Online Conference tools - 3 samples

Web conferencing tools have become readily available as part of online communication and education.

I have found them to be incredibly useful especially for synchronous communication that requires more than just audio or instant messaging. Being able to have visual aids in the form of a web browser or whiteboard makes these environments an especially powerful teaching tool over distance.

Three different web conference environments are highlighted and described in this video.

The Talking Communities web conference is the first of the tools to be highlighted. One needs to be able to install a plug-in initially for the conference to be enabled on one’s computer.

I have been using the Talking Communities web conference environment for about a year now. I probably used it more than once a week for many months as I collaborated with partners in Arizona and Israel. More recently, I have used it with partners in New Zealand, Kuwait, Israel and Florida. It is a service that has been provided for all the teachers participating in the Global Virtual Classroom Web Design Contest to enable us to better collaborate.

What you will see in this video screen capture is a meeting between David in Kuwait, Donna in Sarasota Florida and me here in Montreal. We meet weekly to discuss our team progress for a web design contest. In this meeting, we need to discuss the breakdown of students into groups to work on the project. I have created a webpage and put it on the web, then forced the page onto the others so we can all see the same page in our browsers.

The environment permits us to use instant messaging as well as audio in order to communicate synchronously and can support up to 20 persons at one time.

The TC conference tool has been very reliable, very stable and has had consistently better audio quality than skype or other internet telephony programs we have tried.

More recently, one of my partners in Israel discovered another web conference area and she and I explored it to see its potential usefulness to our project.

In order to get to this online environment, one needs to subscribe to the LearningTimes Network but it is a free subscription. Again, a downloadable plugin needs to be installed in order to enable the conference. As far as we could see, it was free. We could not tell how many were able to be in it at once.

It too included instant messaging, audio capabilities, a forced web browser by a moderator, and it also provided a white board. However, we had difficulty trying to figure out how to enable some of the features.

The third web conference to be featured is called HotConference and it is run by a private enterprise that charges for the use of the conference rooms to educators and trainers. It was by far the most sophisticated of the three tools and we were able to get a personal tour of the environment by its creator. Full control of what the user sees is in the hands of the moderator who can change the screen so that it is an interactive whiteboard or a web browser or the moderator’s desktop. And lastly, this environment also permits a webcam. HotConference, though it supported the most features, has a price tag but offered a montly trial for just $1.

As high speed Internet becomes ubiquitous in developed countries, synchronous communication for multiple users becomes more feasible thus opening greater opportunities for communication and collaboration. The range of choice of features and cost is widening. Today we witnessed just three possibilities of online conference tools from which educators and trainers may choose.

Add comment December 4th, 2005

Convenience, Connection, Control, and Learning

ECAR study of Students and Information Technology, 2005: Convenience, Connection, Control, and Learning is a report on the longitudinal study of higher academic students and information technology. It is quite an ambitious study that quantitatively examines the surveys from over 18,000 university and college students. The students are asked about what forms of technology they use, what they use it for, and how they perceive to be benefitting from technology used by their instructors.

A number of the researchers’ findings were interesting and potentially significant. What stood out to me the most was the finding that the instructor’s skill using technology had the greatest positive impact on student engagement in the course, student interest in the subject matter and student grasp of complex concepts (17). If this is so, instructors had better be prepared to be skilled in integrating technology into their course material. This speaks of the need and importance of technology training for instructors that is relevant and effective. The students surveyed also noted that they thought technology could make a good instructor even better (17).

Another finding that is more pertinent to those of us currently in the social computing course is the lack of understanding and use of social software and social computing trends in academia. The researchers noted in the area of their qualitative data that many of the students are using these social tools and that there is great potential to be harnessed from them. Students enjoy the opportunity to be “social” and are intrigued with using them as a part of their learning experiences. In particular, this new phenomenon, Facebook, was referred to often by the students. Blogging and the use of social bookmarks were also mentioned (104). This is of particular interest to me because I have used blogging as an educational tool and I am fascinated with the possibilities that social bookmarking could have especially in the area of teaching information literacy skills to my students. This is something I would very much like to explore in the future.

The study spent a good deal of its time assessing the students’ percerptions of the use of Content Management Systems within their institution. The large majority of the students had used a CMS in their course work. The majority of students reported being happy with the benefits the CMS had to offer in terms of convenience and accessibility. The students reported that this allowed them greater control of their learning and achievements (96). As a high school teacher who uses both FirstClass and a moodle to support the course work of my students, I was pleased to see this finding. However, as I am relying on several online discussion forums for my students, I was not happy to see that this was the least favourite activity of a CMS that the students reported. Online discussions can certainly vary and perhaps it is the significant role of the moderator who can contribute to its success.

Another significant finding raised in this report was that much of what instructors use the delivery of their courses is instructor-centred and not learner-centred. Students reported a desire for control of their learning and this means a greater amount of user-centred instruction.

Overall, one statement that caught my eye in the report was that “students need to learn how to learn with technology” (10). Students are bombarded with so much information and entertainment possibilities through technology that it is incumbent upon we educators to teach those skills of discernment and critical thinking as students make choices.

1 comment November 19th, 2005

Tech-Savvy Gender Gaps and Social Computing

My friend, Reuven, with whom I am collaborating in an online collaborative literature project, passed along this report on the gender gap in computers, Tech-Savvy, which was published in 2000. Interestingly, while the authors touched briefly on the role of collaborative and project-based learning in order to bridge the gap between the genders, the aspect of social computing, so prevalent today in 2005, was seemingly unanticipated. However, the authors did briefly explore one group of female students’ interaction in a MOO (Multi-player, object-oriented environment). This was definitely a precursor to the social computing applications of today.

