The 2009 EDUCAUSE higher-education technology conference in Denver Nov. 3-6 saw campus IT administrators present ways to preserve technology budgets during an economic downturn that has devastated many institutions’ operating budgets and endowments, while several vendors emphasized the value of moving campus IT to cloud computing.

The 11th annual conference drew 6,532 attendees from 47 countries, a 12-percent attendance drop from last year, but a number on par with 2006 and 2007, said Jarret Cummings, an EDUCAUSE spokesman.

Cummings said some annual education conferences have seen attendance plummet by as much as 50 percent in the past year while schools cut back on travel budgets during the recession.

"We view registration figures consistent with historic norms as a sign that institutions and corporations place a high priority on participating in the EDUCAUSE annual conference," he said, adding that conference registration was almost identical when the show was held in Denver in 2004.

What’s more, EDUCAUSE officials said the conference had a jump in the number of exhibiting vendors showing off their latest in education technology. Cummings said there were 251 companies exhibiting at this year’s conference–a 21-percent increase from the 2008 EDUCAUSE conference in Orlando.

"We were able to make more spaces available in the exhibit hall, and members of our corporate community responded with a strong show of support in the face of a difficult economic climate," he said.

EDUCAUSE offered live streaming and recorded webcasts of sessions and keynote speakers throughout the three-day event for the first time on the organization’s conference web site. More than 270 higher-education institutions registered to watch conference sessions online, and about 2,000 viewers from those colleges and universities logged on for real-time streaming of sessions hosted by educators and IT officials.

"We accomplished our goal of greatly expanding member access to the annual conference experience, regardless of location," Cummings said.

EDUCAUSE officials said the organization is still assessing how the web-based sessions might have affected attendance, because educators who couldn’t afford to come to the conference could watch the goings-on from the comfort of their home or office.

Cummings said, "It looks like the online event expanded participation in the conference experience, rather than detracting from it. … As we offer online versions of our events in the future, we will monitor their impact on our traditional conferences, but this initial foray looks encouraging."

Presenters air their views on cloud computing

Many of the EDUCAUSE sessions focused on ways campus IT officials can move expensive computer infrastructure to cloud-computing networks, giving campuses enhanced storage and computing power while saving money on campus-based, energy-intensive servers.

"There’s not just hope in the cloud paradigm; I think we need to come to grips with the fact that to some extent, this is inevitable," Michael Dieckmann, senior associate vice president and CIO for the University of West Florida, said during a Nov. 4 session exploring the pros and cons of cloud computing. "This is a way the industry is yet again evolving, through an evolution like the many we have put up with before now."

Dieckmann said college IT officials should not see the recent drift toward cloud computing as a "poison pill" that IT offices must accept, but rather a chance to do the most with paltry budgets using reliable off-campus computer infrastructure.

"I don’t think just digging in our heels, sticking our heads in the sand and saying, ‘We’re not going to pay attention to this’ is a viable thing," he said. "I think we should be leading rather than following."

However, Melissa Woo, director of cyber infrastructure at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, argued against unquestioned acceptance of cloud computing in higher education, pointing out glaring weaknesses in the cloud system.

Cloud-computing storage services, Woo said, have lost customer data in recent months, such as the highly publicized loss of Sidekick smart-phone data by Microsoft Corp.–an example of the "extreme risk" institutions take when they store all campus data on an off-campus network.

"Where [are] our student data being stored? Where [are] our research data being stored?" Woo said. "These are all risks we need to mitigate."

Despite Woo’s concerns, many EDUCAUSE exhibitors touted their cloud-computing solutions for everything from data storage to creating multifaceted learning environments.

IBM education, for example, chose the EDUCAUSE conference as the venue in which to unveil its new Cloud Academy, a global forum for educators, researchers, and IT personnel to pursue cloud computing initiatives, develop skills, and share best practices for reducing operating costs while improving quality and access to education.

