Friday, December 17, 2010

Being Ready (and Willing) to Teach (and Learn) Online

"Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one's self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily." - Thomas Szasz
Everett Rogers, in The Diffusion of Innovations, identified five stages to the diffusion of innovations: (1) knowledge; (2) persuasion; (3) decision; (4) implementation; and (5) confirmation. A scholar with the same last name, Patricia Rogers, found that innovation in higher education often stalled at the implementation stage because of several interrelated barriers: funding, release time, training, and technical support among them. Other researchers have cited faculty compensation, issues related to organizational change, political factors, and pressure to increase enrollments as barriers to technology adoption in higher education. A recent study by Surry, Grubb, Ensminger, and Ouimette surveyed faculty from 660 colleges of education accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education to determine what barriers and enablers to implementation of Web-based learning were perceived in their institutions.
Importantly, faculty who had never taught a Web-based course saw time as a key barrier to implementation, while faculty who had taught such courses did not list time as problematic. These same non-users - faculty who had never taught Web-based courses - thought flexibility might be an advantage to teaching such a course, while their experienced colleagues who had taught them did not recognize greater flexibility as an advantage. The most commonly listed suggestion from non-users and experienced Web instructors alike was that training was essential to implementation at their institutions. There were statistically significant gender differences in the responses, with females perceiving their institutions' preparedness more favorably than males and males self-reporting their own technological readiness higher than did females.
There have been numerous efforts to assess students' perceptions of barriers and enablers to online instruction. The 2010 Student Readiness Report found that females who preferred online courses had higher means on individual attributes and typing accuracy while males who favored online instruction had higher means on reading rates and technical knowledge. The Louisiana Board of Regents uses SORT (Student Online Readiness Tool) to measure students' readiness for online courses. SORT includes measures of technology experience, access to tools, study habits, lifestyle factors, student goals, and learning preferences in its assessment. Portland State University provides a self-assessment tool for students designed to help students realize that online classes require self-motivation and self-discipline (log in regularly, interact with online discussions, complete assignments, etc.), time management, technical and computer skills, and communication skills (including "netiquette").
San Diego City College has an Online Learning Readiness Assessment designed to determine whether students have the "technical and student skills" necessary to succeed in an online course. There are 20 questions in this tool (modified below):
1. My reason for taking an online course
2. How often can you log into your online course?
3. How much time will you spend studying and interacting with your online course?
4. How do you rate traditional classroom discussion with an instructor and other students?
5. How much help do you need when an instructor hands out directions for an assignment?
6. How do you prefer information to be presented?
7. Are you motivated to meet deadlines?
8. If you have a disability, do you know who to contact for assistance?
9. If you don't understand an assignment, do you know who to contact?
10. Are you comfortable working with computers?
11. Are you comfortable with file management?
12. Do you know how to use a word processor?
13. Are you comfortable using an Web browser?
14. Are you comfortable using e-mail?
15. Are you comfortable using a mouse?
16. How are your keyboarding skills?
17. What will you do if your computer breaks down or you lose your Internet connection?
18. What speed is your Internet connection?
19. Are you comfortable downloading and installing programs?
20. Where would you go for technical support?
Similar questions might be useful for a faculty member considering teaching an online course. We need to know more about what helps online instructors master their courses and virtual classrooms so that we can help others make the transition more smoothly. But we're definitely in Stage 4 (Implementation) of online innovation, with many signs that confirmation (the final stage) has become widespread. Thousands of faculty members have decided to continue teaching online and to use tools like Confer to maximize the potential of this innovation. 
Are you ready?

Friday, December 10, 2010

V-Portals from the Open World

Curt Bonk, author of The World is Open, announced in his blog last week that he has designed and produced a series of 27 brief (7 to 10 minutes each) videos about teaching online. He's calling it the "V-Portal" for "Video Primers in an Online Repository for e-Teaching And Learning" and you can access the series at the V-Portal here. They're also conveniently available on YouTube here as a playlist. I recommend them for anyone interested in professional development, individual discovery, or introducing a topic related to online instruction to an audience or planning group.

Here's the topic list:
1. Planning an Online Course
2. Managing an Online Course: General
3. Managing an Online Course: Discussion Forums
4. Providing Feedback
5. Reducing Plagiarism
6. Building Community
7. Building Instructor and Social Presence
8. Online Relationships: Student-Student, Student-Instructor, Student-Practitioner, Student-Self
9. Fostering Online Collaboration/Teaming
10. Finding Quality Supplemental Materials
11. Blended Learning: General
12. Blended Learning: Implementation
13. Blended Learning: The Future
14. Online Writing and Reflection Activities
15. Online Visual Learning
16. Using Existing Online Video Resources
17. Webinars and Webcasts
18. Podcasting Uses and Applications
19. Wiki Uses and Applications
20. Blog Uses and Applications
21. Collaborative Tool Uses and Applications
22. Hands-On/Experiential Learning
23. Coordinating Online Project, Problem, and Product-Based Learning
24. Global Connections and Collaborations
25. Assessing Student Online Learning
26. Ending, Archiving, Updating, and Reusing an Online Course
27. Trends on the Horizon

