Monday, December 16, 2013

Web Conferencing Highlights of 2013

"Year's end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us." - Hal Borland

Another year of Web conferencing in education has almost ended, and we've learned a lot from the many educators who use this technology to connect with students and colleagues around the world. Here's a sampling from the myriad posts, articles, and stories that added to our growing insights into the Confer classroom.

January: "Where the disabled are enabled" An inspiring story from Western University shows how hearing-impaired students in Martin Zinke-Allmang's "groundbreaking first-year Physics for the Life Sciences class" use Web conferencing - with the built-in closed captioning option - to get the class caption notes along with the PowerPoint slides of each lecture.

February: "40 Tips for Webinar Success" Ken Molay shared a free resource from AnyMeeting which you can still download here. As Ken says, "what is fun about the document is not the short reminders of steps to follow in planning, preparing, and producing a Webinar. They are nice little encapsulations of best practices. It’s the fact that each of the 40 tips includes a link to an article, blog post, or recording going into more detail on that subject."

March: "Reconsidering Online vs. In-Person Professional Meetings"Joshua Kim mused for Inside Higher Ed about the value of online meetings: "We travel to meetings for the people, not the content - and people are best experienced face-to face, not screen-to-screen.... We travel to professional meetings with the best of intentions of focusing on the event, and find ourselves pulled into putting out fires by e-mail and phone, working late into the night to stay on top of things.... Lately, I've been thinking that our understanding of how to plan and run a quality online professional meeting has advanced to the point where it makes sense to always consider this option when planning our own events."

April: "The Do's and Don'ts of Using Visuals in eLearning" Karla Gutierrez provides invaluable pointers for anyone trying to use visuals in an online class. "Images and visuals done incorrectly will cause harm rather than strengthen learning. But images incorporate and integrated into eLearning effectively, will bolster learning and lead to more student engagement and material retention." Karla practices what she preaches by using exemplary visuals and accompanying text.

May: "Blackboard Collaborate Brings Web Conferencing App to Android" T.H.E. Journal covered this significant milestone for Bb Collaborate: mobile Web conferencing for all major platforms (the iOS app was developed in 2012). "The new mobile version... allows users to participate in Collaborate conferences. Participants can chat, use two-way audio, use emoticons, answer survey questions, raise their hands, join breakout rooms, and view presentations, including annotations, images, shared applications, and shared desktops."

June: "A Case Study on the Adoption and Use of Synchronous Virtual Classrooms" From The Electronic Journal of e-Learning, this research article describes how faculty at the University of North Carolina (Wilmington) reacted to and adopted a Web conferencing application that was made available to them by the University.  Survey data provided information on what influenced faculty adoption, and interview data described instructional approaches used by these adopters. A "subset of features led to ... adoption and are used frequently,"  while "perceived ease of use and usefulness of the technology may impel its use." Administrators trying to promote technology usage will find this case study useful and illuminating: it indicates the decision factors and features faculty consider when opting to use or ignore technology for instruction. "Based on the results of this case study, administrators can promote the factors and features that influence decision making to adopt the tool. Based on the interviews in this case study, administrators can also describe the ways how other faculty are using these tools in their classroom, and how beneficial it can be if adopted."

July: "Pasadena City College Classified Staff Demo of CCC Confer" and "DeAnza College Tutoring Program Presentation" In keeping with the theme of the June study (above), our June highlights include two presentations by colleges in the CCC system who describe how they use CCC Confer to accomplish teaching and meeting goals and objectives. The users are the best judges of a tool's usefulness, and these two demonstrations are user-produced and user-focused.

August: "3 Ways Webconferencing is Transforming PD" Another contribution from T.H.E. Journal describes "video learning communities" and "communities of practice" that self-generate when Web conferencing is used for professional development, connecting educators and making it possible for them to meet anytime and any place to share ideas and teaching practices.

September: "CCC Confer: Presenter Checklist" Another user-generated video from the College of the Redwoods designed to show fellow presenters how to prepare to use CCC Confer effectively.

October: "Ten Ways Web Conferencing Works in Education" Although this is a self-reflecting link, it's based on the excellent work of Beth Gallob, who is properly cited. Looking for ways to make the most of online technology? Here's a list of features you'll find it hard to ignore.

November: "Synchronous Learning: Is there a future?" Here's another academic study of adoption and innovation, using survey data to determine the thought processes of students who were exposed to instruction delivered via Web conferencing. "Eighty-two percent agreed or strongly agreed that [the technology] was 'easy to learn' and 73 percent stated it was 'easy to use.'... Seventy-three percent agreed or strongly agreed they would recommend [Web conferencing] to other persons for training, instruction, and learning. Only 31 percent of the students reported some technical problems during the three-hour session, and 55 percent reported no problems. More than 50 percent stated [the technology] was favorable or beneficial for their learning and 62 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the following, 'all things considered [Web conferencing] was a positive experience.' ”

December: "How Not to Look Ugly on a Webcam [Infographic]" If you spend a lot of time connecting to remote users and letting (or making) them see you from your Webcam, isn't it important to consider how to make that experience positive? This infographic considers lighting, background, bandwidth, noise level, what you're running on your computer, and positioning. It's easy to understand, and it will help to serve as a reminder.

The new mobile version of Collaborate for Android allows users to participate in Collaborate conferences. Participants can chat, use two-way audio, use emoticons, answer survey questions, raise their hands, join breakout rooms, and view presentations, including annotations, images, shared applications, and shared desktops.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Ten Ways Web Conferencing Works in Education

I came across Beth Gallob's slideshow (below) earlier this week and was inspired to elaborate on it with our experiences at CCC Confer. We are always discovering new ways to use this great tool by watching and hearing from our users - instructors, administrators, trainers, even students. These ten suggestions are the "easy finds" in the great barrel of options Web conferencing provides. Share your own!

