Good Practice in Web Conferencing

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

Chapter contents

6.1    Introduction

6.2    Preliminary Considerations

6.3    Before the Actual Session Commences

6.4    During the Session

6.5    After it is All Over

6.6    General Issues

6.7    When Things Go Wrong

6.1 Introduction

Although perhaps intuitively obvious, it is difficult to see asynchronous tools establishing the same sense of presence, immediacy and interactivity as in a face-to-face meeting.1 It should also be remembered that what worked in a classroom will not necessarily work in an online distance learning environment.

As has been alluded to earlier, the authors are especially enthusiastic about the opportunities afforded by synchronous e-learning. This chapter of best practice in this area commences with an examination of preliminary considerationsand then in looking at before, during and after a session. General issues will then be described. This chapter will be concluded with the rather thorny issue of how to handle a session when things go wrong (as they are wont to).

6.2 Preliminary considerations

A list of design requirements for the ePresence webcasting package is useful to consider.2 These are broken into five categories: Participants, Media, Interactivity, Archives and System.

Participants

• Identify and support the needs of the various types of participants (such as remote and local participants, speaker and moderators, archived broadcasts).

• Design for scalability.

• Support a variety of platforms (such as Windows/Apple/QuickTime/Linux).

• Give priority to support of remote participants over local participants.

• Design the classroom where the session is being presented for speaker, audience and webcast.

• Ensure the moderator provides significant support.

• Ideal class size is between 18 and 20 people with an absolute maximum of 25.3

• Keep the online learning experience shorter than the equivalent physical classroom session.4

Make sure all potential participants have an easy way of logging in or if there are problems here, an email to use (this rarely fails) or a phone number to call and report a possible problem.

Media

• Ensure that priority is given to providing quality sound over quality video.

• Check out the equipment (such as audio/video) and software well before the class commences.

• Do not restrict speakers to only PowerPoint but use other aids such as whiteboard/web surfing, software demonstrations.

• Emphasize quality slides and screen capture over video.

• Create a heightened sense of presence by using high quality video.

• A high quality headset (and amplifier) is essential for the instructor.

• Schedule and allocate the time carefully.

• Add in videos, webcams and demos to illustrate the presentation.

• If there is a considerable amount of reading and thinking required, consider recording your presentation, mailing it to everyone and using the presentation to discuss it (as a tutorial).

• Ensure slides are strongly visual with minimal text and don’t inundate your audience with animations or irritating audio sequences.

Interactivity

• Emphasize interactivity with public chat and minimize transmission delays.

• Remote viewers should be able to independently control slides and access web materials.

• Provide archiving of all materials in a non-linear fashion that can be viewed interactively with annotations.

• Build in other activities to your presentations such as software demonstrations / tours of websites and walk through remote labs to liven interest, but ensure it is easy to follow and is not a complex process otherwise you will lose your audience or have distracting questions about what to do next. Watch out for bandwidth limitations of your participants’ systems for any demanding applications.

System

• Archive all user experience materials and activities (such as chat) for later review.

Instructor

• You have to be responsible for driving the session and maintaining a high level of energy to keep all the participants engaged.

• Target students to actively participate at least 80% of the time with a maximum length of 60 minutes for a session.

• Get familiar with your hardware and the software.

• Get some experience as an online learner–join other sessions. Learn what makes a good session, and what you’d avoid. How can you be a “good participant”?

• Make sure your email filters will accept new senders–or at least let you decide!

• Have Plan B in place–don’t rely on one experiment or one topic. Have back ups ready to go: back up slides; back up subjects and hardware too. Have spare batteries and even a spare PC on standby.

• Consider how you will handle online learning issues: lag time in discussion, sound issues of participants, talking into silence (without cues)?

With the focus on the technology, the instructing faculty have perhaps been neglected adding to resultant reluctance to bring any technology into the classroom. Some suggestions to build their enthusiasm up in experimenting with these new approaches are:

• Provide them with a thorough introduction to the technology available to use that will fit their needs.

• Provide professional development training and advice in the technology available.

• Provide incentives (financial and time) to engage in these new approaches.

Environment from which you broadcast

In scurrying around trying to focus on the technical issues with web conferencing, one area that is often neglected is the room from which you are broadcasting.5

If there are multiple presenters, they should preferably be in close proximity so that they can “eye ball” each other for any refinements or queries during the presentation. All background noise should be eliminated (this is especially irritating with recorded sessions) and carpeted floors and thick walls will help with quality of audio and to minimize any echo.

 

6.3 Before the actual session commences

The time before the session starts is critical to ensuring a successful session. Some suggestions are:678

• Practise and rehearse your presentation using the technology so that it is extraordinarily good. You are playing with fire if you decide to “wing it”.

• Make sure that the student is comfortable and able to use the facilities.

• Use the various tools effectively–both you and your participants, whether this be hand-raising, question-and-answering, quick polls or quizzes/surveys. With breakout groups, make sure the participants know exactly what is going on and why you are breaking them up into rooms, as well as what you expect them to be doing in these rooms.

• Ensure supporting course materials are ready before the sessions.

• Keep the groups small for discussions. The technical challenges and virtuality of the participants can make a larger group session difficult to manage productively

• Make sure you are aware of your audience’s environment and interest level. Tablet and other mobile devices can have considerably smaller screens.

• Ensure the student knows exactly what the technology requirements are with such elements as microphone/speakers and (generally) broadb and internet.

• Detail the objectives of using this technology as well as the learning outcomes expected from use of this technology.

