Synchronous Online Fundamentals

“The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.”

–  Sydney J. Harris

Chapter contents

5.1    Introduction

5.2    Background

5.3    Terminology

5.4    Essential Requirements

5.5    Main Providers

5.6    Design Considerations

5.7    Types of Events and Activities that Add Value

5.8    Applications

 

5.1 Introduction

As noted in earlier chapters, synchronous e-learning requires simultaneous meeting of all participants at different locations online with technologies such as web and video conferencing. Many organizations today are demanding training workshops delivered as web conferences or webinars rather than as face-to-face sessions for one reason only: Cost. Sadly, they don’t really consider the improved quality, better reach or greater convenience in the same way.1

The rapid growth in web conferencing can be gauged by the largest provider of web conferencing services, WebEx, with a 30% increase in registered users over the year previous to August 2012 with a staggering 6.8 million users and 9.6 million meetings in August 2012 alone.2

The great benefit of web conferencing is the ability to provide a complete learning experience with video and audio and to bridge time and distance. The same session can be presented at different times to different locations in the world. In addition, the recordings of the sessions can be built into a library.

Figure 5.1: Web conferencing provides the virtual classroom

 

As many of us know, popular asynchronous online learning (also referred to as self-paced or flexible learning) is often characterized by very low completion rates.3 This often applies even to veteran students who find great difficulty in motivating themselves to persist with a course. Naturally, accountability is critical for success in online education and it is vital that the instructor sets the standard from the beginning and insists on timely submission of materials. However, the lack of face-to-face contact in asynchronous education makes accountability difficult as one is dealing with a virtual student with a different persona to someone whom you interact with the usual physical cues of eyes / facial expressions and other body language.

As many are aware, synchronous online seminars are relatively rare in the typical online college as it is difficult to identify a time convenient for most of the students who do not like to be locked into a fixed lecture time.4 After all, the reason they are attending an online course is for the flexibility. The challenge is that this flexibility often translates into indefinite postponement of any study. Hence, we believe that synchronous sessions, repeated at multiple times through the day due to the time zone differences of different students, are useful in keeping students to the study schedule and thus reducing the overall rate of attrition. Another major reason that the asynchronous approach is preferred over the synchronous one is the significant additional cost.

Our proven experience has clearly demonstrated that the alternative technology, synchronous web and videoconferencing, with its high level of interaction between students and instructor can offer a successful alternative to the asynchronous approach.

It may be intuitively obvious, but research has demonstrated that the rather crude metric of class attendance is a better predictor of final grades than other predictors such as admission tests, study habits and study skills.5 Leading on from this, better virtual attendance on blended learning courses (and by extension online learning) does result in better end of course grades and lower attrition rates. As virtual attendance is easy to measure using the LMS, it is important that administrators focus on this as an early warning tool to indicate students who are at risk.

The next section will be concerned with the background to synchronous online learning, terminology and essential requirements to achieve success. Hereafter the key (ever changing) vendors in the area will be listed, followed by good design considerations and activities that add value. The chapter will be concluded by listing typical applications.

 

5.2 Background

With the maturing of the technologies, spread of broadband and awareness of the benefits, there has been a groundswell of support for web conferencing.

In a comparison (based on a survey of 57 students in an instructional technology course in the USA) between a purely synchronous online course (using Wimba software) and a blended course, the virtual classroom features (for the synchronous course) were rated considerably higher by the purely online students.6 They also showed a higher degree of comfort with the synchronous technologies.

A comparison between graduate students in biomedical engineering showed that a highly interactive approach for off-campus students attending a video-teleconferenced course resulted in higher grades (of equivalent level to students attending a face-to-face session) and a lower attrition rate than for a non-interactive presentation.7 Interactive in this context meant that electronic copies of lecture notes were made available before presentations, off-campus students were contacted to discuss course content, students had to give individual presentations and 10-15 minutes of each presentation (of 75 minutes) was devoted to interactive discussions between students (both on and off campus) and instructors.

A survey conducted by Citrix of 2318 respondents indicated that virtual teams found web conferencing (60%) more useful than simply audioconferencing(40%).8 The use of visual communications in addition to the “one-dimensional” audio added considerable value with presentations, graphics, PowerPoints and easy shared viewing of code or schedules.

There has been steady growth in the use of web conferencing as indicated in a survey of Australia and New Zealand for 2010 where the number of training professionals that had presented using web conferencing had moved from 12% in 2008 to almost 20% in 2010.9 The main reason for moving to online training was improved productivity followed by minimizing travel. It was perceived that live classroom-based training would be reduced from 80% in 2010 to 60% a year later.

Another small survey with over 400 respondents on web conferencing trends across North America, prepared for a vendor Citrix Online, indicated growth of over 30% in web conferencing over the following year.10 While saving on travel costs was certainly an important consideration, other strong elements included reaching those who couldn’t attend because of distance. It was suggested that classroom training would continue to decline from 60% to 50% over the following 12 months with other approaches (such as web and audioconferencing) taking up the slack.

A demonstration using synchronous bi-directional audio communications and desktop sharing from an instructor to students working on a circuits analysis program showed that she could provide the same level of support as that in a face-to-face environment.11 Two thirds of the students indicated they didn’t feel isolated when provided with this remote support. Evidence supports the synchronous format of online learning when requiring a high level of interaction between students and instructors.12

At the turn of the 20th Century a survey was conducted of the US university and college faculties providing an asynchronous distance learning environment and, as would be expected in terms of the most popular course delivery tools by the respondents, email was used by 100%, digital lectures by 56%, online laboratory modules and simulations by a high 36%, and real time videoconferencing by only 12%.13 The authors suggested that videoconferencing technology a few years ago would have been difficult to set up and arrange. Even web conferencing (considerably easier than videoconferencing) takes some effort, mainly in meeting on time due to the different time zones for the various participants but also in successfully setting up on the different platforms.

Research in 2006, based on over 1500 responses, suggested that in marked contrast to large corporations, small and medium sized enterprises have made web conferencing the medium of choice for conducting meetings.14 The reasons for using web conferencing were the usual ones of increased ability to reach more people, save travel costs/time and naturally to be more productive.

Although students indicated that they preferred face-to-face tutorials, the success of the Open University of Israel's experiment with the synchronous (and recorded) versions of the tutorials for computer programming meant that in future, they would eliminate all face-to-face tutorial sessions.15 Effectively this has meant replacing physical face-to-face sessions with virtual ones and achieving similar outcomes.

In a survey of over 500 trainers in December 2006, research revealed that the most important features of web conferencing are ease of use, reputation of vendor and customer support. Least important was integration with a Learning Management System.

It is important to realize that web conferencing is not necessarily a replacement for classroom-based instruction, but instead is a complementary tool. It is also critical to realize that one is often working with adult learners who are time starved. A live web conferencing presentation in an adult worker’s office has to be short and highly interactive to sustain a presentation against the competition of instant messaging, the phone, email and simply surfing the internet.16

Remember that web conferencing is one of many solutions to providing training fitting in between live instructor-led classroom sessions and asynchronous web content. One has thus to work this angle to maximize the benefit in using web conferencing.

Ultimately, the idea may be to surround students in an omnipresent learning environment–whether they are at university, at home or in their student accommodation.17 This could be done using simulation software, virtual experiments, remote labs, home lab kits in harnessing the internet and thus minimizing the pressure on overworked labs and facilities.