Top 10 Ways to Use Blackboard Collaborate from Beth Gallob

  1.  Live Instruction. In the CCCs, we call this "Teach and Confer" and literally hundreds of instructors use this tool every week to deliver live online instruction to students throughout the state (and, sometimes, the world). Classes are scheduled and links posted either within the college's Learning Course Management System or on the Confer Web site (see the schedule I captured from today's (October 11 list). As with Beth's case study example, we've had several instructors and researchers report on the effectiveness of this synchronous online instruction in reducing attrition, improving student success, and providing an effective means for students who might not otherwise be able to complete their educational goals to attend college and get their degrees. See, for example, Research on Online Spanish Classes, Case Study of Online vs. On-Campus, Grades and Attendance at Online Lectures, and Almost 95 Percent Retention.
2. Meetings. With 112 colleges spread across the state of California, the California Community Colleges is a large geographical system that requires thousands of meetings every week to coordinate activities, check on progress, communicate goals, convene groups and subgroups, and simply operate as a system.Travel costs for these thousands of meetings would be prohibitive, to say nothing of the expenses incurred for meeting space, food and beverage, A/V materials and other incidentals. I've added another screen shot of some of today's (10/11) meetings, which are not atypical: a group of math instructors, IT meetings, librarian meetings, counselor training, various committees, a work group on data governance, online educators from a single college, department meetings, several task forces, student organizations, and many more. There's no question that millions of dollars every year are saved in the CCCs because these and hundreds of other groups elect to meet online instead of traveling to campus, other campuses, or to hotels or office buildings to accomplish the same goals: collaborate and get work done.
3. Recorded Content. Students who miss class or who need to review lectures or class sessions have it easy in our system if instructors record their sessions with CCC Confer. Archived sessions are converted to MP4 format and posted to the system's YouTube channel and to 3C Media Solutions, where they can be viewed, added to playlists, embedded into syllabi or lesson plans, and even downloaded. Where captioning has been requested, captions are included and can be viewed from any device. To see how recorded lectures can be used to help students and instructors, see Using Confer to Extend Face-to-Face Classes, Archives for Students Who Miss Class, Face-to-Face Students Love Archives, Confer for Lecture Capture and Video Lectures, Archives Serve Diverse Learning Styles, or Using an Archive to Extend Class Time.
4. Online Conference. Not everyone can attend every conference for a variety of reasons. Budgets are short. Other duties conflict with the time and date of the conference. Space is restricted or there may be other physical limitations. With Confer, it's easy to capture, preserve, and distribute conference presentations to both participants and to non-participants who are nonetheless interested in the subject matter. Perhaps our best known conference of the year is the Online Teaching Conference, which captures roughly a third of its presentations this way and makes them available in real time to online attendees and as recorded videos for everyone else. We've done this for several other system-wide conferences with great success, and many organizations within the system have been able to offer online conferences using similar methods.
5. Mobile Web Conferencing. Now that Blackboard Collaborate has apps for both iOS and Android devices, attendance and participation in online classes and meetings has been extended to the mobile users in our system, making it even easier to connect while on the go.
6. Virtual Office Hours. Instructors need to meet with students, and these meetings often need to occur outside of class sessions as student are engaged in their studies, assignments, or research and need guidance or feedback.Some campuses and institutions require that these office hours be held in offices that
are physically located on campus, but those policies are changing as the realization grows that travel to campus is difficult and unnecessary, and that the virtual office is often better-equipped than the average faculty member's office (to say nothing of the office-sharing or office-less adjunct faculty member). The screen at left shows my capture of today's Office Hours schedule. As I looked these up, I was surprised to see so many on a Friday, but many also on Saturday and Sunday this weekend. This points out another great advantage to virtual office hours: since they don't occur on a campus, no other staff (custodians, campus security, etc.) are required to work so that the instructor can meet with his or her students. This makes it a more flexible and affordable service for the institution.
7. Student / Parent Orientation. As online education gains in popularity, the requirement that students enrolling in an institution physically attend an orientation session is becoming increasingly unpopular and suspect. Providing an online orientation for online students makes sense, as does the popular practice in our colleges to use Confer to orient students to online classes, the virtual classroom, the library resources available online, the availability of online tutors and other support services, and to their fellow classmates. So many students become acquainted with their college experience by meeting online via Confer, and it's also true that some of them graduate and attend commencement ceremonies online via Confer!
8. Remote Guest (Speaker / Virtual Field Trip). This is another natural implementation, and we've seen it used in very creative ways. One music instructor attended an opera and allowed her class to virtually attend from her computer, including an after-performance interview with the performers. Another instructor taught her northern California Spanish classes from Costa Rica, where she introduced locals and gave virtual tours from overseas. We've seen instructors from different institutions take turns guest lecturing in each others' classes, and conduct inter-institutional debates and presentations by students separated by physical miles but connected virtually by the Confer classroom.
9. Professional Development. The CCCs have practiced online professional development for years, and it is built into our infrastructure. Nearly every organization that serves the system uses Confer to
train employees and colleagues, and the fact that training sessions are recorded allows for new employees or transfers to catch up with their colleagues quickly by viewing the sessions online. A glance at today's and future Webinars shows the diversity of this popular service: a presentation on revitalizing education, training on online research methods, a session related to legislated adult education planning requirements, training on applications to four-year institutions, an orientation to the California College Guidance Initiative, Open Educational Resource training, a library training related to integrated library systems, a Webinar on how to flip the classroom, training on Board policy for course pre-requisites, software training for specific educational applications, and sexual harassment training. The money, time, and resources saved by having these trainings online instead of at physical locations is immeasruable.
10. Virtual Help Desk. By providing an easy way to connect with experts or support people online, colleges can better support students, especially (but not necessarily exclusively) online students. Counselors, librarians, and tutors have been especially attracted to this use of CCC Confer. For a sample playlist of testimonials from some of these professionals, follow this link.

