In this post we offer nine approaches that use web conferencing to support and enhance learning on campus-based programmes. These suggestions come from the collective effort of a workshop at the Durham Blackboard Conference 2016 that aimed to address whether synchronous online collaboration tools could contribute to blended learning design. At York we support Blackboard Collaborate as an institutional web conferencing tool, but Skype and Google Hangouts are also available (see comparison), so these examples will draw on the toolset available in Collaborate. Collaborate is already used at York to support distance learning programmes, but the aim of this workshop was to explore the potential to support innovative learning experiences for campus-based students.
I originally wrote a post that presented three high-level approaches to using synchronous online tools: additional point of contact, delivery of content, access to external expertise. The following nine designs elaborate on these with specific examples arising from discussions at the workshop. The slides show the learning challenge being addressed, the learning opportunity, approach and a workflow for the activity. Summaries of each are below.
If you have external contacts who can share their professional or academic expertise, then using Skype or Blackboard Collaborate is a great way to give your students access to their experiences. Remote delivery of lecture is quick to set up, however to enable interaction with students will depend on the software you use.
Skype is simplest for a one-to-many presentation in a face-to-face class, with communication via a chair. Blackboard Collaborate offers students direct interaction with the speaker. Within remote or face-to-face environments the Mobile App could be used for students to send questions to the presenter. Managing verbal dialogue in class requires a good microphone set up.
Always test out with your guest speaker in advance, ensuring they are happy with the application, internet connection and the sound quality is good. In the session, the lecturer facilitates discussion as chair by repeating questions from room, or students can use the Blackboard Mobile App (muted of course!) to post questions directly.
If students are distributed across many small group work spaces, such as labs, study rooms or studios, they can be connected together using Blackboard Collaborate so that groups can share results and ideas with each other during the group activity. Within the group work session, the lecturer can deliver introductions, mini-lectures or address issues being raised that are useful for all groups remotely to all spaces.
Whether there is limited time in class to delve deeper into readings, or students have created their own special interest group, the Blackboard Collaborate toolset can be used to facilitate reading groups outside of working hours or to encourage remote participation. Collaborate spaces can be set up for access at any time, or with a specific timed session led by a lecturer. A structured session, whether lecturer or student-led, might look like this: introduce reading, key questions, break-out room discussion, whiteboard for idea dump, summary plenary. The whiteboard can be exported as a PDF for future reference. Breakout rooms allow smaller group discussions and separate idea spaces before bringing students together at the end.
Extended / group projects
Blackboard Collaborate can be linked from within VLE sites, scaffolded by instructions and resources that guide students through an extended task or longer group project work. Sessions can be linked to specific project milestones, with a lecturer reviewing project objectives. Open spaces can be created for groups to use ad hoc, for project meetings, enabling remote participation. Running these sessions online rather than face-to-face can enable project groups with students having competing priorities to still keep in touch and everyone encouraged to participate without geographical constraint.
A Blackboard Collaborate room can be created that is ‘always on’ for participants to use. This means that there is only one web link that can be shared for all supervisees. A specific time would still need to be arranged, or having a dedicated office hour where Collaborate runs in the background. In this case, a slide that indicates students should run the audio setup wizard and then raise their hand when ready will notify you of their presence. Collaborate has screen-sharing features, useful for talking through an essay or programming code; whilst these features are also available on Skype and Google Hangouts, it’s the single link access and ‘always on’ approach that means drop-in open office hours are possible.
For programmes with a year in industry or shorter-term work placement, web conferencing provides students the opportunity to reflect on their learning and share their experience with their supervisor or fellow students during the placement. One-to-one supervisions can be facilitated using Skype, but group sessions (scheduled or open access) may be better using Blackboard Collaborate. Both platforms enable remote and mobile participation, useful for certain forms of placement learning that emphasise reflective practice.
Sessions could be informal, open access, or more formally structured using a reflective learning model.
Development / skills workshops
Online sessions for skills development and workshops, perhaps even outside of working hours, or shorter sessions during lunch breaks may appeal to participants trying to balance commitments and avoid clashes with their degree course timetable. Blackboard Collaborate sessions can be set up with guest access, so all that is needed for participation is the link and no need to log into the VLE. The link can be shared publically, or emailed to participants who register in advance. Sessions can also be recorded for distribution afterwards.
Speaker presents remotely to students with a slide at the start to prompt use of audio set up wizard, beginning with sound check, welcome and session outline. Use simple interactions (yes/no, poll tool) to keep engagement throughout, helping participants check their understanding.
Creating a learning community, particularly with distance learners, encourages contributions, builds confidence and generates trust among the cohort. Pre-arrival campus based students have a lot of information provided, but little opportunity to build connections in advance. A synchronous contact point can motivate students to engage, by providing space to build relationships with other students and the lecturer. This phase of online learning design is crucial to the long-term success of weekly activities for distance learning students.
Create specific time session and embed link as part of an induction task. Include full joining instructions, technical guidance and contact for support. Think of low-risk, small group, ice-breaker activities to get students familiar with the tool and each other.
Blackboard Collaborate can be used without log in details, enabling participants from outside the institution to take part in research seminars or to collaborate on projects. For seminars and presentations, the recording function is useful for dissemination, evidencing impact of research and logging research progress. It also provides a way-in for students to participate informally in research communities, for example giving doctoral students access to larger research projects. Spaces could be set up for ad-hoc use, or with time-specific sessions, e.g for public engagement.
In our Collaborate workshops we’ve shared a number of other use cases. Take a look at these case studies and papers that explore meaningful use of synchronous online collaboration in a range of learning contexts:
- Teaching and Training Online – learning from the Netskills experience, JISC NetSkills, Newcastle University.
- The use of Virtual Classrooms to Support Peer Learning, Aston University.
- Online Evening Tutorials for Year 1 Medical Students Using Blackboard Collaborate, University of Edinburgh.
- Building interaction into lectures using webinar, Sheffield Hallam University.
- Use of the Webinar Tool (Elluminate) to Support Training, Shiang-Kwei Wang and Hui-Yin Hsu, Journal of Interactive Online Learning.