According to Michael King, IBM’s vice president for global education, 17 educational institutions worldwide are the first to participate in the Cloud Academy.

"Cloud computing makes it easier for everyone in education – including students, faculty, and administrators – to gain immediate access to a wide range of new educational resources and research applications and tools," King said. "The IBM Cloud Academy will advance awareness and adoption of cloud computing, including best practices for education and research institutions."

Specific cloud-computing applications also were on display at EDUCAUSE.

DubMeNow’s DUB application, for example, allows users to create a mobile address book that is always current. Users fill out a "virtual" business card from DubMeNow’s web site, and a downloadable application lets iPhone, BlackBerry, and Google Android smart-phone users store each other’s contact information by sending the virtual cards from one phone to another.

If one of your contacts updates his or her information on the DubMeNow web site, the information is updated automatically on your phone. And if you lose a phone or buy a new device, you can transfer your DUB contacts to your new phone easily from the "cloud." The application is a convenient, reliable alternative to hauling around piles of business cards, DubMeNow says.

Google brought student representatives from across the country to the conference, where they discussed the many useful–and free–applications hosted by the internet giant. Daniel Miller, a University of Washington student, said he makes study guides on Google Docs, and the Google Spreadsheets application has "saved hours" in helping him study for statistics exams.

Learning Objects’ Campus Pack harnesses the Web 2.0 power of podcasts, social learning sites, blogs, and wikis to create an online student environment delivered via the cloud. The program gives educators easy access to student work and provides for easy-to-use peer review, the company said.

Microsoft demonstrated its Live@edu cloud service, which offers a free storage solution for college students who rely heavily on their laptops and smart phones to complete homework assignments and study for exams. Live@edu gives each student 10 gigabytes of storage using Microsoft’s Outlook Live, and 25 GB of web-based storage with Windows Live SkyDrive.

And Pearson’s newly released Learning Studio combines two learning platforms, Pearson eCollege and Frontier, allowing IT administrators to create multi-faceted learning environments for students who study on campus, take blended classes, or earn a degree online. This cloud-computing service creates a dependable course web site so professors can focus on teaching, not managing a web site prone to errors, Pearson said.

Enhancing ‘customer’ relations

 A number of EDUCAUSE exhibitors demonstrated technology-based solutions for helping schools interact more effectively with their stakeholders.
 
For example, LivePerson Pro features an online chat solution that will keep visitors to a college’s web site from leaving in frustration when they can’t find an answer to their question.

The system allows users to monitor visitors to their site in real time, invite visitors to chat, and answer questions when a visitor submits a query. You can make chat available whenever site visitors request it, or proactively invite visitors to chat if you see signs that they’re about to abandon your site. Pre-crafted answers to common questions make it easy for school communications staff to answer routine questions and chat with more than one site visitor at the same time.

Perceptis’ 24-7 Enterprise Service Centers have proven valuable for colleges and universities flooded with student questions about financial aid. Perceptis representatives are there to answer phone calls, helping students avoid complicated, time-consuming call trees that can be many layers deep, only to finish with an impersonal voice message.

And Datatel’s Recruiter program helps college admissions officials target prospective students deemed most attractive to the campus based on complex analytics. Recruiter will give frequent updates on how close a college is to its long-term admissions goals, predicting applicants’ probability of enrolling in courses.

Hobsons offers tools focused on student recruitment and retention, including EMT Retain, which features an early warning system to let college counselors know when a student is showing at-risk behavior, such as infrequent class participation or slumping exam and homework grades.

Sungard’s online services include helping campus officials improve student retention rates with proactive identification of students deemed at risk, using myriad communication tools (including Twitter) to direct those students to professors or tutors.

And TopSchool’s Student Lifecycle Management program enables colleges and universities to track students from their first application throughout their education and past their graduation, allowing schools to keep in touch with alumni as well. TopSchool’s ad-hoc reporting tool lets campus IT officials customize student reports, focusing on relevant data by using a drag-and-drop function.

