Additional Technologies in the online classroom

This is part three of a three part article. In part one, I discussed why online training should matter to you, and outlined a few of the challenges to the online training medium. In part two, I discussed some basic (but often ignored) instructional techniques that should be employed when teaching (or presenting to) an online audience. Now I’d like to examine some of the additional technologies that you might want to consider for use in your online training or presentations. No amount of technology can replace an effective instructor. But an effective instructor can further enhance the student experience by using technology to its fullest potential. If you’ve read parts one and two, you’ve probably asked yourself, ‘what about video in the online classroom?’ Well, here I’ll discuss that, and how it’s not the panacea you might think when it comes to dealing with the lack of visual stimuli in the online environment. Sure, introducing video can be a great benefit, but all too often it doesn’t have the positive effect you want. Let’s get started…

Video (many to many)

Video can go a long way toward making a student feel more connected and remain engaged throughout the training session. Quite a few software packages include video, where the instructor uses a web cam and broadcasts video to the students. Some software packages even support multiple video sessions where each student is display on every attendee screen.
Bi-directional (many-to-many) video is typically seen as a teleconferencing / corporate meeting tool (and in my experience rarely beneficial in the online classroom). Ideally the students should be able to see the instructor and each other – just like an actual classroom environment, but many factors make this difficult to achieve.

  • Few video applications support ‘many-to-many’ video.
  • There are privacy issues – especially where a mixed group of students not from the same organization are in attendance. Many students will either not have camera equipment – or feel uncomfortable being seen by ‘strangers’. Anxiety over appearance, dress and background environment is counterproductive to the learning experience.
  • In a worst case scenario, students may display inappropriate behavior that could jeopardize the learning session and even cause legal issues.

Video (one-to-many)

In this format, the instructor uses a camera and that image is displayed to all the students in the session. This is very valuable in that it can give the students a more dynamic, personal experience. There is something in our human nature that can impact our behavior when we have a face to look at – and that face is ‘looking’ at us. Even though intellectually we know that we cannot really be seen.
The undesirable aspects of this (one-to-many) format are largely the same as the many-to-many format.

Video (one to one)

This is the most commonly used format and many Internet communication applications use it. The most notable applications are free of charge. Applications such as Skype™, Google Talk™, and Microsoft Live™ are just a few and they are well recognized by most Internet savvy users. These rarely support multiple video participants, and are not generally useful for training more than one person at a time. However this can be used quite effectively in a situation where only the instructor is the only remote attendee. An example of this is when the students are all located in a classroom and it is not feasible to send an instructor to them. Here’s how you can leverage this technology for little or no cost:

  • In the classroom, set up a dedicated computer and project its display onto a screen for all students to see. Then use one of these freely available video chat applications to display the instructor’s image to all the students via the projector. Individually, the students can join a GoToTraining or GoToMeeting session on their computers to see the presentation. For further benefit, install a web cam on the computer in the classroom so the instructor can see the students in the room.
    It should be noted that this technique has been employed with great success by Citrix, where U.S. based instructors have taught course in European countries. This saved many thousands of dollars in travel expenses.

Video (all formats)

The instructor must know how to behave when on camera. This is a new experience for most instructors and it is not uncommon for an instructor to negate the benefit of video by not understanding the student’s perspective.

If you were a student in an actual classroom, and the instructor was staring at the floor while lecturing, it wouldn’t be very engaging would it?

Looking into the camera has an effect on the students of being ‘looked at’ and that is generally desirable. Here are a few suggestions for effective use of the camera:

  • Since the instructor’s computer screen is a natural focal point, position the camera as close to the top or bottom of the instructors monitor as possible. Center the camera on the screen – not off to the side. Then experiment with the up/down angle of the instructors head and eyes as the monitor (or the instructor’s chair) is moved up and down. Use books under the monitor if you need to raise it. Most camera software has a self monitoring feature but don’t forget to test remotely, with the help of a colleague. Remember the goal here is the same as in any public speaking format, appropriate eye contact.
  • Consider a small web-cam that has a gooseneck (or a miniature tripod) mounting system. Then position the web-cam directly in the center of the instructors computer monitor. This will obscure a small portion of the center of the screen, but with practice it can usually be dealt with.
  • Most cameras (including webcams) have built-in microphones. Don’t use them. While some of these built-in microphones cancel feedback and background noise, none do it perfectly.
  • Use ‘behind the head’ headphones with a built-in microphone. These wrap around the back of the head and are almost unnoticeable to viewers. An integrated microphone will ensure no feedback noise from computer speakers. These are usually inexpensive and reliable when 3.5 mm speaker/microphone plugs are used as the physical connection. Of course wireless, USB, and Bluetooth headphones exist but for nearly 100% compatibility, use the microphone and speaker plugs present on nearly all computers.

Whiteboards

Whiteboards, a fixture in most classrooms, are often omitted from online training for a couple of reasons, but mainly because virtual white boards can be difficult to use. Here are the two primary challenges:

  • Many instructors cannot easily make the transition from a pen to a mouse and without a lot of practice, completed materials may look amateurish
  • The instructor cannot easily save and distribute whiteboard sessions
    Here is where some additional technology can be really useful. There are hardware and software solutions to address these challenges:
  • Mimeo® – This is a hardware and software solution. Mimio makes several products for interactive white boarding. Most notable is the ‘Mimio Bar’® that attaches to a standard whiteboard and through the use of specialized pens allows the instructor a natural interaction with the whiteboard and the ability to save to files.
  • SMART® interactive – SMART makes specialized interactive whiteboards that allow any whiteboard work to be saved as files.
  • Graphic tablets – There are numerous graphics tablets available. While these are primarily used for graphics work they can be displayed through the screen sharing application and allow for the use of a pen. Using any graphics program would then allow you to save the whiteboard sessions as graphics files.
  • DabbleBoard® – This is a web based application that has unique handwriting recognition with ‘snap-to’ functions that with practice can produce nice results. It is also multi-user capable and files can be saved.

Using mulitple technologies

While numerous additional tools have been mentioned, it is important to note that there is a matter of the computer screen ‘real estate’ that must be taken into account. Asking the students to switch between many applications may ‘keep them on their toes’ so to speak, but it may also frustrate them. It is usually impossible to know what size monitor students are using, the resolution they are capable of viewing, and what software incompatibilities may exist. Simplicity is always better. You usually don’t want the class to be more about how to use ‘all these training tools’ than about the actual product being taught.

I hope you’ve found this article interesting, and I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions.