Learning across the miles

Bluffton’s community is extending its boundaries, experiences and diversity through the use of videoconferencing. Technology updates made last summer to a classroom in Centennial Hall allow students taking Bluffton MBA and MAOM courses to participate from anywhere in the world.

A reliable internet connection and a computer, laptop or tablet with a camera and mic is all students need to join a class with a Bluffton instructor. Bluffton students who travel for their work have used videoconferencing to participate in classes from as far away as Paris, France.  

Several different types of software can be used to make the classes work, says Ray Karcher, Bluffton’s technology coordinator/specialist. “Our preferred software is Zoom, but the room could be used with Skype, Adobe Connect, Google Hangouts and about any other videoconferencing software that is available,” he notes.

The Centennial Hall classroom was updated with $40,000 in donated funds. The money was used to add microphones, cameras, large television screens and a control panel—all to make students at a distance feel like they are actually in the classroom. The same room is also home to several undergraduate classes using videoconferencing with partner campuses in Indiana and Virginia.

The upgraded technology was necessary to the success of the full implementation of all five concentration areas in the Bluffton graduate programs in business (GPB) and the Collaborative MBA, which is a joint program of Bluffton, Eastern Mennonite University, Goshen College and Canadian Mennonite University. Students in the Bluffton GPB programs are joining each other in classrooms in real time across the Bluffton campus, Northwest State Community College and Edison Community College, as well as Collaborative MBA students from across the USA and in Canada.  

Both faculty members and students are contributing to the development of best practices for videoconferencing as they learn new skills and procedures needed to create a quality learning experience at a distance. “Distance learning brings both opportunities and challenges,” says Dr. George Lehman, the Howard Raid professor of business and director of the graduate programs in business. “It allows courses to be offered that you couldn’t do otherwise. However, we’re experimenting with class structure to make sure students are involved. For example, we have considered a number of different approaches to small group work in a videoconference setting.”  

Eleven Bluffton instructors, including both full-time and adjunct faculty, are teaching videoconference courses for the Bluffton GPB this fall. As best practices emerge through many real time trials, Lehman hopes more classes will be offered through videoconferencing.