• Be flexible in the application of the technology in terms of the number of sessions, duration and the students’ other commitments (e.g. make recordings available).

• As participants will often log in well ahead of the session commencing time; ensure there is a comprehensive set of introductory looping slides (or at least an introductory slide), providing details of when the session will commence; what the topic is and why it is so beneficial to attend and how to test out microphone/audio and video.

• Alternatively, a more specific strategy is to open the room up at least 30 minutes before the session and leave a note on the whiteboard as to what is happening and any tips to get maximum benefit out of the session coming up ranging from how to use the package to the actual content of the material being covered.

• State what time the session commences.

• Provide a picture of you, your name, title and email address details.

• Provide a contact phone number for use if there are problems (and a conference phone number if this is required).

• State what typical problems may occur and what to do about them.

• Practise your session intensively to ensure you deliver without overshooting your time allocation. Ensure your co-presenters are similarly able to present professionally.

• Start your session strongly and on time, with an attention grabbing slide, a hook slide (e.g. a statistic or startling comment) and then in selling the benefits of attending. Give a simple roadmap of the session with clear objectives and structure.

• Ensure the web conferencing package is operating smoothly (and that everyone is given the correct access codes).

• Turn off other distracting telephones (including mobiles).

• Close your office door with a “Do not disturb” sign.

• Switch email and instant messengers off (unless you are using them for communicating during the presentation).

• Load up the presentation slides in your web conferencing system.

• Have presentation materials (including slides) in hard copy next to you.

• Ensure that all participating speakers have rehearsed and know when to (and when not to) interact.

• Have the breakout room activities (with leadership in these rooms) clearly defined.

• Define close-off approach and give out responsibilities.

• Convert slides using PowerPoint converter, if required by your package

• Make sure you have the web link for the webcast.

• Make sure you have the attendance list for each webcast. This should have been sent to you by your online learning coordinator.

• Upload slides into the webcast room well before the event commences.

• Configure audio (Tools/Audio/Audio Setup Wizard).

At the start of the session

“Walk around” to all your participants and ask them to confirm their presence. Due to the time delays, set the program or structure; you will be driving the sessions and will ask for a response from everyone in turn. If you don’t set the parameters in the beginning you will have the inevitable circus with people randomly butting in with terrible results. You are the facilitator and have to show leadership.

Get the participants to indicate who they are and comment about their sound. The best way of starting off is to confirm their name and ask them to tell everyone about the weather in 20 seconds. This confirms their sound quality and you can then move onto the next participant. Also get them to confirm that they can raise their hands and text a confirmation as well. Get them to text a short message to join the session. For example, get them to give their nickname. This confirms that everything is working and enables the instructor to take any corrective action at the beginning to fix any technical problems at the outset to avoid any disappointed participants.

Other essentials:

• Don’t forget to check how to start your recording.

• Go through back up procedures of what to do when communications fail.

• Inform the audience of procedures to follow; in the worst case, they can get a copy of the recording after the presentation.

• Tell participants what to do if your connection fails–wait for 10 minutes before leaving, watching for an email from you.

• Let each student test his or her microphone at the start, then press “record”.

• Publicize your ground rules for all participants.

• Log on 15 minutes before the start of the meeting, since some online products require downloads and installation.

• Be aware of background noise.

• State your name when you speak.

• If you catch yourself multitasking, be responsible for your full participation.

• Turn off cell phones and PDAs

• Stay out of your email.

• Use a webcam to introduce yourself; try and ensure you have a favorable neutral background with excellent lighting (not a gloomy swamp background) and look into the camera to drive a connection to your listeners.

• When you want the audience to concentrate on the slides (complex content or graphics), turn the webcam off.

 

6.4 During the session

Bear in mind that most participants would have been exposed to online videos (which are often very slick and professionally choreographed) so you have to make this session even more valuable by building on the naturalness of the medium and interactivity of web conferencing. Remember that you only have a short time in which to make an impact. Here are some suggestions:691011

• Make the presentation as interactive as possible and avoid monotony. Engagement between instructor and all students should be at least every 2 to 3 minutes. Lack of activity or dead silence is the kiss of death for this medium.

• Focus on student learning.

• Be careful about allocation of microphone usage for all participants.

• Emphasize ongoing feedback from all participants during the presentation.

• Keep an eye on the public chatroom for any pointers during the presentation.

• Drive a good atmosphere during the course.

• Record the presentation, if possible.

• Let the participants assess the presentation at the conclusion.

• Be positive, friendly and supportive to the students who may be somewhat intimidated (at least, initially) by the technology.

• As real learning requires a high degree of participation, ensure that the session is much more than a one-way broadcast from instructor to learner.

• Try and maintain usage of familiar software tools (such as PowerPoint) rather than expecting learners to learn new versions of these tools within the web conferencing environment.

• Assist the learners in focusing on the online class by interacting with chat and status icons. Highlight to the others in a learner’s office, that the learners were busy by keeping a headset on, having automated replies to emails and posting a physical “Do Not Disturb” sign.

• Maintain the enthusiasm and interactivity with regular ice-breaker activities (especially after refreshment and lunch breaks).

• Regular interaction is required from the instructor to keep interest at a high level.

• Use virtual breakout rooms for individual teams with rotating team captains to keep a high level of interaction.

• Set up a whiteboard or wiki space where learners can post their comments on the course especially for questions and suggestions.

• Enhance the synchronous learning experience with asynchronous activities such as assignments, reflection, assessments, collaboration, research, interviews with local workers and course evaluation.