Despite the proven benefits discussed above, consistent surveys still show that online synchronous interactive two way audio and video (using web conferencing) is not a particularly popular approach with only a tiny percentage of courses using this approach.18

 

5.3 Terminology

The main categories of synchronous online learning technologies, are often confused by different users probably due to the rapid growth in the field, and comprise the following:19

• Webcasting. This was originally derived from the activity of broadcasting over the internet. This means a combination of audio and video sent from a single source to multiple receivers with limited interactivity (over the internet). This technology is especially useful in reaching numerous individuals simultaneously, but where responses from learners will be limited.

• Web conferencing or e-conferencing. This is generally what is referred to when discussing synchronous online learning and comprises an interactive audio/video connection between instructor and learners with additional features such as whiteboards, application sharing, polling, quizzes, slides, web tours and use of other media. A further suggestion is that web conferencing, as compared to videoconferencing, only allows the camera feed in one direction, but voice and written communications in both directions.20 An alternative definition is that web conferencing is a technology that allowed a group to communicate and collaborate in an electronic conference format over the internet with two main types of web conferencing approaches possible.21

• A webinar is an internet conference where slides are initially downloaded from the moderator’s site and the learners then communicate with the presenter via telephone or a web-based chat option. There is a some debate about the use of the terms webinar and web conference and many use webinar in place of web conference as they feel it is a more widely coined term (well, since 2005) as it is more concise.22

• Another term used is virtual classroom indicating a grouping of students with online instructor-led training.23 Virtual indicates that the meeting will be done virtually or electronically; not in a face-to-face situation.

• Teleconferencing, audioconferencing and videoconferencing are terms that are not the focus of this book, but should be briefly discussed.

• Gaming and simulations. This area, whilst still in its infancy, is rapidly advancing and allows for hands-on interaction (and use of psychomotor skills) with simulations of real world environments.24

The typical functionality of a web conferencing solution is:25

• Slides presentation.

• Audio and text chatting.

• Quizzing and polling of participants.

• Use of emoticons for feedback from participants to indicate state of mind.

• Whiteboard to scribble on.

• Application sharing of various programs (and documents) with all participants.

• File transfer of files between participants.

An example of the operation of a typical web conferencing package (developed by the authors), Electromeet, is given in Appendix C.

Audioconferencing, often referred to as conference calling, uses the telephone only to implement synchronous training. It has mostly been superseded by more modern approaches such as videoconferencing. Recently it has undergone a revival due to the use of cell phones and the use of downloadable podcasts. The rapid growth of network security (such as firewalls) has often made use of web conferencing impossible and thus audio conferencing provides a guaranteed connection.

It is worth briefly considering video conferencing as this is having a significant impact on web conferencing systems. Videoconferencing comprises full screen video and audio using high speed dedicated telephone lines (such as ISDN) or over the internet using the TCP/IP suite of protocols. It appears that videoconferencing is diverging into two areas: high definition “telepresence suited to training fields such as medicine where high quality video was critical and affordable standard definition PC-based systems.26

Although videoconferencing is not a specific topic for this book, there is significant overlap between this and web conferencing.27 Videoconferencing systems range from a client for free to over $500,000 for a fully equipped system. Telepresence is a key part of a videoconferencing system and helps to sell these generally expensive systems on the basis of seeing or hearing the other person almost as if all participants were physically located next to each other–something which web conferencing or text messaging have difficulty in achieving.

One of the current challenges with traditional videoconferencing is the lack of non-verbal cues between participants. True eye contact is critical to a high quality communications experience. Technology that does not provide this eye contact severely degrades the communications experience.

It has been suggested that between 70% and 80% of communication is non-verbal.

One of the problems with the classical videoconferencing approach (especially on PC-based systems) is that the camera is mounted on top of the monitor and this means eye contact is severely impaired, as you are looking downwards at the monitor all the time and not into the camera.

Telepresence (as per McNelley and Machtig) is defined as a system that has:

• A camera that is optically aligned with the eyes so that one looks directly into each other’s eyes.

• A life size image (not smaller than 70%) so that body gestures can clearly be seen.

• Appropriate cultural distance as if the other person is sitting at table height on the other side of the table.

• The image and audio at TV-broadcast quality level or better.

The remark made is that telepresence successfully takes into account human factors in communications as opposed to videoconferencing that focuses on the technology.

It has been suggested that the five main drivers of videoconferencing include economics (budget cuts and falling prices), emergencies (providing a useful support channel), environment (this is a greener technology), work (demanding more flexible computer-based forms of communication) and the modern generation (comfortable with these technologies).

Some current trends in videoconferencing include 3D videoconferencing, augmented reality, rapid increase in bandwidth availability (and demands), cloud computing (esp. data storage), increased collaborative mechanisms, high definition, immersive audio and open networks using TCP/IP (and thus a need for improved security)

As compared to the limited experience of email (and text chatting), when using the telephone, we can sense emotion in the voice and this helps sharpen the experience.28 However, in viewing each other we see a host more emotions such as what the other person is wearing, their body language (including body gestures) and, most importantly, each other’s eyes.

Video conferencing vendors

Typical vendors of video conferencing systems include:29

• Polycom.

• HALO (DreamWorks and HP).

• TelePresence (Cisco, who also purchased Tandberg–another leader).

• KMi Stadium.

• TTRG (Transparent Telepresence Research Group at University of Strathclyde).

• PERCRO (from Italy) .

 

5.4 Essential requirements

There are three methods for building a web conferencing architecture:30

• SaaS (Software as a Service) where the client systems are installed locally but the server is accessed through “the Cloud” on a vendor designated site.

• On-site installation where the software (server and clients) are installed on the client’s IT infrastructure.

• Hybrid model that combines both.

Most applications in the larger business market are SaaS with no common protocols or standards widely accepted as yet. Most companies use a separate telephone bridge for audio, as there are understandable concerns about the consistency and reliability of audio through web conferencing VoIP. Video is a fast growing option (easily effected through a USB-based webcam), but it is constrained by bandwidth (and the power of an individual PC client).

The six basic requirements for web conferencing are:31

• Presentation sharing (full screen typically using PowerPoint).

• Desktop sharing to share their specified software applications and files.

• Text chat between users and instructor.

• Recording and playback.

• Shared whiteboard for all users and instructor to make notes and diagrams.

• Live video (through a webcam).

Note that the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) Encryption or equivalent should be used to provide safety and privacy of all information exchanged between participants in a web conference session.

There are eight more advanced requirements:

• Conduct polling or surveys on the fly to gauge audience reaction and feedback.

• Desktop or application remote control of user programs (e.g. to demonstrate to or correct a remote student needing guidance).

• File transfer between users.

• Excellent quality VoIP between instructor and participants.

• Participant testing and monitoring of remote students (proctoring).

• Document sharing between users allowing simultaneous viewing and contributions.

• Authoring tools to publish the web conferences in online learning format.

• Live customer support for issues that occur on a 24/7 basis.

Research conducted in November 2011 from the well known Gartner 2011 Magic Quadrant for Web Conferencing report makes a few remarks about purchasing web conferencing.32 However, it is difficult to use this information for purchase decisions.33

In addition to the ones listed above, as suggested in the Gartner Magic Quadrant for Web Conferencing Report the minimum functionality required would be:

• Basic security with encrypted data transfer and password protection for meeting rooms.

