Designing for the Virtual Interactive Classroom

We’ve all talked about synchronous online collaboration, but new tools may allow us to truly “know” this kind of collaboration for the first time.

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Over the years, faculty have creatively adapted to the asynchronous, text-based environment of the Web and the
online classroom. As a community, we’ve learned that while e-mail and discussion boards aren’t the same as the live classroom, they have their own unique instructional effectiveness. And, indeed, for some interactions and purposes, the online space actually is better. The shy students seem to talk more; students often graciously engage and support each other; they seem to reflect and express more thoughtful ideas in online forums; and busy students can learn anytime, anywhere.

Many online courses do result in vibrant, energetic learning communities. In fact, the positive perception of online learning has grown so fast that a recent survey conducted by the Sloan Consortium (www. sloan-c.org) reports that “a majority of academic leaders believe that online learning quality is already equal to or superior to face-to-face instruction” (www.sloan-c.org/publications/books/surey04.asp). So, what more can we possibly want for online courses? We want to “be” together.

Most of us experience more satisfying interactions when we can see and hear each other in the same space and at the same time. While online interactions support flexibility and convenience, synchronicity provides for more efficient and natural interaction. It is more spontaneous, with more richness of communication information. Answers can be immediate (and not be misspelled!); questions can be clarified; and decisions requiring multiple conversational loops can be arrived at quickly. While an e-mail can take minutes to compose, a question after a real-time class can be addressed in seconds. And while planning an online group meeting requires thinking through and anticipating many variants of the experience and then preparing the directions and guidelines, planning a live discussion requires much less planning: One can adjust in real time, based on feedback and questions.

Yet, what is the outlook for synchronous tools for online learning and meeting? When we gather in the physical classroom, we bundle many types of experiences: We combine lecture demonstrations, discussions, question-and-answer sessions, and large and small group activities. And although many of the traditional synchronous tools were designed with the “lecturer” or “presenter” paradigm in mind, the newer synchronous tools are more specialized and have been designed for collaborative interactions. Most likely, then, we will want a minimum of two to three synchronous tools for the diverse uses that faculty, staff, and students will suddenly discover for synchronous, real-time interaction. The good news is that we are being overwhelmed by the choices and types of tools supporting synchronous interactions. The first generations of tools were expensive, cumbersome, and generally out of reach for normal everyday use. Nothing worked as well as picking up the phone or scheduling a phone conference. Now, that is changing.

Three Scenarios of Synchronous Gatherings

The challenge lies in sorting through the host of synchronous collaboration tools (probably about 50) that support one or more of these types of collaboration. These tools fall into the categories of Web conferencing, videoconferencing, full collaboration, interactive classrooms, and screen sharing. (To follow the evolution and refinement of these tools, a helpful site to visit is www.kolabora.com/tools.htm.) But before opting for a tool type, it’s vital to understand the scenarios they are appropriate for. There are three synchronous scenarios that faculty will want to design into online and blended courses: small group meetings, interactive class meetings, and large class meetings.

Small group meetings (two to six; no more than 10). This scenario supports highly interactive small group meetings of two to six people, combining live audio and video-feeds. Instructional interactions of this type include office hours, team meetings, tutorials, and study groups. John Campbell, associate VP for Teaching and Learning Technologies at Purdue University (IN), recently commented that Purdue wants an “application-sharing tool that is able to be pumped around the world.” The university also wants to provide a tool for students in professional programs to use “almost on-demand” for project meetings and collaborative problem-solving. Faculty and administrators there have been testing Macromedia’s Breeze Live (www.macromedia.com/ software/breeze) for a year, for both small group and interactive classroom meetings. They are planning to expand its use. At the September 2004 e/merge Blended Learning and Collaborative Technologies Conference (www.voxwire.com/ kolabora/emerge), the following features were mentioned by new media communications author and consultant Robin Good as basic capabilities for these small group collaborations: the application-sharing feature mentioned above, text chat, voice-over-IP chat, the ability to record and save the meeting, a feature that provides knowledge of who is present in real time, and some ability to signal to the group. A primary advantage of these tools over low-tech phone conferences is the ability to share applications and jointly see and revise work; it truly enables small-group work in shared time.