Each video provides a good overview of its topic and suggestions for instructors considering using the relevant technology. For example, Topic 17 (Webinars and Webcasts) mentions most of the major players in the Web conferencing and lecture capture arena, with examples, and includes these suggestions for instructors:
  • Have an orientation/practice session before your first "live" Web conference with students
  • Check (at least 15-20 minutes early) to make your equipment works
  • Explain the purpose of the session/task
  • Schedule breaks for your students
  • Avoid talking for more than 15 or 20 minutes without pausing
  • Use polls or surveys to engage students
  • Archive the event for students who miss it
  • Review what you've covered at the end of the session
  • Follow up a synchronous experience with an asynchronous one (or vice versa)
  • Hang a "Do Not Disturb" sign outside your office door (and keep water handy)
  • Select a time that takes all students into account
  • Embed synchronous sessions where and when they best fit
  • Create an agenda for each session
  • Give students tips and guidelines for the Web conferencing technology
  • Be highly organized but flexible
  • Attend faculty development sessions on Web conferencing if possible
Good advice, and well presented! Thank you, Dr. Bonk.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Future of Higher Education is Online. (Get Over It.)

"Those in higher education who continue hand-wringing over the relative merits of online learning and other technology-driven platforms will soon find themselves left in the dust of an up-and-coming generation of students who are seeking knowledge outside academe." - Jack Stripling, Inside Higher Ed

Last month, college leaders apparently came to that conclusion at the TIAA-CREF 2010 Higher Education Leadership Conference. Mary Spilde, President of Lane Community College in Oregon, said that today's students are "pretty bored with what we do." David Millron of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation suggested that "we are not far from the day when a student, finding unsatisfactory reviews of a faculty member on, will choose to take a class through open courseware online and then ask his home institution to assess him." Talk about the tail wagging the dog!

A recent special edition of the Chronicle Review was dedicated entirely to online learning. Marc Parry's article declares, "the classroom of the future features face-to-face, online, and hybrid learning. And the future is here." Salmon Khan of the Khan Academy says "YouTube U. Beats YouSnooze U." and passionately argues for a new paradigm to replace lectures and textbooks as they are traditionally employed. His not-for-profit and open-source-based academy has the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. And Mark Milliron (also from the Gates Foundation) simply states, "Enough already." The "family feud" needs to stop so that we can teach today's students and maintain our relevance. The debate about which is better - online or face-to-face - no longer resonates. What's most obvious and disturbing is that our global competitors are doing a better job than we are at educating at-risk, low-income, minority, and part-time students. And they're doing this largely via online instruction and learning opportunities.

There are economic reasons to end the feud, aside from those related to unserved populations. At the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities annual conference, Christopher Edley, dean of UC Berkeley's Law School, said "It's abundantly clear that the bricks-and-mortar model is unsustainable if we want to preserve our mission." The University of California projects a $4.7 billion budget gap over the next ten years. Edley maintains that 25,000 new students could be served online for $50 million, but would also generate $180 million for the system. His pilot program of online courses is designed to generate revenue the UC badly needs simply to survive. This practical acknowledgment is echoed in a report from the Legislative Analyst's Office, “Using Distance Education to Increase College Access and Efficiency,” which urges college administrators to increase college access by offering more online classes.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanks and Gratitude for Educational Heroes

"One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul." ~Carl Jung

"If a doctor, lawyer, or dentist had 40 people in his office at one time, all of whom had different needs, and some of whom didn't want to be there and were causing trouble, and the doctor, lawyer, or dentist, without assistance, had to treat them all with professional excellence for nine months, then he might have some conception of the classroom teacher's job." ~Donald D. Quinn

For you, I don't know why
But you, make it all clear

And you, wrap it up perfectly

For you, I'll do my best

You never taught me how to win,

But to be justified

You never told me what to do,

You just guided me through it

The paths were all laid,

But you let me run so free

You never carried me to the grass,

You let me swim the seas

For you, is why I am here today

But you, are half the reason

And you, let me make mistakes

So for you, I learn from them.

- Jenessa Irene Hopkins
Secret Gratitude

Friday, October 29, 2010

Who Owns My Lecture?

"If I write a book, it’s copyrighted in my name and so it’s my property, not UCLA’s. But my lectures aren’t copyrighted. Would they be if they were online? I don’t know.”  - Blake Allmendinger, quoted here.

A growing number of instructors are taking their face-to-face classes online in places like the Confer classroom. The lectures and sessions they capture (archive) are available, in many cases, free to anyone who browses the archives on our Web site. (Note: the instructor can decide - at any time - to make archives private.) While many of these lectures have limited value, some may have timeless value: the ideas shared are true today and will be just as true tomorrow and next year. CCC Confer is not unique in this trend: MIT Open Courseware offers nearly 2,000 courses, Apple's iTunes U has content from more than 600 universities, and YouTube EDU has thousands of captured lectures (including a channel from the California Community Colleges).