Some more advanced features, which are being increasingly provided by vendors included:

• VoIP audio so that no separate phone is required (both half duplex or full duplex for multiple participants).

• Support of the Public switched telephone network in conjunction with web conferencing software VoIP.

• Advanced security allowing for participant level passwords (new passwords for every meeting), blocking of anonymous users, limiting participants to those with specific IP addresses and deletion of all online documents at the termination of a meeting.

• Archiving of all elements of a meeting (including presentation / video / audio and appsharing).

• Ongoing feedback from participants to presenter.

• Easy integration with LMS.

• Mobile support of mobile phones.

The whiteboard is a vital component of any modern classroom.34 Hence, any loss in quality which is often experienced with the television format at 640x480 resolution / 30 frames per second is unacceptable. Commercial telepresence systems are designed ideally for optimal viewing distance from the user to display of 3m (10ft). This is ideal for a conference room where people are sitting at a table. However, with training courses it is vital to read the whiteboard and preferably to see an individual's face. Two adjacent high definition displays at 1080i/p (1920 x 1080 resolution) with matching cameras can provide threshold acceptance to achieve this. At the time of writing, these systems cannot easily be used within the public internet as they need 2-5Mbits of network traffic per channel.

 

5.5 Main providers

There are an enormous number of providers in the market and depending on the review process, they may be included or not. Hence, the best approach is to give a sample of typical reviews, with the providers listed here to give an idea of the variety.

A report from the Info-Tech Group lists the key providers. Admittedly, this report is from 2008, and since then there have certainly been considerable advances made in web conferencing.35 However, the overall features provided haven’t dramatically changed. As the report pointed out, peer-to-peer collaboration technologies have experienced substantial difficulties in being used within enterprises due to the concern about security (e.g. firewalls) and scalability. The added complexity in applying the technology to others is outside an organization’s direct control.

There were five key web conferencing vendors identified in this report: Adobe Acrobat Connect, Cisco WebEx, Citrix Online GoToMeeting, IBM Sametime Unyte Meeting and Microsoft Live Meeting. Adobe Connect Pro was considered the best for online learning and virtual classroom use. For large-scale webinars or online events, WebEx or Live Meeting was considered the most appealing.

The top 10 web conferencing solutions according to the Web Conferencing Council in their review in 2009 were:36

• VIA3 (viack.com)

• GoToMeeting from Citrix (GoToMeeting.com)

• Webex Meetings Centre, from Cisco (webex.com)

• LiveMeeting from Microsoft (office.microsoft.com/en-us/livemeeting/default.aspx)

• Acrobat Connect Pro from Adobe (adobe.com/products/acrobatconnectpro/)

• iLinc from iLinc (iLinc.com)

• Connect from AT&T (interwise.com)

• Sametime from IBM (ibm.com)

• WiredRed (wiredred.com)

• Yugma (yumga.com)

The criteria used included depth of features, audio and video quality, bandwidth management, price, stability, security, support services, ease of installation, use and management and a miscellaneous category.

A few general comments were made for all the products about the lack of features for performing quick meetings for all the products, the lack of quality in audio and video, difficulty in installing the software, poor support, and varying stability. VIA3 was rated at the top with outstanding audio, video and excellent security. The disadvantage is the need to download the package and being only Windows-based.

Although the picture is dynamic, another report suggested that the major players in 2009 were Adobe Acrobat Connect, Citrix GoToMeeting, Elluminate Live!, IBM Lotus Sametime Unyte Meeting, Microsoft Office Live Meeting, WebEx MeetMeNow, Saba Centra and iLinc.37 Smaller ones demonstrating promise were DimDim, WiredRed e/pop web conferencing, Yugma Professional and Zoho Meeting.

A summary of the main web conferencing vendors from the 2011 Magic Quadrant were as follows:38

Adobe Connect

This has an excellent user interface, supports an unlimited number of video participant; however it can be an expensive complex licensing model.

AT&T Connect

As it is a telecommunications provider; tightly integrated audio/web and video is provided with single billing. However, pricing is sometimes difficult to ascertain.

Blackboard Collaborate

Elluminate and Wimba have both been combined under the one roof; however in turn, Blackboard has recently been taken over by a private equity group leading to concerns about the future. Strong cross platform support is provided for Windows, MacIntosh and Linux with particular expertise and support for education.

CISCO unified meetingplace and Webex web meeting applications (Meeting Centre, Sales Centre, Event Centre, Training Centre and Support Centre)

Webex is the largest player in the market. Cisco has a wide range of support from telepresence to desktop-based web and videoconferencing. However, in dealing with a large company service difficulties can crop up.

CITRIX Gotomeeting and Gotowebinar

A fast growing product line ranging from GoToMeeting, GoToWebinar, GoToTraining, GoToAssist, GoToManage, GoToMyPC and HiDef conferencing with strong marketing and strong audio and video support.

Dialcom Spontania

Support for Windows, Macintosh, Linux, iPhone and Android operating systems but limited technical support for any problems.

IBM Lotus Sametime Meetings and IBM Lotuslive Meetings

Good integration with Microsoft Office offering and Polycom, Radvision and Cisco videoconferencing. Different web conferencing products.

ILINC Enterprise Suite (ILINC for meetings, ILINC for webinars, ILINC for learning)

Recently acquired by Broadsoft (hence some uncertainty about the future) but good support for education and training.

Microsoft Office Live Meeting 2007, Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 and LYNC Server 2010

Both small and large meetings are easily supported, however no software download is required. However, only Apple Macintoshes can act as participants not launching the meetings as a host.

Live Meeting is being phased out in favor of Lync with HD video supported. PGI Globalmeet and Imeet

iMeet offers a degree of “social computing” with a personalized virtual room while GlobalMeet has reporting and analytics capabilities.

SABA Centra

The key focus has been on education and training.

Low-cost web and videoconferencing

Google+ Hangouts offers the facility of video group chat for up to 10 people–a brilliant alternative to similar but prohibitively expensive services.39 The features which are useful include screen sharing, sharing documents and sketch pad where you can draw within the chat window. The facilities that are not provided include recording of sessions and scheduling of meetings.

What about use of Skype as an online learning tool?

Skype is free and has some excellent features ranging from instant messaging to a full video and web conferencing package.40What we have found particularly powerful is in combining (on occasion) asynchronous instant messaging with the quick audio calls where you can reach someone quicker than with a normal telephone call (and indeed for free). The only problem that we have found on occasion is the unreliability and poor quality of the audio, but then there is no such thing as a free lunch.

When students see the green icon next to a particular person, they know that person is online and will in all likelihood give them an immediate response to a message. Even if that person is offline, they can still send messages. Files can be sent within the instant messaging facility.

The audio and video conversations between Skype users are free and even calling from a Skype-based computer to a mobile phone is still very cheap. The Skype video adds more presence but should be used carefully depending on the bandwidth. The screen share feature of Skype can be used to show the instructor’s computer screen especially for providing procedural knowledge such as providing instruction on working with a software package.

Skype has a free web conferencing add-on called Yugma, which allows for up to 10 participants at a time, as well as the use of a digital pen and tablet in the blackboard feature. The G-recorder is a free Skype Extra application allowing for recording of text chats and audio. Problems have been encountered in synchronizing audio and video.

Where the courses involve a team collaborative project, Skype allows users to create a group where they can work together using instant messaging, file exchange and audio talk to each other. As discussed elsewhere, engagement theory suggests that learning occurs when working in a group on an authentic (or real working life type) project.