• Above all, technical support for unexpected glitches should always be available from the producers.

• Use your voice effectively by varying your intonations and inflections, use appropriate humor and passion, and keep your enthusiasm and energy up.

• Keep a high level of pace in presenting with the PowerPoint slides, with vibrant color/images and avoidance of text.

• Avoid sinking into a monotone with the “death by PowerPoint” experience for your audience.

• Chat to the audience as you would over the fence to your neighbor–do not lecture them. You need to constantly sell them throughout the presentation why they are learning each nugget of information and why it is of use to them.

• Use additional presenters to add vitality to your presentation with additional questions, interesting discussions, (controlled) disagreements with each other, and help with time management. This has to be done in such a way that although it may appear somewhat unpredictable, it is not confusing to the audience.

• Plan also to use technology effectively, such as application sharing/breakout rooms and web tours to liven the presentation up, but stay away from anything too sophisticated or “clever”.

• Work the conferencing features in your presentation with extensive scribbling on the slides (annotation), polling the audience with interesting questions (and clear-cut simple answers) and encourage interruptions and questions (by your audience using the tools).

• Be as natural and chatty as possible with minimal use of boring one-way lecturing that no one listens to.

• Use a tablet to write and sketch on the whiteboard to make the session as natural and on-the-cuff as possible. One of our instructors uses virtually no PowerPoints and simply writes and sketches on the whiteboard. However, this can be challenging and exhausting for the instructor.

• Drive a high level of interactivity with the audience to build on the web conferencing strengths as opposed to a one-way video presentation.

• Try and involve the audience with much use of “You” rather than third person text.

• Use memorable stories or anecdotes to illustrate your points. Be wary of humor (apart from being deprecatingly modest on occasion).

• Use simple understandable English; complex phrases or explanations generally go completely over your audience’s head.

• Ask a question during the presentation of the specific PowerPoint then get the responders to put their hands up (electronically) and identify one person to answer. Ensure you ask the question clearly and slowly so that everyone knows what is coming. The answer can be by answering verbally or by writing on the whiteboard the answer.

• Sound natural and talk with everyone on a one-to-one basis. Interact at least every 1 to 2 minutes with everyone and ensure that they all interact back. Even perhaps in only using the chat facility. But do not neglect anyone. You can’t do a machine gun delivery of an entire one hour presentation and expect everyone to listen continuously. That simply won’t happen. When you are presenting, actively and continually sell what you are going to tell the audience so that they perceive value in listening to you.

This medium is a tool kit. Make use of the whole kit for variety. Try to use all of the tools to make up for lack of physical presence.

Remember that online learning is a totally different teaching environment to a face-to-face classroom. It takes a lot more effort to keep students interested in an online learning session. You have to be more energetic, more interactive and more innovative to make online learning work.

It’s important not to cram too much into the 1-hour session. It is impossible to cover the entire topic within a lecture. Focus on presenting these sessions as tutorials covering the key or difficult points and involving the students as much as possible. The students should have read the materials beforehand and should come prepared with questions if they don’t underst and something. Instead, select a few fundamental points to cover, and spend the rest of the session interacting with your students and testing their knowledge.

At the beginning of the session, there is an air of optimism and excitement. Keep everyone driven and enthused to the end. Get everyone involved in discussions and avoid commenting on student’s contributions with a trite, “Great job” but something significant. You may need to post questions at the beginning of the session to get the participants thinking of comments to make. It is very difficult for anyone to think of answers when asked “on the fly”.

When chatting with participants, use lots of white space. It is very daunting for anyone to read a big wedge of text. As discussed earlier, your job isn’t to regurgitate a complete book in a lecture. It is merely to review the key and difficult points. The students can go through the course reading in their own time.

Don’t try and reply to every post. Let the other students jump in and post their comments.12 Avoid focusing only on a small group in your class. Always try and engage everyone–no matter how disinterested or negative they may appear to be.

Watch out for cultural issues when trying to create a light moment. Joking about politics may go down well in Australia but may stir up bad feelings to someone in Egypt who is living in the middle of a conflict. However, always honor a balanced treatment of gender, religion, culture and different nationalities.

In online learning, it is suggested that having the students participating in regular discussions on the material drives them into improved and more frequent interaction resulting in better learning outcomes.13

 

6.5 After it is all over

The end of a session is short but incredibly important. Here are some ways in which you can ensure that everyone leaves the session happy:

• End on a high note with a brief summary that’s quick, powerful and pithy. Include action items for the audience and contacts for further supporting queries.

• Tell your participants what to do next so that they leave energized and enthusiastic about applying the knowledge gained at the session.

• Give them a contact name and details to talk to about any further questions after this session.

• Thank everyone for listening/participating and contributing. If they haven’t, this is your fault–not that of your audience.

• It is vital when corresponding with students to give them quick feedback, encourage interaction with their peers and address them by their preferred name.14

• Remember to stop recording at the end of the session.

 

6.6 General issues

Design of slides and use of whiteboard

A few key rules include:

• Keep content simple and understandable (the KISS principle).

• Keep to no more than eight lines of text on a page.

• Keep to a maximum of four training points on a page.

• Plain backgrounds that mesh in well with your text are preferable.