Thanks to Beth for creating the list and to the many thousands of Confer users who've shown us how to use this tool to support education. Please feel free to share your own ways to make Web conferencing work.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Commitment to Accessibility

The Talking Communities video above (unfortunately, it isn't captioned) shows two meeting planners who realize just before their Web conferencing session that their audience will include blind and deaf participants. They speculate that the blind people will be able to hear the conversation and the deaf will be able to see the slides, but conclude that "there must be something better." Indeed!

CCC Confer and the California Community Colleges have always been committed to making technology accessible to all of our constituents, regardless of disability or the severity of impairment. When our first RFP (Request for Proposals) was released for a Web conferencing vendor in 2001, our requirement of compliance with the Section 508 Amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 eliminated all but one of the vendors then providing the service. We selected that vendor because it mattered to us that ALL users be able to access and enjoy this technology. Our current vendor conforms to Section 508 as well as to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Priority AA (issued December 2012) and has received Gold level certification for non-visual access from the National Federation for the Blind NFB).You can find this vendor's Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) here. (The VPAT is a standardized way in which developers can report on their compliance with Section 508 requirements.)

From the beginning, when we offered Web conferencing, we decided that the option for captions would be available at no charge to the end user. The California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office, which funds our project, has always made it possible for us to make good on that decision. Recently, in fact, we've been able to divert the costs for instruction-related captioning to the Distance Education Captioning and Transcription (DECT) project, also funded by the CCCO. All of our captioning happens in real time, and we have been able to preserve this captioned content in our recorded archives. We also provide screen reader support for the blind and visually impaired, keyboard shortcuts, built-in speech-to-text support, features for changing text size and controls, and navigation options for menus and tabs - all of which are recommended by the National Consortium on Deaf-Blindness. Our vendor provides a downloadable Web Conferencing Accessibility Guide which is extensive (86 pages) and very helpful for anyone presenting to an audience of differently-abled individuals.

I hope you as a presenter are as committed to accessibility as we at Confer are. Consider some of these suggestions to ensure that all of your students (or audience) can access your presentation:
  1. Don't assume that all of your students know how to use CCC Confer or have ever been in a Web conference before.
  2. Prior to your session, ask your students or audience if they have assistive needs and - even if no one reports any - become aware of the options available.
  3. Send files (handouts, agenda, slides, etc.) as attachments before the meeting/class session begins. You can also send them during the session (File Share), but having a backup plan is wise. If using PowerPoints, consider creating a text version.
  4. Practice in advance so you know how to share your screen, mute your participants, etc.
  5. Come early to your Confer room and pre-load your content/slides.
  6. Decide how to handle questions (chat, verbal, at a specific time?)
  7. Tell your online audience what you're doing as you do it; it will help them understand what they're seeing (or hearing or reading).
  8. Give participants the Computer Readiness link well in advance of your session so they'll know whether or not their equipment is compatible with the Confer software.
It's also important that some rules of etiquette be followed in your online sessions to maximize accessibility. Tell your students or audience:
  1. Mute phones when not speaking
  2. Find a way to take turns (I like the virtual hand-raising icon)
  3. When you're speaking, tell everyone who you are (voices sound alike, and the captions will be more useful if comments are attributed to their authors)
  4. When or if you arrive late, don't interrupt the session by introducing yourself

For more information about accessible Web conferencing options, see:

Where the Disabled are Enabled, in which Web conferencing "allows students with disabilities — as well as distance-studies students and those who just want a refresher — to access information in their own time."

How to Add Captions to Blackboard Collaborate Recordings, in case you are not a CCC Confer customer or forgot to pre-order captions.

Using Blackboard Collaborate to Provide an Accessible Environment for Individuals with a Hearing Loss, in which a 37-year veteran Deaf Educator explains why "especially important to me are the options that Blackboard Collaborate provides for offering students with a hearing loss the same equal access to information that their hearing peers enjoy."

Leaving No User Behind, in which Shannon Forte declares a commitment to "be sure that virtually anyone and everyone can fully engage and participate in your online classroom."

Friday, September 20, 2013

Say What? Why Audio is Vital to Good Online Lectures

Here's an observation: students will forgive bad video long before they'll forgive bad audio. They'll watch presentations of lectures with fuzzy slides - or even no slides! - as long as they can hear what's being said clearly and (apparently) imagine for themselves what's being shown on the screen. Reverse the situation - with stunning visuals but terrible audio - and they'll quickly give up in disgust. (Thinking back on it, I attended many a lecture from the back of the room, where I couldn't see - or be seen - much, but was perfectly able to hear what was being said and take decent notes.)

Here's a video from Mari Smith with excellent tips about online audio enhancement:

She includes here some inexpensive microphones and connectors that will even work with smartphones to bring your audio up to snuff. Other resources for recommended microphones for Webcasting can be found here.

Audio enhances learning outcomes, especially when it involves narration that explains a complex visual, formula, graphic, or video  with which students are unfamiliar. Research indicates that adding audio (as opposed to text) to this kind of material can improve learning outcomes by as much as 80 percent. Simply by adding phonetic memory to visual memory, the brain is able to process the information more efficiently. If students are trying to understand a drawing or math formula you've presented to them, adding more text - which increases the strain on their visual processing - won't help as much as explaining to them with audio (your voice), which allows for audio processing to work with visual processing to produce understanding.

Since audio is so important, you as a speaker (presenter, lecturer, etc.) should do your best to optimize the quality of the audio you're providing to your audience. Prepare your environment for any unexpected sound (noise) that will interfere with your narration. Turn off  your cell phone (muting doesn't always eliminate all the alerts your phone wants to send you). I use a sign on my door (the current one reads "GET A ROOM...") to let others know you're not to be disturbed. Ask someone to take your dog (or baby) for a while - somewhere else. As e-learning guru Ruth Clark advises: "
Avoid ear candy. Background music and environmental sounds create unnecessary cognitive load and distract from, rather than increase, learning. Indeed, music, over longer periods of time can be incredibly annoying. Note that this also applies to sounds, such as beeps or applause, that reinforce right and wrong answers. This may be appropriate in a games, but not for most online learning. Ear candy is as bad as eye candy."

