Friday, January 17, 2014

The Web Conferencing Skill Set

"Ah, mastery... what a profoundly satisfying feeling when one finally gets on top of a new set of skills... and then sees the light under the new door these new skills can open, even as another door is closing." - Gail Sheehy

We've spent a lot of time in this blog discussing the tools of Web conferencing and some of the practices which have proved most effective in using those tools. As with any tool set, the level of skills in the use of these tools is a significant variable in their successful implementation. Instructors and students come to the virtual classroom with different skill levels, personalities, and experiences, all of which play a role in determining the learning climate.

Valaitas et. al. studied instructors who used Web conferencing to teach health sciences. By identifying personality types in their instructor sample - "Pragmatists, Positive Communicators, and Shy Enthusiasts" - they were able to differentiate approaches to the use of and acquisition of skills in the tools of Web conferencing. The "positive communicators" in this group "strongly disagreed" with the statement "The application sharing tool is a bit confusing for participants and presenters" and "were not challenged by the application-sharing feature." By contrast, the "shy enthusiasts" preferred the "ability to interact online by responding to multiple-choice or open-ended questions." The "pragmatists" in this sample did not show a particular proclivity to any particular tool, although all three groups were generally positive about the technology. This suggests that skills and personality may be inter-related in this arena.

The "digital natives" in modern classrooms may not be quite so "native" in the Web conferencing environment. Kennedy et. al. report that only a third of students surveyed had used a Web conferencing tool; two-thirds had not. It's clearly not safe to assume that your students know this software and will be able to help you find your way around.

Matt Bower points out the need for and variability of skills in this environment in his three-semester study of Web conferencing used for instruction. He observed "four levels of online collaborative competencies... operational, interactional, managerial, and design." He also notes that "the relative importance of students and teachers possessing the different levels of competencies depended on the degree of interactivity in the learning processes." The instructors who designed into their lesson plans greater interactivity increased the potential for misuse of the tools and the need for competencies to manage the interaction, operate the tools, and interact successfully. "Firstly, there are several tools to master; secondly, different tools need to be selected depending on communication requirements; thirdly, the affordances of tools in combination requires consideration; and fourthly, decisions about how to use tools often need to be made in real time. Failure to understand one subtle feature of a tool or its use can have a crippling impact on the learning episode, amplifying the importance that users have developed technical and collaborative competencies...."

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