Making the Virtual Classroom a Reality

Cofounder and president Terry Shane shares Refined Data Solutions’ latest product, which promises to take virtual classrooms well beyond the “glorified web-conferencing platforms” that came before it

A few years back, officials from two top-tier universities in the United States came to Refined Data Solutions president Terry Shane with an idea. Or maybe it was a problem. Let’s call it a wish, with fingers crossed. Was there any chance it could build an online learning platform that would be as effective as the traditional classroom model?

Online classes were great from the financial perspective because they made much of the overhead associated with classroom learning vanish, but there was still too dear a price to pay in return. Most professors weren’t convinced that they could instruct as effectively in a virtual classroom as in a physical one. In fact, many students felt as if their learning suffered as well. It was time to find a solution that could cut costs without disturbing the integrity of the educational experience.

The officials chose Refined Data because of its global reputation as an innovator in e-learning. Refined Data had already developed technology that expanded the limits of web conferencing and virtual classrooms, allowing for more concurrent live camera feeds and greater interactivity between facilitators and participants. The university officials were hoping that the technology envelope could be pushed to allow forty, fifty, or a hundred or more simultaneous web cams to be seen at one time to meet their teaching needs.

As he is inclined to do when presented with a challenge to innovate, Shane got excited. Then he and his team went to work. The result was Vantage Point, and it’s changed the game for many universities and corporate training departments.

ADVANTAGE TALKS WITH TERRY SHANE

How do you innovate on a day-to-day basis?
The genesis of our company was the direct result of working with cutting-edge companies to solve their most challenging business problems. I think it’s fair to say that innovation was bake in to our corporate DNA from the start.

Where do you hope this innovation will lead you in the next five years?
We have no interest in incremental improvements-we are out to transform the fabric of online learning.

How do you cultivate innovation within your workforce?
We actively promote individual and group brainstorming where the only rule is that there are no bad ideas.

How can you foster innovation without breaking the bank?
We test our ideas and needs as early as possible to find quick wins in the near term, and opportunities for collaborative ventures in the medium tern.

Up to that point, virtual classrooms were still mainly what Shane terms “glorified web conferencing platforms.” Students would watch the professor lecturing on a monitor but the professor was effectively blind to his or her audience. As soon as the class size was larger than the six to ten camera capacity of the software, the professor had no way to see the learners and could no longer read facial expressions or body language. They would have no idea which students were understanding the concepts being taught, which ones looked in need of clarification, or which ones were on calls with their friends or checking Facebook instead of paying attention. Much of the art of instruction has to do with being able to read reactions to individual and group dynamics, and these non-verbal cues were lost, leaving a suboptimal experience for instructors, learners, and a university’s brand experience.

“True learning and understanding come from interacting with others, where the teacher provides context and then encourages conversation among the participants,” Shane says. “The students are both learning from and teaching each other in addition to interacting with the course materials and the professor.”

With Vantage Point, those interactions are far easier to achieve. The students can interact in small breakout groups under the teacher’s watchful eye. The professor sees separate live feeds of all the students, in what Shane calls the ‘Brady Bunch View,’ often projected on a large flatscreen TV in front of the instructor. The students are there, life-sized in front of each other in a major leap beyond simply replicating the physical learning experience. The classroom comes alive for professor and students, and it also makes the students accountable for being present and engaged.

At the end of Vantage Point’s pilot year, the learning outcomes achieve by the virtual students were actually better than those of their physical-classroom counterparts, and the student feedback about their learning experience was more positive too. The technology has garnered headlines and earned the company a Finalist nomination for the Innovation in Learning Award by the UK-based Learning Performance Institute.

Shane, whose father was an inventor who held several of his own patents, has always had innovation instilled in him. His father had hoped his son would eventually take over the family business, but heeding an impulse to make a name for himself, he eventually stepped outside of his father’s shadow and began his own direct-marketing business. The company developed software and data-processing facilities for large corporations and large nonprofits, predating the e-mail and Internet revolutions. When the Internet became available Shane’s company website was named “9th Most Useful Place on the Net” by Yahoo because he put the Canadian Postal Code and US Zip Codes directories into searchable online databases, long before the North American postal authorities.

He eventually sold that company and its patents, thinking he would retire early and devote his time to his passions for cycling and travel. But the thirst for innovation and activity remained.

“No matter how much time you spend on your bike, if you are built to be in business and built to invent things, that doesn’t go away,” Shane says. “I couldn’t do nothing any longer. I was fascinated by the exploding market for e-learning—how it could effectively change the world and people’s access not just to information, but to understanding.”

And so Shane and his friend and thought-partner Hugh Molyneux, launched Refined Data determined to transform the way the world learns and to make higher learning and better training available to anyone regardless of where they live or work.