Friday, August 9, 2013

Online Teaching 2013: The State of the Art

The 2013 Online Teaching Conference in Long Beach, California encompassed myriad topics that reflect the major trends and concerns of the profession: MOOCs, legislation related to distance education and open educational resources, YouTube, the rapid changes in the educational environment, hybrid options and design, collaboration, faculty training, social media, online student services, digital textbooks, tutoring, disruption, and innovation. Thanks to the great work of the OTC professionals, here's a sample of the recorded sessions.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Be There Now (or Later): How to Be Present When Your Students are Somewhere (or Somewhen) Else

In 1971, Ram Dass published Be Here Now, a life-changing book for many of the Boomer generation. The book emphasized spiritual truths and the admonition to be present at the only time that matters - now - and in the only place that matters - here. With quotes like "the next message you need is always right where you are," it brought many readers to an awakening based on the present moment.

Teachers in the virtual classroom often have a difficult time with the concept of "presence" and "here and now." They miss the eye contact with students that the traditional classroom provides, making it difficult to hold the audiences' attention or even to know when they are holding it. Non-verbal signals (facial expressions, body language, hand gestures) are also missing online. Students who wish to can get up and walk around, turn their backs on the instructor, switch screens, feed babies, etc.: there is little physical control granted to the instructor over the virtual classroom. Distractions - barking dogs, incoming text messages, e-mail, Facebook prompts, etc. - are difficult to control and have the potential to destroy instructor presence. We've all got horror (or humor) stories about that: one that recently appeared in The Chronicle's Wired Campus spoke of "barking dogs, wailing babies, and a naked spouse" as intruders in the virtual classroom.

The potential for disconnectedness or distraction is so great that virtual classroom instructors have to be proactive, just as the readers of Ram Dass's book were urged to "wake up" and "be here now." They must pay attention to what they're saying, how often they pause to ask questions and wait for answers, and how they recognize opportunities to solicit feedback and participation. They regularly check the class roster and call on students to contribute thoughts or materials. They know that injecting humor or surprise is an effective method for breaking the ice and getting everyone's attention. They find ways to personalize their presentation, often by using the Web cam judiciously to show themselves and/or their environment or by inserting personal pictures (of themselves, their garden, a pet) onto slides or whiteboards.

Where synchronous collaboration is possible (i.e., where you have an online audience now), it should be encouraged and planned for. I like to make my students believe that they can be called on anytime to do something - and then prove it by calling on them randomly and often. If more than three minutes go by without my pausing to engage my online audience, I'm in danger of losing both them and myself in the lecture, not the present moment. I like to insert a PAUSE slide about every 10 slides in my presentation to ensure that I use it and "wake up" to my audience. The chat back-channel is a great way to reinforce presence and engagement, as long as you pay attention to it and encourage student participation.

Vicki Davis cites 12 healthy habits to grow your online presence in her Cool Cat Teacher Blog:
  1. Share.
  2. Respond.
  3. Comment.
  4. Link Generously.
  5. Read (or Listen) Prolifically.
  6. Distribute Yourself.
  7. Beware of Flattery.
  8. Live Life Online and Off-line.
  9. Latch Key Your Legacy.
  10. Laugh (a lot).
  11. Take Every Presentation Seriously.
  12. Expect Criticism.
Be there!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Lighten Up Online (Seriously!): The Value of Humor in the Virtual Classroom

"A joke is a very serious thing." - Winston Churchill

In Carla Meskill's forthcoming book on Online Teaching and Learning, N. Anthony has contributed a chapter entitled, "Perceptions of Humour in Oral Synchronous Online Environments." Anthony interviewed and surveyed students and teachers using the Wimba classroom specifically to determine the role of humor in this synchronous online environment. Here are some of the students' comments:
  • "It helped with the anxiety levels. The times we had humor, it did kind of lighten the mood and took the pressure off...."
  • "It helps me to relax and not feel pressured."
  • "It makes it more fun and makes it more ok to try and make a mistake than being afraid to speak...."
  • "Making it funny helps people feel less insecure about messing up."
  • "I believe that teacher-initiated humor relaxes the classroom and leaves us all more willing to participate because we aren't afraid to mess up because there is a portrayed sense of light-heartedness."
  • "It just makes it easier to feel relaxed and speaking in conversation is less intimidating." 
  • "It's easier to remember something that is funny than something that is boring... Words are remembered better when presented in humorous situations."
  • "Often humor makes the content more memorable and therefore helps to learn it faster and better."
  • "I tend to remember things more easily if I have a phrase to associate them with, and humorous phrases are particularly memorable."
Other researchers have noted the beneficial role of humor - both from teachers and from students - in the online classroom. Mirjam Hauck and Regine Hampel investigated the factors in the virtual classroom that facilitated interaction (with students and with instructors) and observed, "making humorous comments or observations to improve the interaction with individual partners and the group as a whole was also identified by several students as a motivating factor." They describe a particular use of humor by a student who did so because he perceived that "some of his peers still felt uncomfortable in the synchronous online environment and were therefore exposed to techno-stress and cognitive overload."

Michael Eskey notes that "humor, whether in the form of jokes, riddles, puns, funny stories, humorous comments or other humorous items, builds a bond between the instructor and students; bridging the student-teacher gap by allowing students to view the instructor as more approachable." How you introduce and use humor will depend on your teaching style, your pedagogical objectives, and your comfort with the tools available in the online classroom, but there is a growing body of evidence that students learn better when they are allowed to "loosen up" online and enjoy themselves and one another.

In the Confer classroom, instructors will inevitably be doing some things by "trial and error": the technology changes, for one thing. Successful instructors demonstrate a fearless attitude and don't mind making public mistakes in the process: it's probably the best way to encourage experimentation and exploration on the part of students. By letting your audience (students) "in on the joke" while you try to figure out how a new tool works, you're allowing them to participate (naturally, you won't allow your experiment to last so long that it interferes with instructional time or time on task).