 

5.6 Design considerations

Transactional distance

Moore's theory of transactional distance can be especially useful in understanding student "distance" during the learning process for synchronous online learning.4142 This theory points out that the feeling of distance that a learner experiences during the learning process supersedes geography and is related to student interaction and engagement in the learning experience. There are three elements to transactional distance: dialogue (interaction between the instructor, learner(s) and content in the learning process), structure (how flexible or rigid the course delivery and organization is) and learner autonomy (where the learning provides the student with more self-directed learning opportunities).

Dialogue can be positively impacted with synchronous online learning as opposed to classroom-based learning with many students interacting considerably more in the former. However, some other students are often negatively impacted by (generally minor) technology problems with the web conferencing software. Others are overwhelmed with the multitasking flood of information from audio, texting, whiteboard activity and viewing videos. The lack of non-verbal cues also degraded the student's experience. This can be dealt with by adding in low-cost webcams but this will perhaps add more complexity than is warranted for some students. Hence, it is vital that instructors are aware of this and ensure that students (and indeed, new teachers as well) are treated considerately in terms of exposing them slowly to the multitude of features.

Note that the benefits of synchronous peer discussions are:43

• Providing immediate feedback.

• Helping to foster multiple points of view from the different participants.

• Improving the dynamic interactions between participants.

• Enhancing social presence.

• Adding more emotional support and verbal cues to the discussions.

Structure in transactional distance theory is seemingly dealt with positively by providing a well-defined and consistent set of procedures and requirements for students.

Finally, learner autonomy is positively impacted by students having considerably more convenience; however negatively impacted by technical problems.

One of the key benefits in the use of synchronous computer conferencing is to reduce the social distance between learners and instructors.44

Suggestions on introduction of web conferencing

Some good suggestions on introducing this new technology to a group who are not experienced with it are:45

• Introduce the technology slowly in steps of increasing complexity–commencing with simple workable tools.

• Fix problems immediately when they come up–no matter whether they are real or perceived. Participants can get frustrated very quickly as the technology is relatively unknown and “black box”.

• Train everyone extensively so that they can use the features effectively and with confidence.

Initial deployment considerations

Research has shown that it is vital that participants are shown how to use the virtual classroom and are provided with extensive training to minimize dissatisfaction.46 Extensive knowledge was required in three areas to obtain real value from using the virtual classroom and included: technical (setting up, logging on and navigating), procedural (protocols and conventions used in a virtual classroom) and operational (optimal use of the communication tools).

Three points from research noted that students need clearly defined information about how to use the technology.47 This can easily be undertaken by providing demonstration sessions. The second point is that it is critical that only instructors use the technology who are engaging and tuned into using the technology especially in terms of transforming their classroom materials into that suitable for synchronous web conferencing. The third point is that the inflexibility of the timing of the live sessions can be frustrating for students who are working part time or have other commitments with family. This needs to be dealt with sensitivity and care, and occasional use of recordings can be helpful.

Bear in mind that no matter how good the training of instructors and students in video and web conferencing technology, for example, once the quality degrades significantly especially in terms of audio (and video to a lesser extent), it should be abandoned and other forms of communications (email and the good old POTS or Plain Old Telephone System) resorted to.48

Admittedly, many of the problems listed below would be resolved today with improved technology offerings.49 However, the lessons are still useful even though video conferencing is used as many of their problems relate to web conferencing systems. In 2005, the Southwest Tennessee Community College launched an introductory computer-aided drawing course to be taught at two locations, with the remote group being a few high school students grouped together at one site. A Tandberg videoconferencing system was used together with NetOp web conferencing software. The class met two nights per week. Problems encountered were T1 telecommunications system failure, unstable connections (video and audio dropouts) and student computers disconnecting. Despite these challenges, the remote high school students achieved the same grades as the local students and as the technology became stable and usable, it was justified for future distance learning initiatives.

From the point of view of the instructor, the following problems were evident: confusion between his computer screen and that of the students, indecision about which group to bias the course towards (the remote or local groups), isolation of the remote students and scheduling conflicts between high school and college students. Resolutions to these problems included more experience with the system, increasing interactivity and interest level and ensuring that students take responsibility for their learning.

High quality moderation

Synchronous instruction has a positive impact in online education as it can support many of the elements found in normal face-to-face classroom sessions.50 Research has shown that the more actively moderators made high quality comments in a synchronous online session, the more actively students participated, and this then led to higher levels of thinking and interactivity. Instructors who encouraged greater student-to-student interactivity with increased listening and responding to each other would achieve a higher degree of intellectual engagement.

Supporting technologies

A tool that is extremely useful in your arsenal of gadgets is a tablet (either a standalone tablet or a Tablet PC).51 It is simply not enough to see a set of mathematical equations without seeing some interacting graphical representations. A tablet PC looks like an ordinary laptop with extra pens that allow you to write on its screen. The pens allow you to input standard mouse-type commands, gesture-type commands and electronic ink drawing. Those areas where freestyle drawing is vital to get the concepts across such as figures, diagrams and charts, and indeed mathematical symbols which are not easily used with the QWERTY type keyboard benefit greatly from the use of tablets. The instructor can provide color mark-ups on the materials as the presentations progress.

A typical tablet used was the Genius G-Pen 560, and it is as simple as using a pen and paper.52 You only hold the stylus in your hand, touch the board, and it does everything for you. By touching the board, it is the same as pushing a pen on paper. Hold it a millimeter or two above the board, and you can move to the next point on the screen (and see the cursor move), but without drawing. As soon as you touch the board again, it starts writing. It connects via a USB cable directly to the PC. One tip to remember is checking the battery. The stylus holds a small AAA battery that you should put in just before every session, and take out at the end of every session. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to start a presentation with a flat battery. Oh, yes; and also keep a spare battery next to the speakers. Just in case.

With the influx of tablets in our everyday life, they have also become effective tools in online learning. It is now easy to view hundreds of thousands of books online, or saved as text documents or PDF files on a tablet even smaller than an A4 sheet of paper, and lighter than a small book. The big names in providing such gadgets are Apple (iPad), Google (Nexus tablets), Asus (Transformer tablets) and Samsung (Galaxy tabs), among many others.

Online educational service providers have already hopped onto the bandwagon by adjusting their products to be compatible with tablets. For example, Blackboard already have Blackboard Mobile available, which can be downloaded on this and Android-based tablets for students and teachers to easily access their course materials, as well as joining in live webinar session (Elluminate now Blackboard Collaborate). Moodle also has multiple apps available on the Apple and Google stores for use on the mobile devices.

Using the tablets for e-learning means that every student can study wherever and whenever they want thanks to the tablets being lightweight and thin, compared to carrying around books, folders and notebooks. They can also attend online lectures and classes from the comfort of their home, or in remote areas as long as they have internet and a tablet. Tablets being touchscreen, the teacher can now draw diagrams or sketch formulas as if it were a whiteboard itself on the lectures, and are not limited to a mouse and keyboard.