• Avoid complex animations and gimmicks.15

Keep your slides short and to the point. In your bullets leave out the repetitive periods, as these aren’t necessary. Try to build in graphics to your brief text. Overall, your slides must be simple, easy to underst and at a glance, and visual. Well chosen images can make your presentation very memorable; remember the pictures that appeal to your audience. Big flashy pictures of consumer related items might not appeal as technically interesting items which engineering professionals like to see (e.g. a plan or a technical 3D drawing). Make sure the use of pictures and graphics is consistent with similar colors / fonts / capitalization of text, etc.

Animations don’t necessarily work on all platforms so avoid them if possible. Clever animations often backfire as different computers can animate in different ways (or not at all), as well as taking time to load. If you must animate, apply the poor man’s animation technique which is to create a sequence of a few slides with the object you want to animate displaced on each slide so that it appears to move as you sequence through the slides.

When going from one concept to another and using a transition, try and link the different concepts together in an interesting and exciting way.

You can allow slides to be independently controllable (so that participants can page backwards and forth). However, the reason most often cited for this method is that remote attendees only focus on the speaker 44% to 56% of the time, with the remainder of the time reading or doing other work. This is hardly an encouraging trait for absorbing what can often be challenging learning materials.16

Quality slides and screen captures are more important than video. This should take up most of the screen with video a poor second, unless the video is showing something of equivalent importance to that of a slide.17

There is always a debate about giving out a pdf copy of the slides before a session so that a participant can print them out and then mark up with notes as they listen and interact in the web conferencing session.18 We believe in giving out the slides beforeh and but others prefer to make it a surprise. Some instructors dynamically (with great energy) write on the slides which often comprise only graphics with no text as they present, so handing out these blank slides beforeh and may not be that meaningful.

Quality of audio and video

Be wary about video. It can be challenging in terms of using excessive bandwidth and then being out of synchronization with your audio, and the experience can be poor due to the low resolution and low refresh rate thus irritating your participants with what they perceive as poor quality. The two main types used by web conferencing software are streaming video where there are often delays (or latency) between your audio and the video. Streaming is great as it buffers on the participant’s machine thus (theoretically) smoothing out the reception rate and giving a better quality experience. However, this causes additional delays. The other alternative is peer-to-peer which directly connects the video source with the participant’s desktop, but there may be some choppiness in the picture quality.

The quality of audio is extremely important in communicating remotely and is likely to be noticed more quickly than poor video or slowness in the whiteboard or texting.19 A video of the instructor (whilst initially regarded as important) becomes less important than the quality of the audio and actual presentation slides or program being shared. Nothing is more irritating than cracks and pops (and dropouts) with audio and this will immediately be remarked upon as a negative. It is vital to always ensure audio quality is top notch (with minimal delays)–even at the expense of the quality of video.20

Figure 6.1: High quality of audio is vital

 

Although the technology has advanced dramatically from the turn of the century when there were intermittent problems with audio and video, you may occasionally find problems with audio and you should be prepared to deal with this issue effectively.21 A few of our instructors insist on having a second client machine which they can watch for any evidence of slide problems or audio dropouts. This requires a significant degree of skill in an instructor multitasking (or having an assistant to monitor these issues) but does enable you to compare experiences with any of your learners who may complain of a problem and you can determine whether it is a localized problem (e.g. the local internet service provider) or something more sinister involving the instructor’s machine or the central server distributing the audio and video. A somewhat subtler but nonetheless critical problem to watch out for is lack of synchronization between the audio presentation and the slides. Some of the very low bandwidth connections may result in there being a significant delay in delivery of your audio to each of the client machines. In this case, be careful about expecting quick responses to questions. The delay can sometimes go up to 5 seconds (or, in extreme cases, even 10 seconds).

Molay wryly observed that most web conferencing vendors try and distinguish their products by adding new features that are sometimes of dubious benefit in the overall scheme of things.22 What he feels is very useful, however, is the qualitative performance of the audio and video that the users receive. Do you see chunky bits slowly updating but running quite drastically behind the audio? What is the quality of your audio like? Is it clipped and tinny with intermittent drop-outs? Is video and audio synchronized? Finally, what is the quality of the recorded version to the live version? Is it of a considerably poorer quality?

Based on our experiences and that of Molay’s (and notwithstanding the current hype to provide streaming video for all applications), audio is still one of the most important elements of a web conference and this should always be emphasized. Failure to do so will result in unhappy users who will quickly get irritated with audio dropouts and poor quality sound.

Obviously, it is impossible to cope with every situation. Some users have impossibly poor local bandwidth conditions and there is not much you can do about this. Hence, when running a large session to a few hundred people, you should listen carefully to the complaints from one or two unhappy users with poor audio, but don’t take them to heart if you believe it is related to a local user’s bandwidth condition or overloaded computer. Suggest to the unhappy participants that they should log off and view the recording later.

Full duplex web conferencing can be tough to manage

Although having one’s audio set to allow only one participant to speak at a time (half duplex) for web conferencing can feel very clumsy and inflexible, one should be careful about allowing full flexibility in audio capability for everyone, even though this feels considerably more natural and avoids speakers forgetting to press the talk button.23 Typical problems reported in the past with a WebEx presentation included cell and office phones ringing during the session, unmuted microphones, external people talking to conference participants, on-hold music playing, radios in the background, and webcams of some participants enabled–all significant distractions from the main presentation. It was recommended before an event begins, that the moderator should disable everyone’s microphones and webcams to eliminate these distractions.

The best way to interact with someone as you are presenting is via text. Open audio lines are fraught with problems, so be wary of them. VoIP technology is a bit more risky than conference calling over the old telephone system (which is so brilliantly reliable), so assess your risks carefully. Obviously VoIP’s advantages are simplicity (it is integrated with your web conferencing software and simple to use) and low cost.