Have fun!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Alone (or All One) Together Online: What Keeps Us Together in the Virtual Classroom

The constructivists maintain that social interaction leads to knowledge construction, higher order learning, and greater student success rates (i.e., achievement and completion). Students have to socially network in order for the neural network to do its thing and make connections between concepts and ideas. Sherry Turkle's wonderfully insightful book Alone Together is about, as she says, "how we are changed as technology offers us substitutes for connecting with each other face-to-face." The danger may be that if we use substitute (artificial) networking online, we may produce artificial learning or hamper the connections needed to enable real comprehension and mastery.

How do we build a community of learners from strangers who only meet online? Etienne Wenger prescribes course design elements that encourage interaction and reification (making things seem real). The use of real-time voice and video is one method the Confer instructor uses to deliver to students a sense of a real-time, articulate, caring, human. As Walsh et. al. reported in their study of Web conferencing learning communities, students may struggle with video and audio, but they prefer it to the alternative. "I think seeing someone on screen during the tutorial can keep you interested and makes the tutorial feel more interactive," says a Humanities student. Another student says, "I think the tutors who use this need to try and make it as interactive as possible ... [and to] input their own thoughts and ideas." Asked how the instructors could improve their use of the Web conferencing technology, students suggested:
  • "Find ways to ensure students participate in the live sessions"
  • "Develop and encourage methods for collaboration between students"
  • "Remember to use students' names to help make it a more personal experience"
McBrien and Jones cite similar observations from the students in their synchronous online learning study. "Talking through the microphone really helped me connect my thoughts, knowing that I could only express myself verbally. It also made me feel more in control of how I communicated my ideas because a large group of people weren't staring at me..." "Voting was great - great to see what everyone else in class felt - you don't always get that feedback." Their students reported these negatives in the virtual classroom:
  • Missing friends
  • Lack of support when presenting
  • Missing non-verbal gestures
One student observed that the class "needs to be planned more carefully and maybe tried the first session with all of the students in the classroom, not home."

We may be years away from taking these general suggestions and translating them into practical course design for the synchronous virtual classroom. As Mia Lobel et. al.  observe: "There is virtually no data describing how existing successful pedagogies, which are predicated on real-time interactive immediacy and skill practice, could be adapted to online learning environments. Much discussion and exploration is needed concerning the delivery of human relations skills online, when the pedagogy is based on group interaction, specifically active experiencing, concrete observation, abstract conceptualization and active practice and the content design is predicated on theories of group development, and observational and facilitation skills which necessitate participation and interaction."


Friday, June 7, 2013

Online Teaching: What the Experts Say

The Online Teaching Conference is days away, and there will be lots of exciting and informative presentations in Long Beach June 19-21. But why wait? Some of the presenters have already pre-recorded their presentations. Take a look - and make sure you register for the conference so you don't miss more!
You're Teaching a Course Online! Did You Do It Right? In this session Mauricio Cadavid discusses strategies for student success, engagement, and a positive learning experience. The audience will learn about developing rapport with their online students, as well as acquire a list of web-tools that can be used as effective design of class activities and participation.

The Importance of the Application of Critical Thinking in the Online Classroom.
Michael Eskey addresses teaching critical thinking skills to our online students. Research indicates that academics and students have differing perceptions of what happens in university classrooms, particularly in regard to higher order thinking, in particular, critical thinking. Higher education is challenged with encouraging students to pursue higher-order thinking and often fall short according to industry standards. The current research that will be discussed is directed at responses from full-time and adjunct faculty teaching either face-to-face or online mainly in the disciplines of criminal justice and political science to assess their views and application of teaching critical skills. The findings are applicable to all disciplines and emphasize the importance of specific instructor training to apply to the classroom in this area.

Yo Ho Blackboard Inline Grading For Me!
Eric Wilson explains that Blackboard recently updated the way you can grade Assignments and Discussions! With the new Inline Grading System, this recorded workshop will show you how to create Assignment and Discussions and how to grade both with the new inline system and paperless. Eric reviews the built in rubric system as well. It is so easy and can literally make grading painless.

Recruiting, Training, Maintaining, and Retaining Online Adjunct Instructors
Dr. Henry Roehrich with Dr. Michael Eskey explain that the development of online adjunct instructors requires a professional adult learning approach that incorporates a facilitation training program, mentoring process and instructor informational resources. The presentation outlines and discusses how this process can be effective and tailored to the needs of institutions in higher education. This will include the required online adjunct recruiting process, required training, online resources, professional development opportunities, the formal / informal mentoring process, required and optional refresher training. Additionally, there is a discussion of online adjunct and online student perceptions of instructional needs and requirements.

Does a Face Make a Difference? Comparing Synchronous Online Education with Other Instructional Methods at California Community Colleges and the Impact on Student Retention Rates
Claudia Tornsaufer
The main focus of this study was to investigate whether there is a difference in mean institutional retention rates among California community college students by the following institutional characteristics: 1) instructional method (on-campus, asynchronous and synchronous online courses); 2) ethnicity; gender; and age groups. The study’s findings on student outcomes will shed light on the impact of increased online student-teacher, student-student and student-content interaction in synchronous online courses and how it compares to the interaction on on-campus and asynchronous courses.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Frequent Contact with Online Students: Priority One

Chickering-Gamson contend: "Frequent student-faculty contact in and out of classes is the most important factor in student motivation and involvement. Faculty concern helps students get through rough times and keep on working. Knowing a few faculty members well enhances students' intellectual commitment and encourages them to think about their own values and future plans. "

So we need to keep and maintain contact with our students. In the Confer environment, one of the key reinforcers of this contact comes from the audio tool, which allows real-time conversation. Jennifer Hoffman says that “The trainer’s voice is perhaps the most important content delivery method available in a synchronous classroom.” Similarly, Clark and Kwinn assert that "audio participation increases social presence and is the best option" for synchronous online communication. We seem to have built-in responders to audio cues, and students who can hear the instructor's voice - to say nothing of being heard by the instructor - are reassured that there is a human being teaching and guiding them in their learning.