Technology makes it possible for instructors to distribute educational content to a worldwide audience, and to empower students to receive that content when and how they find it convenient. At the same time, some faculty members worry about the lack of control over distribution they may have once the content is made available on the Web. It can be shared with other students, posted elsewhere, perhaps even distorted if a talented (and highly motivated!) student takes the time to download, edit, and re-post the content.

As I write this blog, I'm listening to a stream of music MP3s playing on my computer's media player. Hundreds of artists originally performed this music in studios and arenas and other venues, probably without ever imagining or intending that I would use them as I am. There was a time when I had to buy albums from music stores, extract individual tunes and reformat them to compose a medley like this one, but that time is (thankfully) long gone. I think this is relevant.

We in higher education are not record labels. We don't have the same mission, but we now face similar issues. Professors have a right to payment for their work just as artists deserve to be paid for their work. At the same time, we're likely to see more "unbundling" of that work, more "mashing" of content in ways that are useful to individual students and divergent from the original intent of its delivery. Sites like DiplomaGuide and Khan Academy are early - and hardly imaginative - examples.

If you're worried about archiving your lectures because you want to protect intellectual property, I understand. I suggest using an opening screen that declares your rights to the content you're making available and the terms of use you deem acceptable. Naturally, you'll need to clear this with your employer, who may have other ideas about ownership and rights.

Meanwhile, I welcome your opinions and insights. Post them here or e-mail me.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Why We Love to Confer

"It has become commonplace to say that today's culture is marked by a ubiquitous computer technology. This has been true for some time... What is important to the educator-as-anthropologist, however, is that they exist as objects that people see, and start to accept, as part of the reality of everyday life. And at the same time that this massive penetration of the technology is taking place, there is a social movement afoot with great relevance for the politics of education... As an educational utopian I want to know what kind of computer culture can grow in communities where there is not already a rich technophilic soil. I want to know and I want to make it happen." - Seymour Papert, Mindstorms.

What makes instructors change their approach to instruction and adopt a new technology like Confer? What changes their mind, makes them learn new skills and expose themselves to the risk of embarrassment and failure?

Irene Palacios came to use CCC Confer because she needed a way to meet with her online students for office hours. She tried several other products first, but she was attracted to the quick, high-quality Confer interface, excellent support, and price (free). Irene says, "If you're not really good with technology, if you don't have a lot of time and a lot of money, and you want a quality product, Confer is the only way." Irene's students responded immediately, and it became so popular she found it hard to keep up with the demand.

Michael McKeever was attracted to CCC Confer because he had a need to expand his classroom outside the physical walls. His classroom had to be portable; he has taught his Santa Rosa Junior College students from the Phillipines, from Washington DC, from hotel rooms, and from wherever he travels. Confer gives Michael the freedom to attend events and do things he would not ordinarily do because he can bring his classroom with him wherever he goes.

Robin Rogers Cloud discovered that teaching art to online students actually became easier to do with Confer than did teaching art to students in a "normal" classroom. She believes that this tool has changed education for artists, and has revolutionized her classroom. She now has more time with her online students, and these students now actually prefer the online sessions to those she offers in the traditional classroom.

Donna Eyestone has learned something about teaching simply by using the Confer tools. She observes that students love this tool and show genuine interest in what they're doing and learning because of the "buzz" this virtual classroom helps to foster. By allowing her to give students a sense of who Donna is, Confer makes it easier to keep students engaged and excited. As Donna says, "every student has a front row seat."

Larry Green was never going to teach an online class before he encountered CCC Confer. He didn't believe that online classes allowed for the kind of spontaneity and interaction that he finds vital to the teaching of math. Now, Larry claims that teaching with Confer is actually better than face-to-face. One of the attractions for Larry is that no one tells him how he has to use it.

These five instructors independently discovered that Confer was ideal for their specific teaching requirements. While they may have been able to appreciate each others' observations about the relative merits of the virtual classroom, it seems likely from their stories that each of them needed to see specifically what they were able to see before they could be convinced that the ordeal of adopting a new technology was worth the effort. Michael, for example, might have appreciated Robin's enthusiasm for the visual immediacy of the whiteboard, but he would not have migrated to Confer without also seeing that his classroom could be portable. Now, each of them sees CCC Confer as a natural and normal part of teaching and their everyday life.

Seymour Papert envisioned this kind of penetration in the sixties, and he observed the social revolution that was taking place at the same time. Today, the ubiquity of the Web and pervasive social media set the stage for discoveries like these in classrooms and offices everywhere. We need a "rich technophilic soil" less than we need light to shed on the rich garden that's already growing around us.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Are You There? Presence in the Confer Classroom

"Some people, when they teach, are right there with the rest of us... others seem imprisoned in their own space, on the far side of an unbridgeable gulf. And of course there’s an abundance of positions in between... These differences in the degree of presence seem so obvious, so tangible that you would almost think there could be an instrument that would register them, not only from one teacher to another, but even, with a single teacher, from one session to another or even one moment to another." - Jerry Farber, "Teaching and Presence" in Pedagogy, Volume 8, Issue 2, Spring 2008, p. 215.