As a comparison in 2013, we will consider the iPad 4th generation, the Google Nexus 10 and the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700T. The price ranges from under $500 (Google Nexus 10) to close to $1,000 (Asus Transformer), depending on the features added. With this price range, Apple and Asus offer 64GB storage space, and Google 32GB. The size of the screens range from 9.7in (Apple iPad) to 10.1in (Google Nexus, Asus Transformer Pad), and they all weigh less than 700 grams. Screen resolution differs, starting with Asus having 1920x1200, iPad with 2048x1536, and Google leading the way with 2560x1600. Camera resolution for the Google and Apple tablet sits at 5Megapixels, whereas the Asus tablet reaches 8 mega pixels. All three of the devices have GPS, capacitive touch screen and video recording capabilities. Asus has opted to run Google’s Android-based OS, as does the Google Nexus, and Apple iPad runs an Apple iOS. All 3 tablets support 3G, Bluetooth and wireless connection, but the iPad 4th gen pushes it a bit further by being 4G-ready.

Video

Particularly in web conferencing, video is rapidly becoming a key feature.53 Most people who are hazy about what web conferencing entails instinctively think of seeing the presenter presenting live in full video. Although it would appear intuitively obvious to use video, it is not recommended practice for two main reasons. The first is that audiences have become attuned to high quality professional TV presentations that are extraordinarily difficult for you to achieve using a simple webcam and cheap lighting. There is no doubt that first impressions count and when you consider the enormous number of disadvantages with having a video of yourself in your web conference and in achieving excellent lighting, good eye contact, appropriate body language and facial expressions coupled with wearing something suitable, you would guess that the odds are stacked against you. If you add in other issues such as staying in the webcam field of view and focus and having an appropriate background behind you, your chances of success diminish dramatically. This is true unless of course you are in a professional TV studio and are a professional TV presenter.

The second reason is that in doing a training presentation, you would have a considerable amount of other information to display (and perhaps you would also want to show your remote lab or simulation) and the last thing you want to include is a bobbing talking head (yours) that distracts everyone and generally adds very little value to the training. However, it should be noted that for training purposes it is a great idea to briefly initiate the presentation with a video of yourself (and the other instructors and students), then stop it and focus on the presentation (maintaining high quality audio which is absolutely vital). When you have a question and answer session at the end, it can be a good idea to switch the video back on again. Bear in mind that the question and answers also need to have a whiteboard that you can scribble on and you want everyone to focus on this (rather than the video). Finally, no matter what way you look at it, a talking head can be enormously boring after only a few seconds.

It is important to note that although most initial users of live online education (web conferencing) believe that they should be able to see the remote instructor in the presentation, in fact, this is not required at all.54 The critical elements of a live online presentation are high quality audio and the ability to see the learning materials, such as PowerPoints. Students aren’t particularly interested in seeing a “talking head.”

One of the challenges inherent in videoconferencing is the placement of the camera to capture as much of a remote class as possible for an instructor located in a local class.55 A wide angle lens can be used to capture the remote class and to display it at the local instructor’s podium. A panning camera can be then operated by the instructor to zoom in on a member of the remote class. A microphone located close to the remote student can be used to identify which student is talking.

The remote students need to be able to see the instructor continuously and multiple cameras may be required in the local classroom. This would include a wide-perspective camera viewing the entire classroom and an individual camera for podium, blackboard, demonstration table and other digital video sources (e.g. video and computer screens).

As we have discussed earlier, having an instructor “talking head” on your computer screen is not particularly necessary unless he or she is conveying some useful information.56 Most of the time, a high quality audio connection together with a whiteboard or desktop sharing of a program is probably the most powerful interface you will have.

Most online courses used text as the key method of communications with occasional use of phone conversations.57 One of the main drawbacks on this form of communications was the lack of video in the instructional process as much of the learning process revolves around visual communications. Face-to-face instruction had the advantage that both student and teacher could see what the other was doing and observe the non-verbal communications. Video technology can be used in the web conference format to increase the interaction that included video, audio and text-based communications. Naturally, additional activities available in web conferencing that should be investigated are demonstrating software online, monitoring student progress whilst in a lab situation and new assessment methods of the student.

One obvious benefit: no sight line problems

One major benefit, which is often forgotten about when watching a web conference presentation, is the ability to see the entire computer screen and slide space. Compare this to the frustration of sitting in a crowded conference room trying to look around people in front of you partially (or wholly) blocking your view of the screen.

Common suggestions in moving from classroom-based learning to online synchronous learning

There is a different set of rules applying in the synchronous classroom as compared to the traditional classroom. Different skills, approaches and processes are required here.58

Simply using PowerPoint slides in synchronous online learning as you did in the classroom is not going to work. There are certainly many sessions conducted with a web conference that are one-way. However, this doesn’t work as people quickly “zone out”. A teacher has to use all the tools at her disposal to conduct a memorable and interesting session.

Web conferencing can allow for more than “knowledge transfer” type training. One can use all the additional tools and features with web conferencing today to go well beyond only “knowledge transfer”. For example, role-plays and role-play feedback can be easily accomplished using webcams.

Use breakout rooms extensively. These are a general feature of most web conferencing packages and as in classroom sessions, should be used extensively. This allows you to break participants into teams, the facilitator can “visit them” virtually and each team can then present it to the larger group.

Continual activities are critical. In a traditional classroom, you can get away with eye contact and presence in keeping everyone “on board” but in a virtual classroom, you need an activity at least every five to eight minutes to keep everyone tuned into the presentation. This means you can’t simply chop up a two-day classroom session into little one-hour segments and present these as online learning sessions.

Materials created in the traditional classroom have to be modified to match the virtual classroom. It is likely that PowerPoint slides can be reused in a virtual classroom. However, written instructions for participants have to be made extremely simple and detailed. As the virtual classroom sessions are shorter, you will probably have to get your participants to do some of the exercises in their time and between classroom sessions.

Instructors and facilitators can’t always make the transition from a classroom to a virtual classroom. You will find that there are certain instructors who are perhaps not comfortable with the new technology, can’t handle the virtual nature of the new medium and simply aren’t active or agile enough to present in a virtual classroom.

Technology never works flawlessly. It is useful to have a producer or assistant trainer on board in the virtual classroom at the same time as the instructor to help smooth out the “technology waves” that occur from time to time. These unexpected problems include inability to use a microphone, degradation of sound quality and disconnects from the internet. At worse case, always prepare for some catastrophic event such as the internet becoming totally inoperable and have a fall back situation for reconvening at another time and also having a recording available for the session. A producer allows the instructor to focus on the main ball game in running the course without being distracted. The producer can assist with other issues when things are running smoothly such as distributing files, helping transfer participants in and out of breakout sessions, watch out for comments in the chat panel. Our experience shows that outstanding instructors who know the medium and are presenting to a regular group who have got a grip on the technology probably don’t need a producer.

One should never underestimate the costs in designing, developing and presenting an online event. As a highly interactive session is required for an online event, which far exceeds that of a typical classroom, you will find that the costs and time are well in excess of that for a classroom. You may not only require a full-time IT technician to help students, instructors and designers but instructors need to be accommodated as far as the additional time required to put the online resources together.

Don’t underestimate the time to present an online event. The lack of real presence means it is often well in excess of that for a classroom session in explaining difficult concepts and encouraging considerably more interaction. The online technology has to be worked through as well.