Confer also provides a chat tool that gives an ongoing log or transcript of typed conversation during the session. Messages can be sent to a selected audience or a private individual. The text can be resized, and the chat can be saved (copied and pasted) to a text file. This tool provides another interaction option, and its proper use will empower students in the online classroom. Joe Tansey observes that the fact that all students can see the responses in the chat window instantly is a valuable way for participants to share a wealth of ideas and information... Text chat makes it easy for all involved to match responses with contributors, and no responses are overwritten or erased – which can be a risk with some white board tools.” Joe also feels that "a useful feature of text chat is that it can provide learners with a non-threatening way to pose questions or communicate other needs with the instructor. Questions on the mind of one learner are often on the minds of others. If instructors aren’t able to answer all questions during the allotted class time, they can usually save the text chat and respond to questions after class.” Jennifer Hoffman adds that “participants who are more reserved are often more likely to interact when text chat options are available.” In a study called "The Social Arena of the Online Synchronous Environment," Zeina Nehme writes that “a learner might be comfortable chatting only rather than talking on the microphone.” There are limitations to this tool, however: as Schwier and Balbar discovered, one is "the lack of nonverbal cues, and the difficulty interpreting the intentions of each other. Chatting is spontaneous by nature, and this spontaneity doesn't allow participants to craft clear prose, so subtleties were sometimes lost or misinterpreted."

The polling tools are also aimed at interaction, albeit in a more structured way than either voice or chat. Jonathan Finkelstein notes that "polling is a low-threshold way of involving even the more reticent participants, as it allows for a simple means to take part in and affect the flow of a live online session. Integrated polling tools not only help a facilitator quickly gauge interest, comprehension, and opinions of the subject matter at hand, but they can also be used to appraise more subtle measures of student engagement and understanding: those more akin to the hesitant raising of a hand in a physical classroom.” Diana Perney at the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School says, "I use this tool throughout a session. I create on the white board a multiple-choice question to start the session and ask the learners to respond, choosing A, B, or C. The polling results give me a sense of the class and activates prior knowledge for the learner. I will repeat this process throughout the session to engage the learners and to keep my finger on the pulse of the class. It often catches the participants off guard – they don’t know when I will ask the next question. The polling tool also meets the needs of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. I ask the question, they see the question, and a button needs to be clicked to indicate a response.”

Friday, May 17, 2013

Do You Chat When You Teach? Some Pluses and Minuses

In the Confer tool set, the chat tool provides text-based chat, a log or transcript of which can be saved and reviewed after the session. Private and public text messages can be supported, and the text itself can be re-sized or reformatted to personalize the messages.

Some observations about the chat tool:
  • "Text chat is useful when the instructor would like all participants to respond, in contrast to using audio for a single response.”- Clark, R. C., and Kwinn, A. The New Virtual Classroom: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Synchronous e-Learning. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2007, p.53.

  • “Depending on your familiarity with the virtual classroom features and your ability as a presenter to multitask, using the chat facility may or may not be a good option for you. Audience size should be a consideration when planning this type of feedback method. We’ve discovered that having another facilitator or production assistant available to help support direct messaging (chat) is a valuable asset when managing the event’s conversation flow.” - Sandra Johnsen Sahleen. “Creative Interactions in the Virtual Classroom.” In Clark, R. C., and Kwinn, A. The New Virtual Classroom: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Synchronous e-Learning. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2007, p. 124-25.

  • “… a useful feature of text chat is that it can provide learners with a non-threatening way to pose questions or communicate other needs with the instructor. Questions on the mind of one learner are often on the minds of others. If instructors aren’t able to answer all questions during
    the allotted class time, they can usually save the text chat and respond to questions after class.” - Tansey, Joe. “Learning to Effectively Use the Virtual Classroom.” In Clark, R. C., and Kwinn, A. The New Virtual Classroom: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Synchronous e-Learning. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2007, p. 65.

  • “Because chat offers a seductive opportunity for participants to communicate with one another privately at any time during a session, we recommend setting some ground rules regarding its use. For example, we ask participants to use chat for on-task communication only during instructional activities – no passing notes in class.!” - Clark, R. C., and Kwinn, A. The New Virtual Classroom: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Synchronous e-Learning. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2007, p. 112.

  • “One way to use private messaging is to pair participants up to discuss an exercise or question by sending messages back and forth to each other. “ - Clark, R. C., and Kwinn, A. The New Virtual Classroom: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Synchronous e-Learning. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2007, p. 111.

  • “Instructors can also use text chat to allow all learners to respond to a question or exercise. Participants can view all responses instantly. This is a valuable way for participants to share a wealth of ideas and information. Text chat can be more efficient for some exercises than using the virtual classroom white board tool. Text chat makes it easy for all involved to match responses with contributors, and no responses are overwritten or erased – which can be a risk with some white board tools.” - Tansey, Joe. “Learning to Effectively Use the Virtual Classroom.” In Clark, R. C., and Kwinn, A. The New Virtual Classroom: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Synchronous e-Learning. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2007, pp. 65-66.

  • “A disadvantage of chat is the limited amount of screen real estate dedicated to text messages in most virtual classroom interfaces. When the response box fills, new text messages cause older responses to scroll up. If you have a larger class, you may want to use some crowd control mechanisms to limit who sends messages. For example, you might ask everyone to type in an answer but only the women or only a certain division to actually send their answers. Alternatively, you may provide a workbook in which everyone responds and, then, after a pause, call on only some participants to type in their answers.” - Clark, R. C., and Kwinn, A. The New Virtual Classroom: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Synchronous e-Learning. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2007, p. 110-11.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Blended Classroom

The virtual classroom is popular because it works and fits well with today's students and faculty. Delivery methods have improved as the tools have been tweaked and instructors have learned best practices in using them. Faculty and students have warmed to the flexibility of meeting online and/or receiving instruction and content on demand, and the convenience of learning from home, hotel, or favorite login spot is undeniable. The quality and effectiveness of online instruction has improved in both perception and reality. A 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Education actually reported that students in online courses performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.