Garrison, Anderson, and Archer developed the COI (Communities of Inquiry) model, pictured in the graphic above, which posits that the learning experience is a function of social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence. Social presence is the quality that allows online participants to feel affectively connected with one another. Teaching presence - what Jerry Farber was discussing - is a sense of immediacy, openness, and spontaneity on the part of the instructor. Cognitive presence stems from the concepts of John Dewey and the need for integrated thought and action along with discourse and reflection.

How do you ensure teacher presence in the Confer classroom? One way is to ask questions designed to provoke your students and draw out their thoughts. Can you stimulate them into thinking about what you've taught them or even about how they feel about the content you've presented? And can you do this in a natural, spontaneous manner, even though you've done it several times before?

This latter part - making even a repeated, routine part of your lesson plan seem new and fresh - is the key. It isn't so much how well you know how to post a question to the whiteboard or present a poll to students. It isn't even a matter of making sure students are allowed to voice their questions. It's about BEING THERE when you teach: not giving in to what Farber calls "pedagogical mindlessness." Do your online students sense that you're actually present for them when you teach? Or are you spewing thoughts at them, going through the motions of listening to them or reading their chat responses, and not really paying attention to what's happening in the classroom right now?

Don't settle for less than full presence in your classroom. This is Farber's first point: that presence is most likely to occur if you insist on it. Make full teaching presence a standard by which you judge every online session with your students.

Watch what's happening. Farber also suggests that every student - every online participant - is doing something all the time. How are they engaging with you, individually and as a group?

Watch your energy. You're teaching at a particular moment in your life, and full presence requires all the energy you can muster at this time. What can you draw on that will give you the strength and stamina to focus fully on this moment and your time with your students?

It's certainly easier to hide behind a veneer of formality or a predetermined script. It's not only easier: it's safer, because being present makes you vulnerable to mistakes and criticisms. But it's what your students - and you as a teacher - deserve.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Control? Give Some Away to Keep It

"If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough." - Mario Andretti

You, the instructor, have total control of the online classroom - if you want it. You can keep your students quiet by taking away their voices. You can deny them chat privileges. You can even decide not to archive your meeting, thus forcing students to attend "live" in order to hear what you have to say. Everything they see, hear, and sense can be completely controlled by you - if, of course, your students decide to stay in your controlled classroom and ignore the text messages, e-mails, Facebook pokes, Tweets, and myriad other options available to them while you're teaching.

It's a little scary to give up control, but it may be necessary if you want to keep it. Sharing power with students is not an invitation to chaos: it's a recognition that students aren't really stupid, and they'll figure out what they can and can't get away with in most situations. At least one of their objectives in your course is to get a good grade, so they'll be looking for ways to "work your system" to accomplish that with the least effort. While you're lecturing in your controlled, question-free, interruptionless classroom, they'll be multi-tasking (or sleeping) without any way for you to check on their reactions or attention level. So who's really in control?

Most instructors in the Confer classroom have made a conscious decision to add more interaction - and give away some control - to their online sessions. And they've learned, by trial and error, how much control they're comfortable giving to students.

Marc Knobel discovered that there were lots of things going on at once when he taught math using Confer. He was talking, working with a graphics tablet, watching students as they arrived late to his classroom, monitoring the chat area for students' questions, and trying to teach. As he says in this clip, it took him a long time to learn to be comfortable with this type of confusion, and he settled on a few privileges - voice and chat - for his students. Giving away the whiteboard was not a viable option.

Larry Green, who also teaches math using Confer, tried giving whiteboard privileges to his students, and discovered "it was a free-for-all!" He had no whiteboard left once the students started drawing. Now, he reserves the whiteboard for himself while he's demonstrating problem-solving, and then gives the privilege to students one at a time. For example, one student draws a single point on the whiteboard graph, and Larry then gives the whiteboard tool to another student to draw a second point, and so on. This controlled sharing of power engages student participation without leaving the instructor completely powerless.

Robin Rogers Cloud, an art instructor, loves the participation she gets in her online Art Critique classes. She lets students talk, and says, "I can't get them to shut up now." In her face-to-face classes, they're often too shy to participate, but speaking up online seems to produce less inhibitions.

Students learn best when they actively participate in courses and take responsibility for their learning. In the Confer classroom, experimentation with power-sharing will show you what works best for you and your students, but here are some suggestions:
  • Start with small adjustments: give privileges sparingly and see what works
  • Ask questions often at first, and see how students prefer to respond (e.g., by chat, orally, whiteboard, or polling)
  • Use student feedback to guide discussion. If you ask a question, do something with the answers you get.
  • Create an assignment that allows students to tell you what they like best and least about the Confer classroom and their use of it. (And do something about what you learn from their answers.)