Driving a high quality videoconferencing experience

As discussed earlier, there is a significant difference between classical videoconferencing and web conferencing (which is what we have focused on), but it is worthwhile assessing some of the specific problems with videoconferencing that one needs to minimize or avoid, as they would also apply to a web conferencing experience.24

Probably the most obvious one is the lack of knowledge and training in videoconferencing with most organizations. In addressing this issue, a high level of familiarity with the hardware and particularly software is critical.

Other necessities include:

• Having a central person to co-ordinate the activities between the different sites.

• Having standardized equipment (hardware and particularly software versions) at the different sites.

• High bandwidth to ensure high quality audio and video is transmitted between the different sites.

• A carefully assessed and handled group dynamically dealt with by an experienced presenter and moderator.25

One interesting challenge that has arisen in the past with the videoconferencing (and to a lesser extent with web conferencing) is the issue of the mutual gaze between presenter and other participants where modern videoconferencing equipment did not support a natural mutual gaze between instructor and learner. This was because the camera was mounted on top of the monitor with the result that other person’s eyes were displaced vertically downwards (as they were looking at the computer monitor). The participants stated that gaze awareness, where one knows where someone else is looking, is important as a conversational resource. They suggested that to optimize the possibility for mutual gaze awareness, the camera should be placed as close to the image of the remote participant as possible and any horizontal disparity here should be avoided.

It is absolutely necessary to keep the audio and video quality as high as possible. A number of techniques can be used to improve the experience.

• Ensure that more cues and inputs should be provided from the remote site. This included such items as verbally explicitly explaining everything a participant did from handing over control of a computer mouse to indicating they are finished with talking, ensuring that any actions (e.g., clicking a mouse) are indicated to the other participant graphically, allowing for varying of the audio and video by the participants to allow for a richer experience by, for example, panning the camera around the room, to adding an additional camera to the remote site to allow the participants to view not only the lab, but the first camera and the participants.

• Provide feedback from the remote site in terms of the quality of video and audio by transferring this data back to the other (local) participant.26

Many have commented on the importance of non-verbal cues in communicating. A suggestion is to add high quality video of at least 25 frames per second to help in communicating these cues across. Participants often try and establish eye contact but because of the camera settings this is rarely achieved. However, the issues inherent in video are ever-present, as discussed above.27

The power of application sharing

Application sharing is particularly useful during synchronous lectures as a spreadsheet or simulation can be brought up during the lecture and the students can then see how a change in one part of the spreadsheet causes changes elsewhere–all in real time. This approach with live interaction with students in application sharing may even be more powerful than during a traditional classroom session.

As ever, instructor preparation is absolutely critical. Nothing can substitute for an “on-the-ball”, enthusiastic, dynamic, alive and well prepared instructor. A further suggestion is to break up recorded lectures into tiny bits (similar to learning objects) so that they can be listened to (and viewed) in podcast format.28

Testing skills for discussion leader

Although it is obviously vital to be pro-active in introducing topics, keeping your participants engaged and summarizing the key points in a discussion can be difficult.29 Not being a face-to-face setting can be daunting as you can’t see the other participants and pass non-verbal cues between each other. If everyone is not able to see the other using video cameras (even a thumbnail would help), you can resort to using emoticons. Typically, emoticons you can use in text or via the selection mechanism in the web conferencing package are:

:-) smile

:-( sad

=) happy

;-) wink

See pc.net/emoticons for more examples.

It is important to maximize discussion and interaction from the less talkative participants in a session, and this entails the instructor avoiding dominating the discussion.

To record or not to record your presentation

The question of whether you should post up a whole or partial recording of the event is sometimes a difficult one if you’re trying to encourage participation at your live event.30 We have tended to do this after a session, although the spontaneity can be lost to some extent. People are more likely to have a shorter attention span when looking at a recording compared to a live interactive web conference. An alternative is to consider another live session but often this isn’t practical, so some basic cleaning up is in order; get rid of the introductory housekeeping and admin type comments and zero in on the key presentation. Eliminate pauses (this is the kiss of death with synchronous presentations), stumbles, “umms and errs” and ensure the audio is balanced and at the right volume. If at all possible, try and break the recording up into logical smaller segments. You could even produce a completely new recording based on the presentation and designed for the audience.

Events should be made available for viewing after the event. Some evidence indicates that viewers of archived videos number approximately 40% of those who watched the live session.31

Ensure videos are recorded in such a way that they can be accessed at any point. Most viewing sessions are only for part of the video.32

Online meetings

A slightly different approach should be followed for an online meeting as opposed to an online presentation. These should be kept to a maximum of 60 minutes or less with typically six participants (up to a maximum of 20).33 A typical structure is as follows:

• Objective of the session.

• What is going to be discussed in the session.

• Who will be doing what as a result of the meeting.

• Who is going to be presenting during the meeting.

In order to keep a meeting engaged, have rotating facilitators and note takers. Send out the agenda before the meeting with space for notes. However, don’t send out the slides before the meeting otherwise people probably won’t bother to attend. Try and liven it up with quick tips on improving the meeting/a highlight of the day for a participant and try and ensure some collaboration during the meeting. Finally, assess the performance of the meeting with a quick poll so that improvements can be made for the next one.