There are downsides to virtual-only instruction, however. Online learners drop out more than face-to-face students. The Handbook of Blended Learning cites lack of support and problems with the technology as principal contributors to the lack of retention of online learners. A recent study of community college students showed that students avoided online courses "due to the weaker instructor presence (and, to a lesser extent, the weaker student-student interaction)." Student perceptions of online courses are that more independence and accountability are required in them and that students who take them are isolated and often inundated by questions and confusion.

Enter the blended (sometimes called "hybrid") classroom, which combines face-to-face with online instruction. It need not be "half bricks and half clicks": there are many examples that do not require or even recommend an even split between online and on-site time. Lower dropout rates are reported for virtually every blended classroom scenario imaginable when compared to online-only classes. Some researchers report that greater community is established when there is at least some face-to-face time with the instructor. Others indicate that students who have at even one in-person contact with their instructor and/or other students manage their time better and and have a better understanding of how to prepare for assignments and study in appropriate ways.

It may not always be possible to provide a blended classroom, since institutional and student requirements may prohibit offering a physical setting. But the evidence is strong that retention and achievement are improved when virtual is combined with physical.


Friday, March 22, 2013

What DOESN'T Work in the Virtual Classroom?

I've written a lot about the benefits of the virtual classroom and included many examples of what works well in this environment. In the 10+ years of CCC Confer, we've seen exponential growth in popularity among faculty and students, and we've watched Web conferencing technology become more and more reliable and stable for our thousands of users.

But it wouldn't be accurate or fair to pretend that Web conferencing is always  the best option or that it is always the best way to reach students and deliver online instruction. In fact, there's evidence to suggest that Web conferencing provides some barriers for students and instructors, which must be recognized and overcome for a successful experience and for effective instruction to take place. For example, I just previewed an article in the June 2013 Journal of Computing Sciences in College entitled, "Under What Conditions Does Web Conferencing Inhibit Learning in a Computer Science Classroom?" The authors - Jami Cotler of Siena College and Dima Kassab and Xiaojun Yuan of SUNY-Albany - drew conclusions from two lectures (one delivered face-to-face and one delivered online via Web conferencing) and students' reactions to the experience of these lectures. I'll reserve comment on the methodology or validity of this study, but I'm interested in the students' perceptions.

Distractions. In the Cotler study, 31% of the students reported problems with distractions during the virtual lecture. The nature of these distractions were not disclosed, but we can guess that they may have involved the typical distractions online students encounter: e-mail messages, tweets, Facebook posts, instant messages, and other Web excursions. It may also be that these students found the Web conferencing interface itself distracting, with its chat window, video, whiteboard, etc. The face-to-face classroom also has distractions, of course, but eye contact with the instructor is often inhibition enough for students to block them off and pay attention to the lecturer.

To help students overcome these distractions, the experienced Confer instructor gives guidelines to students before their first online class session and even at the beginning of the session. Disable notifications from your online applications (noises, signals, pop-ups): they will interfere with your concentration. Some instructors even provide specific instructions for turning off, say, Facebook notifications. And, while the class is meeting online, it's good practice to keep the students alert by mixing up the delivery.

Engagement. Cotler's students reported that they were 38% less engaged in the virtual classroom than in the face-to-face environment. Oddly, though, 88% "felt they were able to participate during the [Web conferencing] lecture" and 56% "felt highly engaged in the course materials and the course activities" in the online classroom. So the perception of less engagement may have been related to distractions or some other subjective factor. Many (69%) of the students reported "less connection to the instructor" when using the virtual classroom. However, they reported using the whiteboard and chat features, and most of the students claimed to have reached out to either another student or the instructor during the online session.

We know from long experience that keeping students engaged in the virtual classroom is more challenging than in the traditional environment. You can't see all of your students, and you're not going to be able to validate all of their behavior all of the time. Your sense of control online is compromised because of the distance between you and the "desks" in front of you. But you can keep students engaged by doing some extra work: preparing breaks in which students provide examples, express opinions, or vote on issues. Work in assessments or chat activities, and use breakout rooms to divide a large class into manageable small groups where it's harder for students to hide or let others do all the work. Several of my blog posts provide examples of these strategies.

Unfamiliarity with Technology. I was surprised to read in Cotler's study that unfamiliarity with technology accounted for only 13% of the reported problems with the virtual classroom. Half of all the students "stated that it was convenient and that they like that they could remain in the comfort of their home," and an amazing 81% reported "feeling less stressed about tasks accomplished during the [Web conferencing] session in comparison to the face-to-face session." So technophobia (or at least fear of synchronous online interaction), while not dead, is on the wane with today's students.

It's a good idea to orient students to the virtual classroom before you make them do something in it. This can happen during a "practice" session, in a "sandbox" (we offer several on the CCC Confer Web site), or via training materials (videos, slides, documents) you provide for them. Given these results and the increasing popularity of synchronous online rooms (Skype, Google Hangouts, etc.), it may be just as important that you orient yourself to the virtual classroom and feel comfortable showing its features to your students.

What doesn't work in the virtual classroom? Mainly, not having a plan to use it!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Live Online Events: Keys to Successful Management

It sounds easy: let's all get together at noon and have a presentation from one of our speakers. We'll look at a few slides, maybe watch a video, take questions, and discuss the whole thing together. Maybe we can even poll the members to see what they think about the key issues. Let's plan to be through in an hour, but I'd like some way to record the proceedings so anyone who can't make it can review later. I'd like you to facilitate, okay?