Friday, September 10, 2010

What Makes a Good Online Teacher?

Passion! Come to your online class with passion or be prepared for unresponsive, apathetic students. Passion in the Confer classroom radiates from your voice and the comments you make to encourage your class to participate and to make your class memorable.

Knowledge. It's logical that if you don't know what you're talking about, you can't teach it. And if you only know the "book learning" but can't express how to put your knowledge into practice, you're unlikely to satisfy today's students.

Accessibility. Every student deserves your individual attention. In the Confer classroom, there are plenty of tools for eliciting responses from your students, and you'll want to use them all to ensure that the unique personalities and talents of every student are respected and allowed expression.

Adaptability. It's nice when your preparation and organization are rewarded, but in the synchronous online classroom, instructors learn to expect the unexpected and adapt to them. Can you grin when your presentation doesn't load properly or students flood your chat area with questions or irrelevant comments? Can you change your plans when they stop working?

Magnificence. That's right: be magnificent. The best teachers convey a sense of elegance, grace, and bravura that mesmerizes students and makes them want to do their best. Using chat, impromptu polls, zany drawings, or engaging presentations - or simply exuding a personable style - they bring students into the experience of learning.

Fun. Enjoy yourself online. Smile, laugh at yourself, and allow students to make mistakes and laugh about them as well. Teaching is serious business, yes. But it's also fun. Break the ice and allow yourself to be human.

I'm sure there are more qualities you've seen in good online teachers. Tell me about them! Your comments are welcome.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Online Students: How Do We Keep Them?

“Online students can be better retained, experience greater course satisfaction, and learn more in less time with greater ease and confidence when an online course is linked to an Academic Support System and is designed with activities and information that assist them to become a collegial group and to learn more effectively and efficiently.”  - Christ, F.L. Achieving student retention, satisfaction, and success through online pedagogy. A presentation at TechEd Long Beach, February 26, 2002.

One of the major concerns of online education is student retention. Students drop out of some online courses as rapidly as they sign up for them, often because there are poor information resources or opportunities for assistance in the online environment. Who's responsible for keeping the student in the online class? Is it the student, the instructor, the institution, or the technology? In many ways, the answer is: All of the above.

Laurie Huffman conducted a two-year study of retention and performance factors in online courses. Her study showed that the classes that used Confer (live Web conferencing) in at least a portion of the learning environment had a higher retention rate, success rate and persistence rate, as well as better achievement results.

Patt McDermid, who runs an Online Writing Center with Jeanne Guerin at Sierra College, discovered that the addition of a live tutoring resource (CCC Confer) resulted in 100% retention in language arts classes, and in dramatic improvements across all disciplines.

 As Patt says, "If you can point to students who succeed, that is real material gains and benefits... It's nice that everybody (just about) finished the courses [compared to 79% of those who did not use Confer and the Writing Center]... Our success rate is 92%. That puts in the shade the on-ground classes in our English department."

The Sierra College student comments from the Online Writing Center tell the story best (of course). "The cohesiveness of the essay is probably what makes me the most proud, and it really comes from what you taught me." "Whenever I doubted myself, I would make an appointment and have help when needed."

 Students are more likely to stick it out in your classes when they feel they can get the help or reassurance they need when it's needed. By building in a live, synchronous component, we make it possible for them - and us - to succeed.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Participation = Learning

"Learning is a social process that occurs through interpersonal interaction within a cooperative context. Individuals, working together, construct shared understandings and knowledge." - David Johnson, Roger Johnson and Karl Smith, Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom, Edina, MN: Interaction Book Co., 1991.

"I entered the classroom with the conviction that it was crucial for me and every other student to be an active participant, not a passive consumer...[a conception of] education as the practice of freedom.... education that connects the will to know with the will to become. Learning is a place where paradise can be created." - Bell Hooks, Teaching to Transgress, NY: Routledge, 1994.

Instructors using the Confer classroom have found many activities that support learning objectives in this specific online environment, away from the face-to-face classroom. Some even contend that participation is greater in this milieu because all students have an equal opportunity to participate (as my friend Donna Eyestone says, "Every student has a front-row seat") and share ideas.

Robin Rogers Cloud observes that all students in her online class participate in discussions, much more so than do those in her face-to-face classes. She thinks there are less social barriers to participation in the online classroom.

Michael McKeever uses breakout rooms to get his online students to work together on multiple pieces of equipment in his virtual lab.

Irene Palacios actually allows students to have moderator privileges so that she can elicit their participation and give them real-time math instruction and constructive criticism.

Larry Green had to adjust his communication preferences to get participation from his math students: although talking was not popular in his Confer classroom, chatting was a big hit.

The best Confer classrooms are not lecture halls. They're places where students are free to participate in their own learning and to make discoveries through active interaction with content, the instructor, and one another.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Blackboard, Elluminate, and Wimba (Oh My!)