Online-learning solutions

Drawing from more than 150 data sources, Acxiom provides a voluminous database of information on prospective students to aid in recruitment. But the company also demonstrated its solutions for helping colleges and universities validate the identity of distance-learning students and battle academic dishonesty–an issue that has taken on added importance with last year’s passage of a law requiring higher-education institutions to take steps to do this. (See "ED OKs proctors, secure logins for online tests.")

Acxiom’s software produces targeted questions that students must answer before taking an online exam, and the system raises red flags when students might have cheated.

Another online-learning solution on display at the conference was Three Rivers Systems’ CAMS, reportedly used by more than 300 campuses worldwide to automate the often complex administration of web-based college courses, removing a time-consuming task for IT staff. The system reportedly allows students to move from online registration to online classes immediately, without manual syncing or IT involvement.

Moodlerooms, which helps schools implement the open-source learning management system Moodle, demonstrated its "joule" software at the conference. Joule takes Moodle to the next level, Moodlerooms said, with new features such as enhanced reports and notifications, easier content management, automated administration, and course templating.

And Wimba announced that its new Collaboration Suite 6.0, which creates a personalized, web-based learning environment for online courses, is now available for Moodle. Professors can distribute increasingly popular MP4 files–digital audio and video streams–to a variety of social networking sites using the collaborative environment, Wimba said.

21st-century instruction

CDW-G recently published a report showing that 74 percent of college faculty use technology in their everyday courses, and 81 percent of students surveyed said they use technology every day to prepare for class–up from 63 percent in 2008. However, only two out of 10 educators strongly believe their campus is adequately preparing students to use technology in the workforce, the survey found.

To help ensure that students graduate ready for the 21st-century workplace, Certiport has joined the Educational Testing Service to create the iCritical Thinking assessment, which features real-time tasks designed to gauge a student’s ability to navigate and analyze large amounts of information. The hour-long test incorporates skills such as database management, web use, and software use.

Of course, for faculty to use technology in their instruction, they must be comfortable with–and knowledgeable about–technology and how it can enhance education. To help foster this knowledge, Hewlett Packard’s InformEd web site gives college educators access to videos, classroom resources, and stories detailing how educators have used HP technology to bolster lectures, quizzes, and exams. InformEd’s latest webisode is titled "Pen-based computing." The free site reportedly has more than 4,000 registered members.

One technology that promises to make classroom instruction more engaging is Qwizdom’s new Q7 Presenter, a student response system with programmable pen keys and hard keys that allows for wireless interaction between professors and students. Educators also have access to student help-request logs and answer graphs on LCD screens.

Another new student response system, Turning Technologies’ ResponseCard RF LCD, features a small LCD screen that displays the device’s battery strength and the student’s answer. "ResponseCard RF LCD boasts all the features and functionality of our previous ResponseCard RF keypad, but improves the interactive experience [for users] with its LCD screen," said CEO Mike Broderick. "We wanted to preserve its compact, credit-card size, as well as provide that additional feedback to [students]."

Campus communications

Several companies exhibited products and services aimed at enhancing campus communications.

For instance, Cellular Specialties unveiled an in-building wireless system designed to boost cell-phone signals in libraries and dormitories, where cell-phone reception often is inconsistent at best. The wireless system uses repeaters, amplifiers, and multi-directional antennas designed to bring flawless reception in any campus building.

Four Winds Interactive has created interactive digital signage that includes easy-to-use features such as drag-and-drop controls, built-in weather updates, and multiple database options, keeping students up to date on the latest in campus activities, cancellations, and course schedules.

And Sprint’s Nextel Direct Connect push-to-talk service has helped campus leaders nationwide communicate with fellow staff and faculty members without the untimely interruptions of older mobile radio systems, Sprint says.

Video solutions

With video taking on an increasingly important role in higher education, many companies demonstrated video-based solutions.