With current technology, there are some challenges with the use of audio in web conferencing. If the push-to-talk system is used (only one person allowed to talk at a time in half duplex mode), there is considerably less background noise; however, participants often forget to switch on their microphone, hence no audio and considerable confusion. There is also a slight delay on change over from the first microphone to the other. On the other hand, with everyone’s microphone enabled, there is often considerable background noise but there is no changeover delay and the overall system is considerably easier to use and intuitive. There is some trade off between the approaches.59

High definition web and videoconferencing

One has to be wary about various web and videoconferencing vendors claiming High Definition (HD) Video.60 High Definition (HD) video was initially a TV broadcast term meaning that it should either be 1080 or 720 lines of vertical display resolution. The letter “p” noted in resolution of 720p means progressive scanning as opposed to interlaced scanning. However, vendors purporting to provide HD quality tend to skirt around such important issues as frame rate, audio quality and changing quality of the internet connection.

Instructor salaries can be the main component

The suggestion is made that as instructor salaries are the main component of cost in synchronous sessions especially, there is minimal cost advantage of online courses against that of classroom sessions.61 An interesting costing (based in US$ in 2012) is that for students taking 10 classes per year, the average cost per class for everything (tuition, fees, books) is about $400 for a community college and $900 for a university. A fully automated online course (with no instructor) would be of the order of $50 to $100 per class–considerably less. A synchronous course, because of the instructor, would be equivalent in cost to that of a classroom session.

 

5.7 Types of events and activities that add value

One has to avoid at all costs the boredom evidenced in many online learning sessions. In recent years, the poor presentation of much synchronous online learning has reinforced this belief in the mind of participants that they will not be expected to be involved and are thus easily distracted with other items. Some pundits suggest the focus should be on designing, “for activity rather than content”, and the obvious benefit from an increase in the level of interactivity required in the online learning session is that applying this to the classroom session can improve its quality dramatically.

It is vital to keep your presentations interesting, interactive and different. As we have discussed before, if you merely lecture online for 60 minutes, you will probably lose your group within a few minutes and there will obviously be minimal learning occurring.

There are various types of events that can be presented with synchronous online learning:

• Presentation by subject matter expert.

• Learning events allowing you to come away with new know-how or skills.

• Peer-to-peer learning and discussing troubleshooting a problem (with a facilitator).

• Online meetings that provide a review, an update, report of activities or discussion on assignation of work tasks.

• Marketing webinars promoting a product or service.

Each of these requires a slightly different approach in design and implementation and these will be discussed below.62 Online meetings are not the focus of this book so will be excluded from further discussions. Marketing webinars will be discussed in Chapter 15.

Presentation by subject matter experts (SMES)

These should be no longer than 60 minutes with a suggested structure of 10 minutes for a facilitator to initiate the session and make the necessary introductions. The SMEs would have about 30 minutes in which to do their presentations with 20 minutes remaining for any question and answers.

Figure 5.2: Presentation by Subject Matter Expert

 

As SMEs are often rather amateurish in terms of doing a professional presentation, it is important to practice beforehand until it comes across as polished and watchable. Don’t overwhelm participants with hordes of PowerPoint slides (always an enthusiasm of the SME to share his or her knowledge), and eliminate content that is only mildly relevant to the objective of the presentation. Try and encourage participants to chat and ask questions throughout the session. The number of participants here can range into the hundreds, so a producer is necessary to handle the technical glitches that may occur. Try and avoid sending out the recordings, but encourage everyone to attend to maximize their benefit.

The main reasons for using synchronous online learning cited were the need for frequent updating of course materials and interaction from an expert.63

Learning events

The concept here is to ensure that participants leave with some knowledge and skills that they can apply immediately to their work. The participants have to think, reflect, absorb and process the content. The maximum duration is two hours with frequent breaks. It is critical that participants are highly involved in the presentation and there must be measurable results for them from the session.

A learning event does require significant effort and resources compared to the other type of presentations (such as a marketing presentation), so you have to be serious and committed to accomplishing real learning.

You also have to be realistic about what you are instructing online. It is possible that you will not be able to achieve a learning objective and will have to reconsider online training. For example, learning the fundamentals of Arc Flash Protection is easy to teach online. However, instructing someone on how to handle a welding torch when working with aluminum may be virtually impossible (well, currently!) to do with online training and will require a blended approach.

At the beginning of the presentation, you must define exactly what the participants will gain as a result of this activity, and you have to sell them on the reason why it is worth gaining this know-how or expertise. Ensure that the course materials are presented in short “chunked” sessions with tightly defined objectives and content. It is better to have multiple shorter sessions than one long drawn out one–that is, if the course administrators and instructors can cope with this.

Avoid the common mistake of pushing too much information out to the learners in the actual online learning session. The key to getting information across in an online learning session is only to provide the “must-have” and critical materials. Provide all the interesting and supplementary materials that you feel are appropriate that are made available to the participants with a clearly defined deadline for reading and doing a related assignment. Much as we like to feel that learners are scholars absorbing materials for the sake of knowledge, sadly as an instructor one needs to be somewhat more mercenary and ensure that the supplementary materials are absorbed and acted upon with an associated assignment or task. You don’t want to reteach these supplementary materials during the actual webcast.

A test of the knowledge gained must be built in to ensure that the learning objectives are accomplished to everyone’s satisfaction. This test is preferably conducted in a formative way throughout the session rather than in a summative “sudden hit” at the conclusion of the presentation.

Peer-to-peer learning

An undisciplined approach in conducting these sessions can make them unproductive (worsened by the virtual nature of communication). The best approach is to follow the suggestion in the previous section, but to appoint a moderator to ensure an agreed agenda is maintained.

Activities that increase the interaction during the presentation are discusssed below.

Magnetic brainstorms

Give an opportunity for all participants to put text on the white board. Encourage a contribution from everyone to a question you ask. Give them ten seconds to post their contributions up and discuss them. This allows everyone to track their contributions and how they add value to the group. This raises the awareness and involvement of the group.

A good example of the application of this is to ask for safety tips or suggestions when working with High Voltage equipment. Everyone provides a one-sentence tip, which the facilitator (or preferably one of the participants) then arranges in order of priority for everyone to see.

Problem solving or troubleshooting

Give everyone a simple problem to solve based on some information you have given, then get one of the participants to go through the solution of his problem on the whiteboard. The participant can upload the solution with a simple PowerPoint for everyone’s benefit, or just write on the whiteboard. Ensure that everyone can undertake the problem in the time available.

Breakout rooms (with team meetings)

Break your group into smaller groups of three and place them in a breakout room to solve a problem and create a few slides to do a presentation to the entire group of 15 participants, say. Ensure that the groups are balanced and actually interact by visiting the room to confirm that all is going well. For example, give them a sketch of a hazardous area installation and ask them to come up with solutions in connecting together the different automation components using a mix of fiber, wireless or conduit. Each group goes away and considers the situation and has eight minutes to come up with a proposed method of connecting the different components together. A problem along these lines is illustrated from a classroom session the authors did recently in the Middle East.

Eminent speakers fronting up

This has been discussed earlier and can contribute to a very powerful learning experience. An eminent speaker from outside the class such as a professional working in the field (or someone who is an outsider) is invited to do a short presentation on a topic. This enables the presenter to vary the voice, style of presentation and perspective of the session, thus enhancing the learning experience. The speaker could answer questions related to her career or projects completed. Obviously, to avoid any embarrassment, ensure that the guest speaker is prepared and knows what to do; you will probably have to be involved to ensure all goes to plan. Nothing is more horrendous than a knowledgeable person floundering due to inability to use the package and wrong timing due to a misunderstanding of the local time zone. Have a fall back plan if she doesn’t show up at the agreed time.

