Tech helps faculty, students interact ‘in much richer ways’

WebEx Social solves the challenge of dealing with several different student identities and sign-ons for various social networks.

Collaborative learning isn’t new, but technology is giving it a new spin and is making it easier to exchange ideas and complete group projects—regardless of where students or instructors happen to be.

Duke University is working with Cisco Systems to pilot a cloud-based social collaboration tool, called WebEx Social for Higher Education, that is geared toward the needs of higher education in particular. Students in an MBA program at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, along with business school students in other countries around the world, have used the tool to work online asynchronously while being able to track and participate in what other students are working on.

The students worked together to create and edit videos that shared their experience in other countries and other cultures. They could comment on the videos and other course materials, share their expertise on different topics, and engage in other “standard social networking” activities, says Tracy Futhey, vice president for information technology and chief information officer at Duke.

The tool is particularly useful, Futhey says, because it solves the challenge of dealing with several different student identities and sign-ons for various social networks.

“With other systems, you need a different log-in, you have a different account, [and] people have to know how to contact you on each one,” Futhey says. “You end up with 30 different accounts for 30 different entities—Facebook, Skype, eMail, you name it. This gives us the ability to integrate [and collaborate online] with one identity.”

Mark McCahill, an information systems architect at Duke, describes WebEx Social as a tool that is like Facebook, but resides “behind the firewall” of a college or university—meaning campus leaders have more control over security. Its “combination of asynchronous collaboration and an activity feed of who’s doing what—plus real-time interaction—has been a win,” he says.

The system’s home page is like a personalized dashboard that displays a calendar, activity stream, and a “Watch List” to help users keep track of posts and activities that are most relevant to them.

Creating a post to share content with others is as easy to creating an eMail message. Users can attach a variety of media types (regardless of file size), share posts with members of specific teams or groups, and control who has permission to comment on, edit, and share posts.

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