Oh, did I mention we'd be online?

Sooner or later, if it hasn't happened yet, you'll be asked to do something like this. Live online is a fact of modern collaboration, and it's a great maximizer of time and resources, especially when managed properly. My advice to get the maximum return for these events is to invest in preparation time so that everything goes as you'd like it to go.

Protocols. If you plan to archive (record) the event, it's standard practice to inform live participants of the fact. You can do this verbally or you can prepare a slide in advance that "warns" them that the event is being recorded. This gives them the opportunity to participate accordingly. Similarly, if the event is being captioned, it's a good idea to show participants how to open and close the captioning window, along with some instructions about how to make adjustments to font, size, etc. Letting participants know how and when - or if - their questions can be asked is also important. These standard protocols are generally called "housecleaning" tasks and should occur prior to the presentation and before the "record" button is pressed.

Publicity. At CCC Confer, we send e-mails to constituents announcing Webinars well in advance. We also use our Facebook page, the TechEdge newsletter, and listservs to publicize these events. (An example of an e-mail Webinar announcement is included.) If it's possible to include a calendar link that will automatically populate an online (e.g. Outlook) calendar and include the sign-in details, you'll be better assured that your audience will remember to attend and know how to log in when they need to.

Prompts. I've noticed that the best facilitators always seem to ask the right questions of our Webinar presenters and are able to solicit audience participation precisely when it's appropriate. After discussing their techniques with them, I learned that their "spontaneity" is planned: they spend time before the event thinking up the questions they will ask and planning how to stimulate audience participation. They keep a text document handy with chat "prompts" which they copy and paste into the dialogue at appropriate times so that there is always something to interest the online participants. They call this "seeding the chat box."

Pre-Loads. If the presenter wants to show a video, the file has to be pre-loaded into the multimedia library to avoid delays during the online presentation. Similarly, large files, if they are to be shared with the audience, should be pre-loaded so that no time is lost waiting for them to be delivered. In the synchronous online environment, even the slightest delay - a few seconds - can seem to last much longer.

Practice Run. Although it's not always possible to get a guest speaker to practice with you before an event, it's very helpful. Even if they can't make it, though, you'll benefit from pre-loading and testing the software, slides, content, and timing. This allows you and/or the presenter to make adjustments beforehand and to anticipate audience reactions to the screens as they appear.

Every event has a beginning and an end, and generally there are other sequential points in the event where you want things to happen. You won't be able to determine these accurately if you can't tell when the slides will be finished, how long the video will last, or how fast (or slow) the presenter will be talking. Practicing with him or her makes it possible for you to plan the question-answer period properly and determine when breaks or interludes can be inserted. It avoids the irritating sense that you've had to speed up the presentation or cut off feedback because of the clock.

Friday, February 22, 2013

How to Encourage Active Learning Online

According to the research findings summarized by Chickering and Gamson (1987), good practice in undergraduate education encourages active learning. R.R. Hake studied the role of active learning in 1997 by comparing traditional courses to courses using active learning techniques and concluded: "the mean gain was more than twice as large for active learning classes, so you could say that courses implementing active learning are more than twice as effective as traditional courses in building basic concepts." Allison Carr-Chellman and Phillip Duchastel (2002) observed that synchronous online activities "yield a more direct sense of interaction, increased collegiality, immediate resolution of problems, and better team building." Duncan, Kenworthy, and McNamara (2012) noted that synchronous online activities had a positive effect for students on both final exam performance and overall class achievement. Oztok, Zingaro, Brett, and Hewitt (2013) recently concluded that students who interact with their instructors in synchronous online sessions also read the discussion forums more closely, respond more thoughtfully to forum prompts, and spend more time reading course materials.

 Even with evidence of its effectiveness, it's sometimes difficult to incorporate active learning into online courses because the temptation to isolate as in instructor is strong.  You feel alone and it's awkward not to lecture, to wait on the "invisible" class to respond and learn for themselves. Here are some tips from active learning advocates.

Breakout Room Collaboration. Heidi Beezley, instructional technologist at Georgia Perimeter College, advocates having students talk to each other as they collaborate in breakout rooms. "I think the trick is to try to pull them back to the main room before they get to the point where the discussion has died down... [You] need to establish a culture of accountability, making sure that they use the time wisely, or they will run out of time and won't be able to complete the task." She assigns each student to a base group of students who work together in groups of five throughout the course.

Ready, Set, Go (or One, Two, Three): Put it in the Chat Box! Peyri Herrera and Larry Green arrived at this method independently, as far as I know. They both use a spot check with a countdown to have students answer a question in chat, simultaneously. The important point is to have everyone answer at once, so that the instructor can guage how well they're understanding the concept, but also to encourage students to think in real time, to pay attention, and to be present.

Communicative Activities. Planning to involve students in the Confer session has the greatest potential for creating an active learning environment. Chat is effective, especially if you seed it,  but so is using the whiteboard for brainstorming. Allowing students to role play or debate can be effective, and a spot poll makes sure everyone is paying attention.

Think, Pair, Share. This method from North Carolina State University has gather ideas about a topic (Think), choose partners with similar interests (Pair) and work together on a presentation they will deliver to the class (Share). 

Be Quiet. Waiting for students to respond is hard, perhaps especially so online. But if you don't wait on them, you may not get them to respond. Learn the value of silence online.

Greet Your Students. Believe it or not, simply calling your students by name and acknowledging their presence has an effect on their participation. It's too easy to hide online: greeting them makes them feel less invisible and encourages them to get involved.

Give Them Control. My favorite technique is to reverse roles with a student. I like to explain a technique, demonstrate it, and then invite a student to try it out by giving desktop control to that student or inviting them to use the whiteboard to illustrate the concept. The student chosen is, of course, an active learner, but the rest of the class tends to become engaged because there is always the possibility (probability in my case) that one of them will be asked to reverse roles next.

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