Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Art of Web Conferencing

"I like the computer because it keeps giving you options. What if I do this? You try it, and if you don't like it you undo it. The original can always be resurrected. It raises the idea of working on one painting your whole life, saving it and working on it again and again." - Elliott Green, contemporary American artist.

Robin Rogers Cloud (pictured ) teaches art at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California. When I first met Robin, in 2004, she had an idea about teaching online students how to paint by meeting with them online and critiquing their paintings using CCC Confer's tools. I had my doubts about this proposal, but Robin went forward with it and not only proved me wrong; she taught me a valuable lesson: never doubt a skilled instructor's ability to use technology to accomplish the impossible.

Robin invited me to one of her online Office Hour sesssions, in which she posted students' watercolor paintings to the whiteboard and used the drawing tools to show them how each painting might be made better. She drew in new horizons, showed them how the use of light and dark could be made more effective, demonstrated perspective. On a lonely ocean scene (given Saddleback's proximity to beautiful beaches, these were plentiful), she drew a sailboat or two to provide interest to the pictures. She used arrows to point to each picture's "standout" visual point, and led discussions on why that feature captured the viewer's attention. Where contrast was poorly used, she darkened elements of the picture to show how attention could be drawn to parts of the picture simply by adding contrast. As Robin taught and demonstrated, her students - all participating remotely - became excited and enthused about the insights they were gaining. The "oohs" and "ahs" - and "ahas" - could be heard throughout the class session.

Today, Robin uses more than the whiteboard to teach art to her online students. She uses the Webcam to show students how to mix colors, use brush strokes effectively, and compose a picture. By doing this "live" before her students, she is able to field questions from students and improvise according to what they ask or how they respond. The class becomes interactive, and - where visual techniques are most critical - learning can be focused on seeing the proper methods and discovering in real time the principles of artful composition and construction.

The multimedia library tool - which allows an instructor to play movies or multimedia files to students - has also become a staple in Robin's classes. Robin has created a series of digital movies that demonstrate the methods she wants her students to master. In these, she demonstrates a technique and provides a narrative that explains and clarifies the method. These clips allow her to provide lessons or demonstrations any time she finds it appropriate to do so; she simply loads the file into the Multimedia Library and plays them once the file has been loaded. Because this tool plays multimedia files on the viewer's native computer, the class sees the lesson in real time and reacts while the instructor is present and able to add information or edification.

Perhaps I'm most impressed by the innovative use Robin makes of tools anyone can access. She's an artist, so creativity comes with the territory, but her approach is especially original. She uses ordinary hardware - clamp-on lights, foil reflectors, and inexpensive Webcams - to create a home studio suitable for providing the lighting and effects she needs to provide students with online art lessons that impress and inspire. A touch tablet allows her to draw on the whiteboad quickly and effectively, and simple software like Painter and Photoshop enable her to do quick touchups to paintings.

To see Robin in action using CCC Confer, watch this demonstration. I'm sure you'll agree with me that this artist models the effective use of Web conferencing technology. Artists afraid of technology? Nonsense! Artists make this technology beautiful.

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