Thing 9: Web Conferencing

‘Web Conferencing’ by Dom Pates/Globalism Pictures (CC-BY)

This is a cross-post between WordPress and Medium.

Thing 9 in the 23 Things journey looks at a couple of web conferencing tools — Google Hangouts and Collaborate Ultra. I’ve not used Collaborate Ultra, but have used Google Hangouts a few times. These included as part of the onscreen audience at a VConnecting Hangout during ALT-C this year and to conduct an online focus group as part of the research for an MA essay on the impact on learning of the disembodiment of the educator within a digitally-networked environment (resulting paper here: dpates-termpaper-3).

I’ve used many different systems for synchronously connecting with people online, in a learning context or otherwise. Aside from Google Hangouts, these have included Skype, Skype for Business, Microsoft Lync, WebEx, GoToMeeting, Adobe Connect, and FaceTime, amongst others. They don’t all share the same features or meet the same needs — you’d struggle to share your screen via FaceTime and wouldn’t be likely to catch up with your mother over Adobe Connect — but they all allow people to connect with each other over the Internet and at a bare minimum, include voice.

In a previous role, I delivered over 60 hours of IT systems training remotely, so also have a reasonable degree of experience in using web conferencing technologies for facilitating learning. I thought I’d use this reflective post to bring together a handful of things I’ve picked up along the way that have helped me to deliver better live online learning experiences. They’re learning-centred, but could equally apply to online meetings, I guess. Mostly all tips:

  1. A lot of these online learning meetings are often referred to as ‘webinars’ (a portmanteau of ‘web-based’ and ‘seminar’). However, the term is used differently in different contexts. The seminar element might assume participants doing most of the interacting, but when ‘webinar’ is used in a marketing context, it usually refers to an online presentation with very limited audience interaction. The Learning and Performance Institute (LPI) uses the term ‘live online learning’.
  2. I’m a Certified Online Learning Facilitator (COLF), via a course from the LPI. Although the LPI focuses on workplace learning, the skills and content covered in this course are really helpful for anyone looking to deliver quality live online learning experiences.
  3. Prepare well. This can’t be stated enough and should include the chance for participants to test their connection and audio features before the live event.
  4. The best online learning experiences will involve plenty of tasks or interactions for participants. This is crucial given that people are typically joining from a remote PC and can become easily distracted. The COLF course recommends incorporating interactions into a session every 5–7 minutes.
  5. Vary the types of interaction too, to keep things fresh. These could include spoken responses to questions, written responses in a chatroom, group input to shared whiteboard, online polls, or even breakout rooms (quite ambitious to facilitate effectively).
  6. These sessions are best conducted with each individual connecting from a quiet place, and preferably with a fixed-line Internet connection rather than over wifi. This will minimise distractions and improve the stability of the connection during the session.
  7. Use a USB headset — this combines hearing and speaking into one device and is a common standard used in most computers.
  8. It’s often worth only allowing one speaker at a time to use a mic to speak. Otherwise, there are too many potential other inputs into the audio signal that everyone will receive and this can be both very disruptive and too difficult to troubleshoot when also facilitating a session. Multiple mic inputs is often why many conference calls run over web conferencing systems sound awful.
  9. A video/webcam feed is rarely needed for a live online learning session. It can take too much bandwidth and can be an unnecessary distraction. The counter to this would be Google Hangouts, where video is key to the experience.
  10. If you’re going to be recording it for participants to access after the event, remember to press record before things start.

What tips would you add to this list?