On July 7, 2010, Blackboard announced that it is buying Elluminate and Wimba, two Web conferencing systems very familiar to users of CCC Confer. The intent is to create Blackboard Collaborate, which will focus on synchronous learning technologies. Since the announcement, many have called and written me with concerns about the future of Confer and the general prospects for Web conferencing software in education.

This Looks Familiar
Way back in 1989, I wrote a book about utility software for personal computers. The dominant operating system at the time - MS-DOS - needed a lot of help to get things to work well, and I used 256 pages to describe disk defragmenting programs, backup utilities, DOS shells, screen capture software, and the like. Within a few years, nearly everything my book described was unnecessary because Microsoft had incorporated these utilities into its operating system, either by developing them or by buying the companies or software that already accomplished the task.

Ten years later, I was at a college of education trying to support an online tutoring project for middle schoolers. We settled on software from Tutornet because it allowed us to connect graduate students at our college with students in remote classrooms for live, interactive chat and whiteboard activities. Within a year, Blackboard acquired the Tutornet software and incorporated it into a new product the company called Virtual Classroom.

I came to CCC Confer in 2003. We were working at that time with a company called HorizonLive, a supplier of Web conferencing software that made real-time interaction and content delivery possible. HorizonLive later became HorizonWimba when Wimba - at the time a developer of voice tools - joined their team, and still later the company shortened its name to Wimba. Many longtime Confer users will remember that we made a switch from Wimba to Elluminate at about this time - not because of the name change but because of a detailed analysis of both software packages and the needs of our users.

What's the Point?
My point is that good companies look for ways to bolster their product lines, and this is nothing new. Microsoft acquired many of the utility software companies I wrote about and incorporated them into their own system. Blackboard acquired Tutornet, and HorizonLive acquired (or was acquired by) Wimba to make its Web conferencing software more competitive.

So now, apparently, Blackboard has taken a bigger interest in synchronous online learning. Great! We've known about and worked with this kind of powerful collaboration for years, so it's certainly time that major "Learning Management Systems" (I admit I have trouble with the phrase) recognize the importance of real-time online learning experiences. We've even known who had the best options available, so it's heartening to know that Blackboard expanded its synchronous software portfolio by choosing the two companies that had the best products, as indicated by our own experience.

Now What?
According to Ray Henderson, President of Blackboard Learn, "we intend to sustain the product integrations and business partnerships Elluminate and Wimba enjoyed with our competitors. Both had projects underway to integrate with major open source products, and both had business partnerships and integrations with the major commercial platforms. Our message to the industry is that we intend to sustain this work and the partnerships." Maurice Heiblum, the new President of Blackboard Collaborate, assured me of the same thing earlier this week. The posted FAQs say, "We’ll honor all existing contracts for Elluminate and Wimba clients. We’ll also honor all renewal agreement terms that have been extended." So nothing has changed - yet.

I'm glad my friends at both companies will be able to work together at what they know and love, and I hope Maurice, Carol and Ray will forge bonds quickly that bring out the best of both Elluminate and Wimba worlds. On the CCC front, Confer continues to serve a very large user base with the same small and talented team, so there will be no effect on our communications or services to our end users. And our mission remains the same, regardless of which partnerships we forge (or undo) to fulfill it.

Write me if you have any questions or concerns. I'm interested!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Go Figure

"Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write." H.G.Wells

To teach statistics, it's important to think statistically, of course. But stat teachers also have to be strong motivators, since many of the ideas and rules of statistics are counterintuitive - and, frankly, hard work to understand. To get to these ideas, students need math skills (algebra, decimals and fractions, for example), and these may require reinforcement or refreshing. There is also a lot of language and logic in statistics, which works in this area differently than the way language and logic apply in other arenas. Words like "normal" and "average" don't mean the same thing in a statistics class as they do in students' every day lives, which presents a challenge to the statistics instructor.

Larry Green insists that teaching statistics is easier online than in a face-to-face setting. For example, the use of tables - an intrinsic part of most statistical operations - requires the instructor to tell students to consult a page, look down this column and across that row, and find the proper value. (S)he can only hope that students will follow correctly. In the Confer classroom, everyone is looking at the same table (online) and finding the same value together.

Irene Palacios echoes Larry's comments, adding that it's infinitely easier for her to use the whiteboard tools in Confer to highlight the columns, rows, and values that students need to see in order to work out problems.

Irene Palacios is similarly enthralled by how much better it is to teaching graphing concepts online. In a face-to-face environment, it's difficult to show students different functions in such a way that they can understand what's being differentiated. In her Confer classroom, she can draw over her graphs with different colors in order to emphasize what she's trying to teach. She can annotate in real time to make sure students "see" the functions that are important.

