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.
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”
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
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;
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.