronic courses in subjects such as e-business and competitor intelligence to participants from areas as geographically distant as the West Indies and the Middle East, says Web conferencing is a natural progression from its existing use of e-learning tools.

E-learning has been in place to support the MBA and executive courses for many years and the core platform has been available as a Web-based e-learning tool since 1999.

The platform provides asynchronous connectivity but the college wanted a synchronous tool to support more personal learning, explains Matty Smith, director of learning and teaching services. "Our research showed that Web conferencing is the only tool that fully supports a collaborative group-learning approach," he says.

Henley College trialled the use of audio and videoconferencing but a number of problems ensued after the implementation, says Smith.

For example, he says, many of the home participants did not have the necessary equipment to use the system, forcing them to travel to a separate centre, negating the time and cost benefits videoconferencing claimed to offer. In addition, Smith says it did not allow for information to be transferred in a collaborative way - an essential tenet of the college's approach to study.

Audio conferencing proved to be more useful, robust and cost-effective than video but the use of the technology was limited due to the fact that course members could only interact verbally. It was also incapable of showing and sharing applications, which is particularly important for e-courses.

After the problems encountered during these trials, the college opted for Web conferencing, externally hosted by supplier PlaceWare.

Although it required changes to traditional teaching methods, Web conferencing has enabled tutors to present to distributed learners in a more structured and focused way, Smith says.

Web conferencing, he explains, not only allows tutors and students to share applications, such as Powerpoint, Word and Excel, but it also supports real-time interaction. Course members make frequent use of the application's tools for voting, whiteboarding (entering free text or images on screen) and submitting text-based questions. These tools, Smith says, are an essential way for assessing course members' comprehension, extending learning and exchanging information.

Smith expects the college to extend its use of the technology in the coming months. "The success of the project is attested by the fact that Web conferencing is fast replacing the collaboration tools we used before," he says.

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