Rather than simply replacing face-to-face meetings, we should seek to do innovative things with these new web conferencing technologies to work with and influence an audience at a distance. The important issue is for you to answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” and as it is so extraordinarily easy for your desktop audience to multi-task and be distracted by other things (especially email and the web), you have to keep your presentation riveting and dynamic with lots of activity, otherwise you will lose them. It is vital to interact intensely with your audience. The only way someone learns is by being actively engaged in your presentation.

When you commence your presentation, you have to clearly outline to your audience a roadmap of where you getting them and why this is going to help them. When finishing your presentation, always do so on a high in a memorable way. Don’t drift to a finish and ruin all your previous good work.

During a webcast please remember to make a note of students who contribute to discussions or ask questions–students receive participation marks for the course.

Interactivity

This has been discussed in Chapter Three, and the issues with synchronous online learning will be discussed here.

Interact! As you can’t see them you can’t really gauge if they are paying attention, reading a book, asleep or even there at all, so make use of the tools you have and keep it interactive as often as possible. We don’t just want a one-hour lecture as the students may as well view the recording; we want to offer them something they look forward to and gain from.

It has been suggested that questions and answers are the most important features for interactivity.34 These should be built into the presentation and should be also present at the end of the conference. A few pre-scripted questions may be useful to get the appropriate level of interactivity with the participants. Text questions should be submitted through the web conference, as these are non-intrusive. Preferably someone other than the presenter should answer these “on the fly”. Audio questions are also very powerful but the presenter must be able to handle the questions and a possible overload from individual questioners.

One of the most frustrating things we find in watching instructors present using synchronous online learning is the lack of interactivity with the participants.35 Obviously the main reason for performing the session is to transfer knowledge to the participants. But flicking through a bunch of PowerPoints and speaking with machine gun precision delivery is the surest way to lose your students. Absolutely no learning will take place. The key term is interactivity between participants and instructor, and the learning doesn’t simply take place from instructor to participant; it is distributed. Without any shadow of a doubt, the instructor can also find the whole process frustrating if she is talking to a computer screen and with no feedback it can be enormously draining and downright discouraging. The “trick”, we believe, is to encourage the participants to keep thinking and interacting with you the instructor and the other participants. Simply talking to a group of participants with a pack of slides is a disaster. People learn very little by only listening to an instructor. They have to be massively involved and learning along with you.

The other important point with training done using online learning is to make it more learner-centric where the instructor plays a facilitating role (“the guide on the side”), as opposed to the traditional classroom model where the teacher or instructor is the key player (“the sage on the stage”). Following on from this train of thought, you should also realize that you do not need to transfer all the information across in the hour or so you have available in an online learning session. All you do is to go through the key or difficult points and design the follow-up work so that the learners will undertake the remaining acquisition of knowledge themselves. This is in contrast to the classroom session where the instructor tries to cover all the information required. As the instructor, you’re mistaken in trying to cover all the materials in an hour session and ending up gabbling through a truck load of PowerPoint slides. This will definitely make for an unsuccessful session.

The whole online learning approach is not intuitive for the older hands. The younger generation are completely relaxed with their texting, email and Facetime but for the older generation, things are more challenging and we have to realize this in working with them in this great new technique of learning.

When presenting with PowerPoints, you have to realize that the classroom approach of talking through 10 to 20 slides without any feedback or interactivity is not effective. You will lose your students after the second slide. There are simply too many distractions on a computer–reviewing emails/browsing the web; the list is endless. It’s not as if you’re in the classroom looking over the shoulders of students to see if they’re working–although you can actually do this with many software packages.

Techniques to raise interactivity

Interactivity is critical to the success of the synchronous online learning course and a few suggestions for improving the level of interactivity are as follows:3637

• Turn bulleted lists into a series of true and false questions to be answered by participants.

• Replace keywords with blanks in the course manuals. Participants will have to fill these in during the presentation.

• Perform evaluations online as the material is presented.

• Request the participants to summarize the key points for each section of the presentation.

• Require participants to diagram materials covered using the electronic whiteboard.

• Interact with participants by presenting problems to them to solve and then picking a volunteer to explain to the group.

• The online learning session should be planned with explicit notes for the instructor.

• Ensure all course materials are carefully numbered (e.g., slides/pages) so that participants know exactly where they are and can thus interact more freely with their peers.

• Assign homework for the participants where possible.

• Promote critical thinking.

• Provide relevant (authentic) and engaging lectures.

• Place your biography online to increase your credibility.

• Praise students’ quality work.

• Weave in stories to the class discussions.

• Make the online interaction flexible.

• Ask spot questions throughout the class.

• Start a class discussion.

• Ask students to work out calculations on the whiteboard.

• Take students on a web tour.

• Split them into breakout rooms and bring them back to present to the rest of the group.

• Have a session at the end where you turn on your web camera so they can see you.

Finally, in reference to an online software engineering course, a suggestion is made for maximizing the interaction between students and instructors especially using diagrammatic techniques.38

Inflexibility improves learning

Although a study found a tendency for students to rate their online courses slightly lower than for the equivalent classroom sessions, there were no statistical significances between learning and teaching for online and traditional classroom sessions for 600 students in 28 pairs (online and traditional classroom) of courses.39 However, it is vital that to achieve this, students participate in the classes simultaneously with fixed meeting times during the week. This eliminates some of the flexibility inherent in online learning; however we design courses so that we fit the times to be as convenient to the student as possible (with multiple times because of time zones) and they have recordings for those that they occasionally miss. A key adjunct to this is to set up permanent synchronous “meeting rooms” where the students can meet to work on small projects together, share notes, prepare presentations without having the inconvenience of physical meetings.

