At its best, information technology can produce profound changes on a campus, allowing both professors and students to collaborate in ways that never existed previously.
At Wake Forest University, video-based web conferencing has been such a technology.
Enabling users to run meetings via video conference, easily share documents and even send text messages, it removes the geographic boundaries that can stymie collaboration. That's clearly a plus in the higher education environment.
Rolled out as a pilot program in spring 2011 to 140 students, faculty and administrators, Cisco Systems' WebEx is now a staple at Wake Forest. Everyone in the university can now access the technology through a Cisco cloud service. The only user requirements are an Internet connection and a computer with a webcam.
One of the best aspects of web conferencing is that it lets the university use technology to enhance the personal nature of the educational experience. Video can convey a sense of "being there," not easily replicated on a conference call.
For example, professors can host a video conference with far-flung research associates, saving time and money on travel, and still be available to teach a class that same day. During the pilot, a law professor taught a course at another university without leaving campus.
One researcher noted that she used to have a difficult time explaining a spreadsheet over the telephone. Now, she can post the spreadsheet on a web conference and talk to her colleagues and students via video conference, much as she would if they were in her office.
The student-teacher ratio at Wake Forest is 11:1, with an average class size of 25. Even in this ideal setting, video conferences offer students and faculty a new world of communication options. One of the most obvious scenarios is if a student isn't feeling well. Rather than miss a study group or lecture session, he or she can participate via web conference.
Student organizations can also take advantage of the technology. Wake Forest's student government president runs web conferences with counterparts at 99 campuses across the country. Rather than seeing one another once a year at an annual conference, these collegiate politicos now meet via web conference as often as they like, sharing documents and building strong relationships.
Web conferencing also helps our students with job hunting. More than 60 percent of Wake Forest's students study abroad, and sometimes they are conflicted about studying overseas during their senior year because they fear they'll miss job recruiting interviews. Now, students can participate in the recruiting process via web conference and make plans for follow-up meetings when they return to the United States.
On the administrative side, our campus departments use web conferencing to conduct preliminary screenings of job applicants. This saves us time, plus the expense of flying in a candidate who might not be a top-tier prospect.
Ultimately, college communities are limited only by their own creativity. Technology is just a tool. The job of IT leadership is to create a climate where collaboration can flourish.