What’s more, tools supporting small group meetings can be specialized for this size group and be less demanding than those tools supporting larger groups. In “A Synchronous Online Seminar” (www.powertolearn.com/articles) at Power to Learn 2004, Jim Lengel, dean of the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston, describes how Marratech eMeeting (www.marratech.com), one of the full collaboration tools, supported a synchronous online seminar (SOS) with participants from around the world: France, California, and Massachusetts. Lengel noted that the tool enabled them to “see and hear each other, exchange papers, and sketch things out in diagrams as we talked.” The software resided on a server at Harvard University (MA), and the participants simply downloaded the client software. In addition to the basic computer and high-bandwidth access, for greatest satisfaction these tools do require a good microphone for each participant. Solutions are very cost effective, however. For example, the latest iSight camera from Apple (www.apple.com) includes a high-quality microphone, integrating both the audio and video capabilities.

Interactive class meetings (10 to 30; under 100). This scenario describes the majority of online higher ed classes that share the same time space, but not the same physical space. The kinds of instructional experiences that this type of synchronous tool can support include a live videofeed that enables learners to hear and see a faculty member leading a discussion, performing short concept demonstrations, conducting review sessions, or hosting live interactions with guest experts. In all of these instances, there might be more than one video stream and many audio streams. All of the students in the interactive “classroom” are at their computers in their own homes or offices, or wherever they have high-bandwidth access to the Internet (for now, high bandwidth is a requirement for the full-collaboration and interactive classroom experiences). The basic features mentioned for the small group meeting are also requirements for this type of collaboration. It is particularly important to have the feature of “presence” (the software shows the names of those who are present), plus the ability for participants to “raise their hand” (usually via a hand icon). Other important features include interoperability (suitable for mixed environments of Linux, PC, and Macintosh OS), ease of use, great customer support, and the ability to pilot a tool before making a long-term commitment. This “interactive classroom” category of software often has features that go beyond what is normally available in a campus classroom, highlighting additional communication possibilities in new online environments. In these interactive classrooms, students can “backchannel” talk to each other, engaging each other in processing the lecture content, preparing questions, and even planning after-class meetings. Another tool in this category, Elluminate Live! (www.elluminate.com) has been selected by the Illinois Online Network consortium (www.ion.illinois.edu), to provide synchronous faculty lectures, for virtual office hours, and for archived recordings. The Illinois Virtual Campus (www.ivc .illinois.edu) is planning to use it with their IVCTutor program. Large class meetings (more than 100). Very large class meetings share many of the features desired for a national or global broadcast presentation. The well-known collaborative tools supporting this type of interaction (e.g., HorizonWimba, www.horizonwimba.com; Centra, www.centra.com; and WebEx, www.webex.com) focus on a high-bandwidth video downstream, and audio channels from the participants. The expectation is that the faculty or presenter is in the “lecture” knowledge-transmission mode, with limited expectation of students asking questions or dialoging with the presenter. This software can support interactive communication flow with large groups of students with help from an assistant who might serve to filter and sequence questions. In this mode, these very large class meetings become similar to Webcasts and talk shows. Again, microphones are a key quality feature; any person asking a live question in a collaborative environment needs to be confident that the audio is of high quality. Synchronous tools can return spontaneous interaction even to very large lecture groups; meetings can be recorded and archived for later viewing and reviews via videostreaming.

“Knowing” Synchronous Collaboration
Today, synchronous collaboration software creates a virtual space for real-time events. The ready availability of these tools means that we have synchronous interaction between faculty and students in the design kit for online learning programs. The capabilities of these new tools bring us to a new place that shares many of the capabilities of the old, familiar classroom. We are transforming what we can do online, enabling again the intimacy and spontaneity of Socratic dialog, case-study discussions, and presentations. Yes, we have come a long way from the constraints of text-based-only online courses, and our explorations will be continuous.

Postscript - Added by the author on 6/7/05:
It should be noted that all of the interactive classroom products and services that were listed in the large group scenarios - Horizon Wimba's Live Classroom, Elluminate Live, and Centra Symposium, etc. are also very effective as "interactive classrooms" by smaller groups of 25-35, etc. and for other larger groups under 100 as well. The amount of interactivity is generally most closely associated with the number of people in a class or an event, rather than any particular tool.

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