Elluminate: A Resource for Building Community within the Ohio Learning Network

By Cable T. Green
Ohio Learning Network

The Ohio Learning Network (www.oln.org) is charged by the Ohio Board of Regents with assisting colleges and universities to prepare for the knowledge economy. As such, OLN works closely and cooperatively with Ohio’s public and private institutions of higher education to meet this mission. A common course catalog (OhioLearns!) to help Ohioans locate online courses, E 4 ME, an innovative online course to give new learners a taste of eLearning, shared WebCT, Blackboard, and open source infrastructure to provide efficient hosting services, professional development communities, student services through regional coordinator outreach, grant programs, and an annual conference are among the services established by OLN to meet this mission.

To provide this basket of services requires a lot of participation from Ohio institutions and substantial facilitation from Columbus-based OLN. And, while Columbus is located almost in the exact center of the state, many of the member institutions are at least two hours away by car. Faced with the need to meet regularly to implement its many projects, and challenged by the busy schedules and increasingly costly travel of the multiple committee members, we’ve begun to “walk the walk” of eLearning by convening an increasing number of our meetings as electronic conferences. For more than two years, we have used Elluminate (www.elluminate.com), within our broader Learning Times online community, as our online meeting platform.

We have licensed two Elluminate “rooms” in which to hold our electronic meetings. One is a “pop-in” room that can accommodate five users simultaneously and the other is able to convene a meeting of 25 participants. Both rooms provide a full complement of shared services including: application sharing, audio and video, a text-based chat that can be channeled as private or group communication, Web tours, multimedia playback, an interactive whiteboard, breakout rooms for sub-committee work, several decision making tools such as polling and quizzing to help the group select among competing proposals, and the ability to record, archive, and playback sessions.

Elluminate works best under the control of a trained moderator. I first worked with the Elluminate staff in 2002 to develop a set of skills and have practiced them in more than 250 meetings since. Prior to any online meeting, I ask all members if they are comfortable with the technology and strongly suggest private training sessions for first timers. This training usually requires about 10 minutes to make most users feel at ease in the Elluminate environment and able to participate.

Like any meeting, online meetings are most successful when there is a pre-existing agenda, an experienced moderator, and participants with knowledge of how to participate. I make it a point to send out the agenda at least two weeks before the meeting, and include documents, PowerPoints, and Websites we’ll be discussing in the meeting. In addition, I paste all main agenda points on the Elluminate whiteboard. As we move through the agenda, all participants can and do add their comments (in different colored text) to the whiteboard. After the meeting, I save the whiteboard notes as the meeting minutes and post them to the committee’s shared file space in our Learning Times community.

While we have generally been very happy with Elluminate, we have found it especially well suited for some types of meetings and not as well suited for others. When there is a clearly defined agenda, when people participate sequentially, and when materials are available that can be shared in the common whiteboard, the Elluminate environment serves extremely well. Because of the simplex nature of the audio (only one speaker at a time), brainstorming sessions have been less successful. We continue to work on passing the role of moderator among group members, since moderator style greatly influences the nature, conduct, and perhaps outcomes of the meeting. Moderating requires an additional set of skills than simply participating, but this is no different than in traditional face-face meetings.

As one example of the kind of work we conduct, two-thirds of OLN’s Emerging Technologies Committee meetings are conducted via Elluminate. The committee consists of 15 members and we all convene at the appointed time for a three hour session. One of the functions of the Emerging Technology Committee is to identify the kinds of technologies that we would like to explore as a state during the coming year to continually improve our methods for supporting and delivering online education. Conferencing technologies, and in particular Elluminate, is one technology the committee has identified to explore. Toward that end, I support experiments at our various member schools that have needs for such software. For example, Ohio State University is holding a conference on electronic democracy and citizen participation and Elluminate will serve as the platform for planners, policy makers, and other conference attendees to meet and discuss community issues and broadening citizen participation.

OLN is also using Elluminate for a free webinar series highlighting Ohio experts’ use of and successful practices with student learning and educational technologies. And the Ohio Board of Regents has more than 40 faculty committees using Elluminate to define transfer assurance guides in approximately 44 different subject areas, so course credit can be more easily transferred between Ohio institutions. Projects such as these help OLN fulfill its mission to assist its members and at the same time trains college and university staff so they can participate in future OLN electronic meetings.

In closing, I would like to note OLN is highly supportive of the inclusive features that Elluminate is rolling out in its most recent (6.5) release. In support of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Elluminate Live! 6.5 will offer such features as: multiple closed captioning streams, increased font sizes for text messages, high contrast settings, automatic detection of platform color schemes, and compliance with screen reader products (e.g., JAWS and Narrator). These enhancements will allow broader representation in our electronic community sharing and decision making, as well as encourage accessible online learning offerings for Ohioans.

Cable Green (cgreen@oln.org) is Director of Technology for the Ohio Learning Network.

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