Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Conferencing on the net - using Elluminate

Well, I'm back, after a bit of a blogging hiatus. Life, work and study all just combined to get in the way. However, my interview with an innovator is done (and I hope to blog about it sometime, probably after the assignment based on it is out of the way), and assignment one is completed. It was painful, and a big reason why I've not been blogging!

But, now I am, and this week we are looking at conferencing on the net. We were invited to try out Elluminate Live!, a web-based conferencing system which includes audio, text chat, shared applications, private and shared whiteboards, polls, quizzes and more. Quite a number of OU courses now use Elluminate in some way, and some some H807 students already had experience with it. Other had none. And others, like me, have experience with similar technologies, but not this specific tool.

A group of five of us met in an Elluminate room, moderated by Kate, to try out some of the features. Our task was to discuss and collaboratively annotate a diagram uploaded to the shared whiteboard. Immediately this presented us with a difficulty as the diagram provided, once uploaded was of poor quality, difficult to re-size, and most people found it virtually unreadable.

The following are some of my reflections on the activity.

  • Useful for sharing content
  • Good for introducing and describing a task
  • Collaboration opportunities are good but this needs preparation by the moderator/leader (obviously collaboration doesn't feel like face-to-face, but assuming that that's not possible, this does have uses)
  • Variety of collaboration tools - hopefully this might mean there is something which suits everyone's way of working
  • Being able to hear voices of other students was good. It made people feel more 'real' than just another forum/blog poster.
  • Possible audio problems - echo seems to be a well-known issue
  • Need for preparation in order to guarantee a successful session - does this reduce spontaneity? (Is this any different to needing to prepare effectively for a classroom anyway)
  • Speaking on the audio channel can feel a little like talking to empty space. If no-one responds quickly then you are left wondering whether anyone heard, or whether you were talking nonsense. I suspect use of the gestures and emotions might be more widespread among more experienced users, and might reduce this feeling. Similarly, more use of brief text/audio responses by 'listeners', just so that the speaker knows they were heard might happen more amongst groups who have had experience of being the 'unheard' speaker.
  • Possibly more suited to teacher/trainer delivered learning. Students left to their own devices without sufficient guidance might feel lost or uncertain how to collaborate on a task (although again, this can be a problem in a classroom too).
  • The task needs to be well specified - this may be a case of getting students to prepare in advance. If students don't know how to use the features of the tool then they may well be distracted and miss the point of the learning activity
  • I found multiple talkers confusing - others in the group preferred this to the 'single radio channel' style where one one person could talk at once. I found sound quality problems and difficulties understanding if more than one person spoke simultaneously. People were polite and not deliberately talking over each other, but even small overlaps were tricky for me to deal with. 
  • The supplied resources for this activity were poor - or at least we felt they were. We had a number of still images, screenshots taken from an interactive global warming simulation tool. I think we were trying to pretend to use the simulation, which was clearly not possible from a still image. If we had focused on discussing the Elluminate tools which could be used to teach using a still image on the whiteboard then we might have been less frustrated (although in fact, image resolution was also poor, so we would not have been satisfied. This highlighted that there may be a need to prepare (or at least test) resources specifically for this medium.
  • I found it very easy and intuitive to use - but not all in the group agreed. I have an IT background and it's part of my job to pick up new tools quickly. I've used similar tools before, and was able to transfer knowledge with no difficulties. While this was nice for me it points out the need to be aware of varied experiences and backgrounds of students participating in a session. Different students can have very different experiences of the same conference 'experience'!
  • There are a number of features we didn't experiment with which I would like to try, including polls, quizzes and the web tour feature.
  • The number of communication 'channels' (voice, text chat, whiteboard, gestures/emotions etc) can become confusing or even overwhelming. Students may not know where to focus attention. Students may also attribute different value to the various modes, e.g. I preferred text chat to voice and saw it as an equivalent medium, but some people saw the text box as a peripheral channel.
Take-away messages
  • Students need training (time and practise) in using the tool's features - otherwise the technology could get in the way of the learning.
  • Going back to the theme of affordances - different tools will suit different jobs. Elluminate won't be a panacea for all distance-learning collaborative activities. 

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