Garfield, Chance, and Snell, in their examination of how technology resources have impacted the teaching of statistics in colleges and universities, list these factors:
  • Improved visualization of statistical concepts and processes. "Students are better able to 'see' the statistical ideas, and teachers are better able to teach to students who are predominantly visual learners."
  • Dynamic representations and analyses. "Discussions or activities may focus on 'what if' questions by changing data values or manipulating graphs and instantly seeing the results."
  • Empowering students as users of statistics. "Students are able to solve real problems and use powerful statistical tools that they may be able to use in other courses or types of work. This allows them to better understand and experience the practice of statistics."
  • Allowing students to do more learning on their own, outside of class, using Web-based or multimedia materials. "This frees the instructor to have fewer lectures during class and to spend more time on data analysis activities and group discussions."
The day may come when face-to-face statistics instructors, who aren't able to incorporate these tools fully or immersively in a brick and mortar classroom, will feel the need to compensate with more dynamic substitutes. Meanwhile, Confer statistics instructors are discovering and documenting effective methods for teaching students to think statistically.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Borderless Classroom

“U.S. high school graduates will: Sell to the world; buy from the world; work for international companies; manage employees from other cultures and countries; collaborate with people all over the world in joint ventures; compete with people on the other side of the world for jobs and markets; and tackle global problems, such as AIDS, avian flu, pollution, and disaster recovery… We need to open global gateways and inspire students to explore beyond their national borders.” - Vivien Stewart.

The synchronous online classroom both enables change and stimulates it. Where once the classroom had physical and geographical dimensions, it now has no walls and no border agents. This raises several issues for academia: does (or should) the whole world now have access to my classroom? How can my institution control access to or from "outsiders" and how is that access paid for? When boundaries blur, as they do in online education, new values and new thinking necessarily emerge.

Laurie Huffman (above) collaborates with tutors from Guatemala to enable real-world and real-time conversations between students and Spanish instructors. Her use of Web-conferencing software caught the attention of a textbook publisher, who wondered if it might be possible to offer this kind of virtual collaboration as part of a Spanish language textbook package they are producing.

Jeanne Guerin (above) provides online tutoring for students at Sierra College's Online Writing Center. In the session above, a student contacts her for help with a paper she has to write, and Jeanne does a great job of defining the problem, exploring options, and counseling the student. What is extraordinary about this session is that the student is interacting with Jeanne from Brazil!

Jeanne's student was able to get help on her paper from Sierra College even though she was thousands of miles away at the time. Laurie's idea (above) is to find ways to help students who can't physically travel to other countries. She teaches online for California Community Colleges, Florida State University, and the University of Maryland (another great example of teaching without borders), and is piloting a language immersion program that gives students weekly contact with tutors in another country.

Laurie herself summers in Costa Rica in a sixty-acre rainforest jungle. She teaches while she's there, making it possible for her students in the United States to learn from her and her adventures abroad.

Many college students are required by work or military commitments to travel, even while they are taking classes. With the Confer classroom, as Grace Esteban (above) describes, this presents less of a problem than might be expected. MPICT (the Mid-Pacific Information and Communication Technology project) is able to provide learning opportunities to students from as far away as Australia and Japan.

The Confer classroom can meet whenever teachers and students are available, not only at the convenience of the host institution (or country). It empowers teachers to teach from anywhere and students to learn from anywhere, making it "the real thing" for today's learners, not a substitute. With the right instructors, it's possible to maintain effective contact and engage all learners, even without physical touch or artificial boundaries.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Confer Rules

Rule A: Don't.
Rule A1: Rule A doesn't exist.
Rule A2: Do not discuss the existence or non-existence of Rules A, A1 or A2.

- R. D. Laing

Most teachers have rules they share with their students. "Come to class on time." "Silence cell phones during class." "Cheating is not allowed."

What are the rules for the Confer classroom? I've collected a few suggestions (not rules) that you may want to consider when setting your virtual class ground rules.

1. When class begins, ask students to close their e-mails, instant messengers, and all other open applications - and tell them that you're doing the same thing. Assure them that you're doing this to make sure you and they can pay attention to one another without outside distractions or interruptions.

2. When recording your session (making an archive), “Be sure to tell participants they are being recorded!” This from Jennifer Hofmann in The Synchronous Trainer's Survival Guide (2004). As   Anderson et al observe in Best Practices in Synchronous Conference Moderation, "it should be noted that privacy regulations or expectations may require that participants be informed of this intention [to record]  before the session begins.”

3. When conferring over the telephone, "Ask participants to mute their phones when not speaking so extraneous sounds are not picked up. Also, tell participants not to put their phones on hold. If a person’s telephone system has a ‘music on hold’ feature, it can be very annoying and puts the event on hold until that person returns.” (This also from Jennifer Hoffman.)

4. When conferring using Voice Over Internet Protocol (computer audio), "participants can be required to raise their hands before being granted the ‘mic’ to speak. Even when this is not a technical requirement, hand-raising can be a useful etiquette. It can help to ensure that more learners’ voices are heard, which can lead to greater sharing of ideas and experiences.” From Joe Tansey in Learning to Effectively Use the Virtual Classroom.