Best online instructors

Much emphasis in the literature has been on best practice (in terms of the “science”) in online teaching but very little on the “art” in which instructors can create the finest learning environments.40 The three ways of achieving this are:

• Encouraging engagement through effective student interactions with instructors, fellow students and content. This can be achieved with the use of humor, in making content more interesting and in ensuring instructors are more approachable. Videos, blogs, wikis and discussion forums should also be effectively deployed.

• Stimulating intellectual development, making extensive use of questions (especially in getting the student to ask and answer their own questions whilst studying). A clever method is to ask a question at the conclusion of the class for students to consider before the next session.

• Building a rapport between students and instructor by building up a strong sense of trust. This can be kicked off by an initial phone call to the student and in understanding the student’s background and personal constraints. It is vital that students also get to underst and their instructors.

A few final tips

There is a timer built into most web conference packages and this should be used to activate a buzzer 5 minutes before the end of the presentation. This allows the instructor a few minutes to wind down the session without appearing rushed. At the conclusion of the session, the instructor can give three options: no further questions–log off, stay on for another 15 minutes to listen to other comments and finally, stay on as long as you want to go through all the tutorial again (and only terminate when the instructor has to move on). One of our instructors, Dr. Rodney Jacobs, reported a very interactive session of one hour with students from throughout the world which then only finished after a further two hours due to a student in Japan asking a ferocious number of questions about the materials.

It is a marvelous feature to be able to show resources on your desktop, especially over programs like Skype. However, close all your other applications and suppress any embarrassing and unexpected pop-ups that will appear during your presentations. It is also always useful to have an assistant to handle the technical and logistical glitches (for instance, a participant has lost her assignment document or needs help with her speakers) when they come up.

 

6.7 When things go wrong

Remember that a measure of success for your web conference is in your participants not seeing the technology at all but focusing on the actual instructor and resources.41

Despite the number of years that web conferencing has been available in the consumer world, there is still a high risk that something will go wrong.42 The true measurement of your ability with this medium is how you handle the problems that inevitably come up. Obviously, it is important to run through the operation of the software with a new user well before the formal presentation so that any obvious problems can be corrected. Users are unlikely to be able to simply switch on their computer and jump into the virtual room.

Build in a backup strategy for both your presentation and the audience. It is often a good idea to remind the participants that they will receive a full recording of the session and other supporting materials (e.g. a pdf of the slides and papers), so they should not worry if their loudspeaker or internet connection fails. For a highly critical presentation, it is even worth considering having another supporting presenter at a different location with his or her own computer to pick up if you have a computer or internet failure. It is important to deal quickly and clinically with complaints from some participants that they are unable to hear you /or have problems with audio or slides by telling them to log off and wait for the recording. It irritates other participants and detracts from your presentation if you have a drawn out litany of complaints over the entire presentation that aren’t quickly resolved. In the worse case where a problem can’t be resolved, it is best to tell the participant to log off and that she will receive a recording shortly.

Technology is often what fails–but there are the inevitable challenges with instructors being sick / having a personal crisis which have to be dealt with.

Prepare all participants for what to do when thing go wrong. Obviously don’t alarm them, but they will be familiar with the vagaries of the internet and are likely to be philosophical about any problems (as long as they don’t occur repeatedly and for similar reasons). We typically tell them that if the audio drops off or the session freezes, not to be concerned. We will be back. It is the long term presentation that matters. If everyone is affected, we will reschedule. For one or two that are affected due to localized problems (their computer freezes, there are internet problems or their loudspeakers don’t work), we promise a recording of the session.

At the opening session ensure that you both mention (and reinforce on the slides) that if something goes wrong you will be regrouping at an alternative time but everyone will be advised by email, a pretty bulletproof medium that always seems to work. Quick action and a strong display that you are in control and managing the situation will defuse lots of problems later. This is where having a moderator or assistant can work wonders and help you recover considerably quicker by emailing all participants.

While we don’t want to alarm you with the list of problems that effectively kill a session partially or completely, over the years we have found that the following are the most common issues (broken into technical and people).

Technical

The simple and most frequent problems are speakers and microphone not working and inability to run the web conferencing package, as it wasn’t tested well before the session. In these cases, it is worth testing out at the commencement of the session and working through the setup so that the user can troubleshoot and remedy the problem themselves.

Internet problems are sometimes difficult to control. If connection problems are intermittent, it is worth persisting with the session. A firewall problem (often corporate) is difficult to deal with at the presentation, as this will block all activity. It is best to get an expert to liaise with the participant’s local IT support before the next session takes place.

Use the phone system as a back up for your VoIP audio being streamed through your web conferencing package. As soon as you identify there is a problem with audio, simply tell the particular participant to dial in on a phone number where you bridge them into the web conference.

Power failures–the instructor loses his power and then can’t present. A colleague of ours, Dr. Rodney Jacobs, who has been presenting to engineering professionals over many years has some valuable tips; all hard won, I might add; “from being there and having done it”. He has a back up power supply and internet connection; he changes between ADSL and 3G wireless broadb and quickly and effectively. He tells everyone at the beginning of the session that he may drop out due to power failures (particularly recently in South Africa) but to hang around for 5 minutes in case he pops back. If there is a power failure (or he knocks the power plug out by mistake), he plugs in his slower mobile phone connection. If this fails, he reschedules for another time. Ensure the presenters have multiple computers so that you can swap over for whatever reason.