An example of applying this is to have a consulting mechanical engineer situated on a mining site. He comes online at the appointed time and after introducing himself with a few slides including a photo of his location, he switches on the video camera and illustrates his presentation with some centrifugal pumps he has opened up to show the effects of cavitation with a particularly challenging slurry pumping application which he is currently investigating for the client. He then throws open the forum to the other participants who ask him a few questions (both verbally and via text chatting) about the cavitation and what he will recommend to the client.

Grid completion

A grid is displayed on the whiteboard. Selected participants complete the missing content by typing it in. This could be done as a contest between two different teams.

Working together on the whiteboard

Two members of a group work together on a whiteboard to answer a question. This is then displayed to the remainder of the group.

Role playing using text or audio

Participants are grouped into pairs and use their microphones (or text but this is sometimes wooden) to conduct a session to the remainder of the group.

Poll students

Post a question regularly and encourage feedback–especially from the quieter, less interactive participants.

Fireside chats

Get an expert to join for a short period of time to do a short presentation and to answer questions. Ensure the moderator is there to handle any awkward pauses or silences.

Brainstorming ideas

Break the students up into groups in chat rooms and then get them to present their ideas in a group session. Alternatively, post their ideas up on the website.

Panel of experts

Get students to research a topic in depth and then do a group presentation/discussion on it, or get the students to suggest members of an expert panel and then invite them in at a specific time.

Online lectures

This really smacks of simply using synchronous tools, but for completeness it should be listed. Get remotely located lecturers to do a presentation to students at different geographical locations.

Synchronous quizzes

Get all the students online at the same time as the instructor and run an online quiz. The students’ depth of knowledge can be rapidly determined at this point.

Virtual conference

Students attend a virtual conference with hundreds of participants and report back on it.

Recordings and transcripts

Students review transcripts and recordings archived by the system and examine key concepts and then discuss them with the entire group.

Debriefing exercises

Do one-on-one tutoring with students who might be off track on an assignment, or hold a group discussion after a major event. These should encourage reflection and extensive dialogue between group members.

Strike a consensus

A list of items is placed up on the whiteboard and the group, by discussing the individual items, has to list them in a given order. The instructor guides the session and makes her own suggestions at the end.

Work with a graphic or schematic

A schematic of a particular plant or electrical distribution layout is placed on the whiteboard and group members have to analyze it and then make suggestions for errors and improvements.

Peer-to-peer discussions

Learners interact with each other directly (rather than via the instructor) to get to know each other better.

Personal assessments

Participants complete an online quiz or questionnaire and score themselves. They then discuss the solutions with the group and facilitator.

Core dump activity

A group is broken up into four or five breakout rooms where they briefly interview an expert on a topic. These experts are then rotated around to the next breakout room where they are interviewed by the next breakout room group. Each breakout room then summarizes their findings and presents to the entire group at the end of the session.

Case study

A scenario is played to the entire group using audio or video (such as a centrifugal pump failure in a particularly onerous application). Using text (and audio, perhaps), the group analyses and discusses the problem and proposes a solution. The instructor then adds her suggestions.

 

5.8 Applications

A few applications in using synchronous tools are examined in this section.

Motivation to use online environment

At Southern Cross University, research indicated that students were motivated to use an online environment such as the Elluminate web conferencing software.64 Distance learning students in particular (as would be expected) were particularly motivated to use this environment. Self-efficacy or the perceived ability to use the web conferencing environment was identified as a useful indicator of intention to employ this tool in their studies.

War-torn Afghanistan

An application of web conferencing software was in war-torn Afghanistan at the University of Kabul which has a joint venture with Southern Polytechnic State University to provide Bachelor of Engineering degree programs using the Wimba Classroom web conferencing software.65 The observations were that the system worked well at both universities with equivalent student performance to that of the face-to-face lectures but the main challenge was the lack of volunteer instructors. Use of web conferencing software means that high quality instructors that aren’t exposed to the risk of injury due to the ongoing war and the perhaps limited facilities in Kabul can be sourced.

Comparison between classroom and web conferencing presentations with Adobe Connect

It was demonstrated in a previous study that there was no significant difference between a group of students who attended the Material Requirement Planning (MRP) class virtually (using a pre-recorded lecture) or in a face-to-face manner. The disadvantage with this online approach was the lack of interactivity with the instructor.

In this research, a comparison was thus done with a live web conference (in real-time, thus allowing for real time interaction) and a classroom session.66 In addition, a pre-test was provided to students to validate the knowledge level of students prior to the lecture in classroom or through web conferencing. The course was on Production and Operation Management with 42 students. 11 students participated from home using Adobe Connect Professional. The same instructor was used for both the classroom and virtual classroom presentation. An assistant monitored a second computer for any text chat commentary from students and a third computer was used for monitoring the PowerPoint slides (presumably to confirm the quality of the presentation). A pre-test was administered to both groups one week before the lectures. The first post test on knowledge level gained was administered 10 minutes before the class finished. The second post test was done using WebCT Vista, also on knowledge level. Three dimensions were used in assessing a student's ability to learn: ability to retain information, ability to understand information and ability to apply the knowledge. The scores of the second post test confirmed no significant difference between both groups of students. However, students were not that enthused with Adobe Connect. It was suggested that the previous research, in using a pre-recorded lecture that was done to a high standard, might have been better than the more spontaneous virtual classroom presentation. There were also technical problems with student microphones not working and in sharing an application and also simultaneously text chatting and talking to students.

The students did confirm in their surveys that the instructor was the most important factor affecting the quality of learning (through Adobe Connect). Audio quality was next, the environment and video quality were rated lower in sequence.

Assessing the effectiveness of synchronous content delivery in an online introductory circuit analysis course presented in duel mode

A comparison was made between two groups of students being presented with an introductory circuits analysis course; one group in the classroom and the other through synchronous web conferencing (using Elluminate as part of the CCC Confer software) at Canada College (part of the California Community College System). All notes were created using a Tablet PC, allowing the user to write directly on the computer screen with a stylus, thus providing an added advantage in terms of working with sketches and mathematical formulae.

There were 25 online and 30 on-campus students. Although the online students could participate in the lectures synchronously, the majority (67%) elected not to because of scheduling conflicts and downloaded lecture archives on a weekly basis (compared to 15% on-campus). The course results indicated identical outcomes with similar retention rates for both groups (with 84% for online). This was considered an excellent outcome for the online students as the on-campus students had the additional opportunity to attend the associated lab course and they were more likely to be an electrical engineering major (thus making this course far more popular).

The online students found the ability to review the archives at their own pace valuable and were not in any position to be able to attend the on-campus course. What is a useful result here is that even though the students were given the flexibility of not attending the lectures (meaning that they could procrastinate and thus fall behind–leaving everything to the last minute), these students were so motivated that this was not an issue. Perhaps, the requirements for provision of the completed assessments every week kept them up to date?

Taking stock of web conferencing at large Australian university

In 2008, the University of South Queensland had more than 75% of its 26,000 students studying at a distance. A large percentage was characterized by being mature age and having full-time jobs. Some observations on the use of web conferencing using the Elluminate software were:68

• Web conferencing is particularly effective for mathematics and science disciplines with it superior ability for interactive visual and audio tools especially when dealing with complex concepts.