Sonic Foundry’s Mediasite, which EDUCAUSE officials used to record webcasts of conference sessions, lets students watch video of a class lecture while simultaneously sifting through slideshows presented during the lecture. The lecture-capture technology allows students to rewind lectures and watch them again instead of missing crucial information.

Echo360’s lecture-capture software isn’t limited to the classroom. College faculty members can record a lesson from anywhere, such as from home, the office, or the library, for instance. The personal capturing software is compatible with Mac and Windows computers.

TechSmith recently introduced its Camtasia video editing program for Macs, a popular choice among college students. Camtasia lets students and professors record and edit training videos, how-to screencasts, marketing demonstrations, and online presentations. The product’s SmartFocus feature automatically zooms to track the action on stage.

And VidyoConferencing claims to deliver the first multi-point video conferencing solution that operates over any IP network, with no Multi-Conferencing Unit needed. The solution helps college faculty avoid delays, choppy frames, and obscured images during in-class video presentations, and users can have multiple people join a conference simultaneously. The solution’s VidyoRouter has all decoding and encoding occur at the endpoint, leading to enhanced video quality for students.

Vidyo says its conferencing solutions are the first to take advantage of the most recent enhancement to the H.264 standard for video compression–Scalable Video Coding (SVC). The result is HD-quality, low-latency video without a dedicated video network, the company says.

Collaboration, management systems, and more

Web conferencing, teleconferencing, video conferencing, and social networking were among the collaboration and content-presentation solutions featured by Elluminate, the eLearning company. Elluminate products and services help schools and colleges streamline the transition from institution- or instructor-centric learning to personalized, active learning. 

The 21st century teaching and learning environment that Elluminate helps educators develop is designed to increase student retention and results, the company said.

Partnering with Elluminate is LearnCentral, a new social learning network available free of charge to schools and colleges. Described as "more than a social network or a learning community," this open environment combines asynchronous social networking and the ability to store, organize, and find educational resources with the live, online meeting, and collaboration tools provided by Elluminate.

Avenda Systems’ eTIPS network-security platform allows campus IT administrators to identify every student’s smart phone or laptop. The system checks the health of each device to ensure it won’t compromise network security, and it tells a student what he or she must do–like run a security update–to be able to log on to the school’s network.

Campus Management reportedly boasts a 97-percent client retention rate for its enterprise software, thanks largely to off-hours system upgrades for campus IT administrators, 24-7 tech support, customized reporting tools, and regulatory updates that are made automatically. Campus Management also has a portal where customers can discuss the company’s many products and services, which include financial management and student information systems, and Customer Relations Management software.

DocFinity caters to schools ranging from research universities to community colleges with its Optical Image Technology (OIT) that allows administrators to organize multi-layered information systems in every school department. OIT helps with indexing, storing, retrieving, and managing digital information quickly, DocFinity says.

iData, a higher-education technology consulting firm, introduced its Data Cookbook to conference attendees. The new program improves data sharing and reporting with features that enhance campus-wide collaboration. Written by reporting professionals and higher-education IT experts, the Data Cookbook provides a central location to store all the details of a school’s reporting terminology and report specifications. This helps improve the visibility of existing reports and provides clear, agreed-upon definitions for creating additional reports, iData says. The Data Cookbook serves as an "agreement engine," with tools to facilitate collaboration and make edits that are published only with school approval.

Jenzabar’s Total Campus Management program combines student information and business office systems with an award-winning web site that includes customer support. With more than 700 campus customers, Jenzabar technology is used on nearly every kind of campus worldwide, according to the company–including business, law, and medical schools.

Lenovo’s Thinkcentre all-in-one PC can save valuable space in campus libraries and computing labs, with a consolidated monitor and desktop that boots up in less than 35 seconds with the new Windows 7 operating system, the company said. The computer also is compatible with schools’ legacy software, thanks to Windows 7’s virtual desktop feature.

Editor’s note: Check out our other EDUCAUSE conference coverage here…

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