You may find that your web conferencing software package is often updated by the vendor and many functions (e.g. PowerPoint slides won’t upload) suddenly don’t work properly as some participants have the latest version and others don’t. In these cases, it is often worth going back to an earlier version of the package or abandoning the session and sending the recording to the participant later.

One challenge that was experienced in using PowerPoint with Breeze was that the video (but not audio) accelerated during playback of the recording.43 An additional problem occurred when the instructor shared his or her screen with students (e.g. with a spreadsheet application), the chat function couldn't be monitored, thus cutting off interaction with the students. A useful trick (even today with the generally reliable software) is to have a fall back virtual room to which students can go to if the one has crashed. Bandwidth can be conserved by replacing live video with individual graphics, and ensuring all those who are not talking switch their microphones off to eliminate any extraneous sounds (even a student's seemingly unobtrusive computer fan can be irritatingly loud). When the session is finished, it is a good idea to, "clean up the room" (delete slides/ getting rid of chat messages/clearing polls and termination sharing) for the next session.

Finally, you may want to consider having an entirely different technology (with different servers) when something happens on your primary server (such as the server crashing). Ensure that your technology can swap over to another server in another part of the world. This should obviate problems with connections to the server or the server itself failing.

People

The presenter sometimes gets sick or is out of sorts and decides to cancel at the last minute. In this case, issue a blanket email to all participants or (preferably) make a phone call and provide a rescheduled time.

Time zone confusion can mean that you forget when to log into your session–both presenters and participants. It is important to emphasize that the local times need to be identified (easy to access from the web) in all communications with participants.

It can sometimes happen that students into the wrong virtual classroom (with a wrong URL) as the organizer gave the incorrect details. Double check any URLs that you are giving out, and always issue the information more than once.

Key points and applications

Chapter 6

The following are the key points and applications from this chapter entitled: Best Practice in Web Conferencing.

1.  Overall, the measure of success in your application of these great technologies (such as web conferencing) is for all participants not to notice the technology, but the actual learning process with instructor and resources.

2.  Design requirements for a good web conferencing package include:

• Participants (including support for different types and platforms, scalability, ideal class size of 20 maximum).

• Media (including high quality audio, confirming all equipment works before session, avoiding only PowerPoint, high quality headset for instructor, focusing on strong visual slides rather than animations).

• Interactivity (including high level between all participants, easy archiving, building in other activities such as software demonstrations, tours of web sites and remote labs).

• Instructor (including driving the session, 100% familiarity with features and operation, knowing what a participant sees and having a back up plan if things don’t work out).

3.  Some key elements before the session commences:

• Practise and practise.

• Ensure you can use all the tools effectively.

• Ensure supporting course materials before the session.

• Underst and your audience.

• Make recordings available.

• Realize that participants will log in ahead of the actual commencement – so have welcoming slides available.

• Advise everyone on possible problems and what to do.

• Start session strongly and on time with an attention grabbing hook.

• Eliminate all disturbances (such as phone or office chatter).

4.  Some key elements at the start of the session:

• Ensure your recording has started.

• Confirm all participants can hear high quality audio and can talk or text.

• Re-affirm back up procedures if things go wrong.

• Use a webcam with high quality lighting and neutral background.

5.  Some key elements during the session:

• Make the session highly interactive (at least every 2 minutes).

• Focus on student learning.

• Allocate microphone to all participants carefully.

• Record presentation if possible.

• Keep interactivity high with ice-breakers, breakout sessions and breaks.

• Apply supporting technology such as application sharing/breakout rooms and web tours to liven up presentation.

• Work your slides with scribbling and polling of audience.

• Be as natural and chatty as possible and avoid one-way lecturing.

• Use simple English and anecdotes/stories to liven up.

6.  Some key elements after the session:

• End on a high note with a brief summary that’s quick, pithy and powerful.

• Thank everyone and give them their next steps regarding application of this knowledge.

• Give them contact details for follow-up discussions.

• Stop recording your session.

7.  Design of Slides and use of Whiteboard should be based around these ideas:

• Keep content simple and apply the KISS principle.

• Large, bold and simple fonts such as Ariel are preferable.

• Never have more than 8 lines of text on a page.

• Keep to a maximum of 4 training points per page.

• Maintain plain backgrounds to your text.

• Avoid complex animations and gimmicks.

8.  High quality audio is absolutely critical and is far more important than video. Ensure that your video doesn’t impact on the quality of audio for your participants.

9.  Full duplex web conferencing may feel more natural and avoids speakers forgetting to hit the talk button, but it can bring in lots of extraneous noise from unthinking participants (e.g. phones ringing and keyboard clattering).

10.  A high level of interactivity is critical and a few suggestions are as follows:

• Turn bulleted lists into a list of true/false questions.

• Perform evaluations online as the material is presented.

• Request random participants to summarise the key points after each section is concluded.

• Interact every two minutes with participants.

• Weave stories into the presentation.

• Ask students to work out calculations on the whiteboard.

• Use application sharing to demonstrate real systems and software.

• Take students on web tours.

• Split students into break-out rooms and manage them carefully.

• Put on your web cam to show yourself as well as any associated working equipment.

11.  Ensure you have an approach to follow when things go wrong:

• Test meticulously with your current set-up before the session commences.

• Advise all participants at the beginning of the session that if anything goes wrong they will receive full recordings and materials.

• Don’t persist with a presentation if there are problems with the internet or audio.

• Use a UPS for back up for areas where power failures are likely.

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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