• A stronger creation of interaction and great flexibility with choice of recordings or live sessions.

• Instructors may find the immediacy of this technology challenging and may be sidetracked into the technology rather than staying focused on the teaching.

• There were some concerns about value for money with this technology with a lower attendance at an online session than with the equivalent classroom session.

• Infrastructure (e.g. headset and webcams) needed attention to deliver the required results.

• Specific concerns from staff included issues such as the need for a reliable technology that is designed for easy and intuitive use. Existing pedagogy should be enhanced by new software rather than having it thrust on staff as an additional requirement. Additional workload would be created with this approach and there was some difficulty in agreeing on the optimum time to conduct the live sessions.

• Finally, it was observed that there are some tensions between asynchronous (“Flexibility comes from asynchronicity” was one comment) modes providing flexibility (which is what mature age working professionals want) against the increased interactivity and flexibility of the synchronous approach.

Recording of lectures

A study was conducted to investigate whether a software package, Panopto, improves the learning experience for students in an engineering technology program.69 Panopto records lecture sessions including the video, audio (including speech to text) and screen components and allows search facilities. The study compared traditional on-campus as well as distance education students for one course for 43 students ranging in age from 20 to 53. A switching replication design was used in which all participants undertook both control and experimental classes. The first four weeks of the distance learning class were conducted as per normal with the Blackboard Vista LMS populated with written materials and weekly quizzes. A weekly Centra web conferencing based problem tutorial session was conducted to go through challenging parts to the course materials. Students in the experimental group were allowed to watch the recorded Panopto broadcasts of the on-campus class. Students in the control group were only allowed to read course materials and ask questions through email.

The results of the survey indicated that most distance learning students felt that the use of Panopto enhanced their learning experience. However, no tests were done regarding whether it improved course results. One technical drawback with the use of this software was the difficulty for the distance learning students in hearing students’ verbal interchanges in the classroom due to the lack of an appropriately sited microphone. In addition, distance-based students wanted an immediate method of interaction with the instructor, presumably regarding issues raised in the recording.

Problems with online education

An online graduate level mathematics course in electrical engineering was presented at California State University Northridge using Elluminate and a Smartboard, and the results were discouraging with a high level of frustration.70 Most (90%) of the 10 students had not taken an online course before with only 40% indicating they would be prepared to undertake an online course again. Only 40% indicated they spent more time studying in an online class than a classroom-based session. A rather strong assertion was made that online instruction should only be engaged in when there is no other alternative. Smart classrooms with face-to-face instruction were the preferred option.

Major problems for online education included changing the attitude of faculty, being able to expend more money in acquisition of learning resources, retraining of faculty to the new paradigm, the need for students to adjust their approach to study with considerably more self-study required and, finally, the need for varying quality of online education to be continually assessed.

Internationalisation of engineering degree programs

Videoconferencing was used to support an internationalization program of Lafayette College for their undergraduate engineering program in countries in Europe and Africa.71 In one example, students from the sister college in Brussels were taught through video conference of three hours per week by an instructor based in Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. A highly interactive format of discussion of course materials and homework was used.

Mobile webcams add value to construction course

Proper understanding of construction management requires a good grasp of the application of techniques in management and technology in the context of the actual construction site.72 This can best be illustrated by a site visit. However, it is not always possible for students to make the physical visit due to timing issues, excessive numbers of students based on the site restrictions and general logistics considerations. Feedback from students indicates that field trips are often more interesting than lectures and labs.

Thus a mobile videoconferencing facility from the classroom to a construction site was devised based around a wireless webcam. This was for the undergraduate students of Building Construction Management at Purdue University with analysis done on field trips conducted in 2006 and 2007. Although this was admittedly designed for classroom-based sessions, it could be usefully employed for distance learning.

The first field trip demonstrated infection control planning and procedures in a construction site based around an occupied healthcare facility and the second examined a foundation stage for large hospital addition.

The communications architecture was based around combining microwave wireless audio and video with videoconferencing equipment (Tandberg 880). The key elements of equipment comprised an audio headset and transceiver transmitting to a field wireless audio base station connected to the field codec and thence to the internet (and classroom). The helmet mounted camera was connected to a local transmitter through a cable that wirelessly transferred the data to a field video receiver and thence the same field codec as for the audio signal, noted before.

The classroom was connected to the internet through the Tandberg videoconferencing facility and the microphone was used to converse with the field guide on-site.

There were a number of challenges relating to limitations in internet bandwidth at the site, the loss of the wireless audio signal through buildings (effectively because of the steel or ferrous reinforcing) resulting in intermittent operation and firewall issues at the job site. Other issues were that an expert on the equipment was required on-site, the high cost of the equipment (~$20,000) and unpredictable performance of equipment (e.g. large objects on site interfering with signals, helmet-mounted camera required steady aim and lighting quality varied).

Overall, the benefits to the class would be balanced by the cost and complexity of the equipment set up and operation would make this very hard to sustain without significant effort on the part of the organizers. It was, however, considered a worthwhile endeavor with future improvements to wireless internet connectivity helping simplify and make the overall system more reliable. For example, 3G and 4G mobile phone telecommunication networks can be used cheaply and effectively in a wide variety of areas–although construction sites are often located in areas where the communication infrastructure hasn’t been set up as yet.

Key points and applications

Chapter 5

The following are the key points and applications from this chapter entitled: Synchronous Online Fundamentals.

1.  Synchronous online learning can mean inflexible learning (with fixed time for sessions) and is often contrasted to the considerably more popular self-paced asynchronous format. However, synchronous online learning generally has a considerably lower attrition rate due to the tighter connection between student and instructor.

2.  Different types of synchronous online technologies include:

• Webcasting: Broadcasting of sessions with limited interactivity from the students.

• Webconferencing: Interactive audio/video connection between learners and instructor.

• Webinar: Internet conference (similar to webconferencing) with limited interaction.

• Virtual classroom: Grouping of students with instructor-led training (e.g. a webinar).

3.  The functionality of web conferencing includes:

• Slides presentation.

• Audio and text chatting.

• Quizzing and polling of participants.

• Use of emoticons for feedback.

• Whiteboard to scribble on.

• Application sharing of programs.

• File transfer between participants.

4.  Reduce “transactional distance” by good dialogue, providing a well defined structure (procedures and requirements for students) and allowing for more autonomy (e.g. greater convenience).

5.  Activities that can add value include:

• Presentations by subject matter experts–no matter where they are located in the world.

• Learning events to provide participants with skill and knowledge to apply in their workplace.

• Magnetic brainstorms where everyone puts contributory text onto the community whiteboard (e.g. safety tips).

• Getting selected participants to provide solutions in problem solving or troubleshooting.

• Breaking group into break-out rooms.

• Grid Completion where selected participants complete a grid on the whiteboard..

• Brainstorming ideas in groups or break-out rooms.

• Getting a panel of experts to do a presentation on a researched topic.

• Quizzes and Polls that add vitality to an otherwise boring presentation.

South African Management Team

Cheryl Reyneke Apolonia Chitongo

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How can an e-learning course be interactive?

Boredom can be a real danger, however, we use an interactive approach to our e-Learning – with live sessions instead of recordings.  The webinar software allows everyone to interact and involves participants in group work; including hands-on exercises with simulation software and remote laboratories where possible.  You can communicate with text messages, or live VoIP speech, or can even draw on the whiteboard during the sessions.

 

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