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Centra, a new software program in use at ECU, adds a new dimension and interactivity to distance education delivery. The program incorporates Web cameras and audio so that students and faculty can participate in real-time discussions. (Contributed photo)

Centra Enhances DE Delivery

By Erica Plouffe Lazure

Online courses at East Carolina University now have sonic, social and visual components through Centra, a new software program.

This spring, ECU’s Office of Academic Outreach extended the Web-based virtual classroom to all faculty members after a yearlong pilot test.

“We are pleased to add Centra as a learning tool at ECU. It is the perfect complement to our primary learning platform, Blackboard, and offers faculty and students ways to communicate and collaborate that expand the horizons of online learning,” said Elmer Poe, associate vice chancellor for Academic Outreach. “Our staff has done a stellar job of introducing Centra to our campus and both faculty and students have embraced its potential.”

Approximately 4,000 students are enrolled in distance education courses at ECU. More than 50 different courses and 1,100 students have used the Centra program in the past year.

In Elizabeth Hodge’s administration management education class this fall, students were able to collaborate online and make friends in the process.

“In the past I’ve always included online chats and discussion groups, but this semester, I had the students work on a special project using Centra to solve a case problem,” said Hodge, a professor in the College of Education. “I was also able to post my presentations and upload the material I wanted to share with them.”

Using web cameras and the Internet, students can upload files, give oral presentations and participate in real-time classroom discussions through Centra. They can also respond to yes-or-no “poll” questions and “raise” their hands with a click of the mouse.

Like many students who take distance education courses, Hodge’s students are scattered across the state or live out-of-state. For the first time, Hodge, who teaches several online courses, said she was able to see her students this semester, face to face via web camera, before graduation.

“It really has opened up new opportunities,” she said. “I feel like we’ve been able to create a community of learners. The students are sharing experiences aside from what they are working on, as students; it allows them to become friends. Because we can see one another, it fills a social presence that distance education has lacked in the past.”
Erich Connell said his construction management course, “Critical Analysis and Evaluation of Construction Documentation,” enabled his graduate students, all of whom already held jobs, to integrate school in ways that fit their schedules.

“We needed a model that could accommodate those parameters of differing work schedules, distant and mobile work places for professionals in construction,” he said.

In addition to offering collaboration, the Centra format also allowed Connell to invite an expert guest lecturer from Texas, who spoke about the issue of land development.

“Centra provided an educational opportunity for our students to have the most recent knowledge available and this would not have been possible in the traditional classroom,” Connell said.

Professors have used Centra for online office hours, classroom presentations and group projects and activities. Some professors, Hodge said, have used Centra as a site for online research collaboration among colleagues.

The Centra format is designed to complement ECU’s BlackBoard program through web cameras, audio footage and file sharing. It is different from BlackBoard in that it is a web conferencing system that creates more social, audio and visual interaction among students, according to Sharon Collins, Centra project director for ECU’s Academic Affairs.

ECU’s Academic Outreach program is offering both basic and advanced Centra courses this semester. ECU’s OneStop has details and the schedule. Contact Collins for more information about Centra at collinss@ecu.edu.

7/29/08
This page originally appeared in the Jan. 26, 2006 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at http://www.ecu.edu/news/poe/Arch.cfm.