5. In Chat mode, Ruth Clark says "we sometimes ask everyone to type in their answers but not to press send until the instructor says ‘Send.’ In that way, reflective learners have more time to consider their answers without the distraction from the first answers to appear in the chat window.”  Clark and Kwinn also observe, "A disadvantage of chat is the limited amount of screen real estate dedicated to text messages in most virtual classroom interfaces. When the response box fills, new text messages cause older responses to scroll up. If you have a larger class, you may want to use some crowd control mechanisms to limit who sends messages. For example, you might ask everyone to type in an answer but only the women or only a certain division to actually send their answers. Alternatively, you may provide a workbook in which everyone responds and, then, after a pause, call on only some participants to type in their answers”

6. Larry Green (above) has a "no-dissing" rule for his class: You're allowed to make comments about other students in the Chat area, but those comments always have to be positive. Clark and Kwinn are even more restrictive about chat comments: "we ask participants to use chat for on-task communication only during instructional activities – no passing notes in class.!”

7. Jennifer Hofmann also recommends these ground rules for students:
  • “If you run into technical problems, contact the facilitator or producer. Don’t waste a lot of time trying to solve them yourselves.
  • “Assign someone to manage the exercise, someone to capture information, and someone to report back to the larger group.
  • “Don’t leave the breakout session just because the trainer isn’t ‘watching’ you.
  •  “When using collaboration tools within the breakout rooms (whiteboard, chat, application sharing, web browsing) the ground rules for those tools apply.”
8. Jonathan Finkelstein has a rule for Polling: If you ask, do something with the answers. “It is important to remember to actually do something with the results of polls conducted in real time. If one asks a series of questions but does not use any of the responses to affect the direction of the learning activity, learners begin to wonder whether their responses matter.”

9. Donna Eyestone (above) has this rule: Tell your students how long your class session will be, and then respect that. If you say you'll be done in an hour, regardless of how much material you cover, be done in an hour. (Period.)

10. With Web tours, Jennifer Hofmann recommends this strategy: "When independent navigation of hyperlinks is available, don’t start clicking until the trainer tells you to. When leading the class to a website, be sensitive about the nature of the content.”
There are ten of these, but they are not commandments. Consider them suggestions from folks who've been around the synchronous online classroom for a while.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Be Prepared!

"Emergency preparedness is a team sport." - Eric Whitaker

Teachers work in a private world entered only by themselves and their students. Rarely does anyone else visit this world, and rarely does a teacher enter into the private world of another teacher or classroom. This is true both online and in the physical classroom. But when emergencies happen in the physical classroom, the teacher generally relies on an infrastructure of helpers and resources that can be summoned quickly. Where does the instructor turn when an emergency occurs in the virtual classroom?

Grace Esteban describes the "perfect" disaster recovery tool for MPICT's online classes. She and her colleagues - relative newcomers to Web conferencing - have learned to call Client Services whenever they encounter a glitch they can't figure out. (The "Bobo" clip was created using xtranormal and can be viewed here.)

One strategy that Grace and Dr. Pierre Thiry use is to keep a second computer logged in to the Confer classroom. This is especially useful if it happens to be connected from a different Internet Service Provider. If the first service fails, you're able to log in using the second. In my office, I connect to Confer with a campus connection, a DSL connection, and (when necessary) a broadband wireless connection. I'm always sure I'll be able to get online because I have options.

Marc Knobel discovered the value of Grace's disaster recovery plan on his own. In two years of teaching with Confer, he encountered two disasters. The first was a result of a power failure, for which there was no timely solution and resulted in a cancellation of class. The second came at 7:30 AM as he was preparing to teach his 8:00 AM math class. He fired off an email to Client Services, explaining that he could not login to his class, and within 15 minutes got an answer from Donna that solved the problem. Disaster averted, and the class was none the wiser. As Marc relates, having to be embarrassed by the technology in front of his students would be horrible, and would actually have deterred him from experimenting further with Confer. Without a recovery team, there would be no online classroom.

CCC Confer's Client Services team provides this kind of security to online instructors. They're the First Responders who assess the situation and provide immediate care, the Firemen who put out the fire and rescue trapped victims, and the Long Term Care Providers who follow up emergencies with therapy and instruction so that future problems can be avoided.

Michael McKeever is the kind of techie instructor who likes to push the limits of his computers and networks. When he occasionally pushes too hard, he relies on his students to help one another with disaster recovery.

Michael, who teaches classes with both face-to-face students and online students, asks the f2f students to chat with their online peers to let them know that he's rebooting or recovering from a blue screen. It's nice to know that when the instructor crashes, students are not "thrown out" of the online classroom, but can continue to collaborate while the teacher recovers and returns.

Being ready for disaster allows you to act reasonably and responsibly when things go wrong. At a minimum, keep the Client Services numbers and e-mails handy so that you don't have to face problems alone. Have a backup computer and Internet connection ready, if possible. If you have students with different abilities, give emergency instructions both orally and via text chat so everyone understands and can follow your lead. Don't panic. We can get through this together.
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