Just half a decade later, it is good to see that things are changing with regards to gender inequities in computer studies.

I believe it is the phenomenon of social computing that has changed the gender gap which has been so prevalent in the area of computers in education.

Yes, in the past I have watched the relative reticence of girls using computers compared to boys in the computer/technology classroom.

Social computing, which permits collaboration through relationship-building, has changed this dynamic. Has this been the link that has been missing in computer applications?

It has been quite refreshing to see the young women in my classes who have even stated out loud, “computers hate me!” discover the social computing tools of blogging and online forums. These social software tools have galvanized them, I believe, because of the potential for an authentic audience and engaging interaction.

While the study may now seem dated, it was encouraging for me to read the suggestions from so many teachers (over 900 interviewed through surveys) and how far we have indeed come in just 5 short years.

3 comments October 31st, 2005

Connectivism and Web 2.0

For a GREAT lecture on Connectivism and Web 2.0 by George Siemens, here is the podcast. Warning: it is not short! A powerpoint slideshow accompanies the podcast. As an aside, it is fascinating to see how this social computing tool works.

I had to look up what exactly was meant by Web 2.0 – having just recently been introduced to Thomas Friedman’s Globalization 3.0 – and found Tim O’Reilly’s definition

First, Siemens examines the other learning theories and some of the nouns (i.e. constructs, schema, underpinning) used to describe learning which he finds to have too much of a boundary of what knowledge is.

He explores what has changed – context, the interplay of learner and society, societal needs and the rapid growth of information.

Here, in brief, are some of his points. I have bold-faced those of particular interest to me.

• learning as a network creation model – cognition can be distributed – knowledge can exist in a group of learners

• Meaning-making in collaboration – collaborative meaning-making
(I feel I am attempting this with the four online collaborative projects with five other schools around the world - will it work? I hope so!)
• Learning is no long “in advance” of need – we need a different model.

• Most educators are still trying to get new technology to do the work of the old (I ask myself, how much am I guilty of this? how do we replace the new learning approaches? This is the most important issue. Learning to use technology (i.e. software, Internet tools) is relatively simple. Changing one’s pedagogical approaches is much more complex and difficult.)

• We are still trying to duplicate what happens in a classroom in an online learning environment

• Are we failing to see new opportunities because of old constructs? (How do we see these new opportunities? Do we discover them through collaboration in networks? Do we discover them ourselves? My experience is perceiving new experiences is usually because of my initiative in reading, researching and developing meaningful relationships with my teaching colleagues abroad. For example, it was my good friend Reuven Werber who passed this podcast along to me. He does this often and then we talk about our takes on it when we meet for audio conferences or in our emails.)

• “thoughts exist in space and time” I am not the network, but am on my own network – we can see one perspective from our node in the network

• network view of knowing – we are not as logical as we think we are – cognitive dissonance abounds

• complex situations are impossible to view in entirety (uses Iraqi war as an example)

• we are undergoing a paradigm shift – we must move to a different node on the network in order to appreciate a different view – we need to shift

• it is pattern recognition, not info processing, that is important in a digital world

• perspective is not a framework; perspective is seeing a network from one particular node

• self-organization – the capacity with which we have to connect to others who are similarly inclined – can result in a robust community – without design

• Established notions of learning and what is happening in the classroom is chaotic

• Siemens examines Snowden’s ontologies

• Ed. Tech. educators need to give greater levels of control for the end-user to form greater connections with each other and other users and experts; it is through this process we may stay current (George Siemens does not seem to be a huge fan of learning/content management systems for the establishment and perpetuation of online connections. While I love the way moodle allows me to build and support a community of learners in order to establish online relationships, I can see that not enough user control is given to the ordinary student. Perhaps by having the students have greater control of the course area will they truly become engaged in the process of learning. Blogs do give much more user control to the users but it is difficult to get over the issues of privacy for K-12 students. How can educators get around this?)

• Knowledge exists in multiple domains – impt for ed. Tech designers.

• Transmission model has been predominant model – although should be a secondary model

• Learning as cognition and reflection – constructivism, cognitivism – schools don’t do a good job of promoting this

• Acquisition model – learner-motivated

• Accretion model – should be primary model of teaching – knowledge is complex, no longer one-dimensional - connectivism is the learning theory to promote this

• His podcast makes the link between learning theories and Web 2.0 trends

• Ability for us to connect with ideas that previously existed in isolation is important

• Refers to open source movement

• We are witnessing relational internet experience – really connecting to people – tag content based on our interests, social networks which can create robust communities outside of a designer’s intention (Hear, hear! And this asserts one of my own main principles to teaching and learning - we learn through relationship - particularly adolescent learners.)

• Connectivity between people and with content – this requires openness

• Interplay with internet, people, and technology

• Convergence, divergence, collaboration, decentralization

• Web 2.0 permits this – changing environment online

• Web 2.0 is about Content-provider, content-user

• End-user who is control

• Making new meaning with others

• Aggregated perspective – he cites Downes – we take our own perspective and we throw it into the pool of others

• We form rel’ps online then ground them in face-to-face contact (this has implications for a blended learning approach)

• Web is a platform which allows end-user to have different degrees of control – we can create and participate

• He also examines the challenges facing these trends in web 2.0

• We can only listen to people with whom we agree

• Personalization of internet information

• Process can be begun

• All this does not align with current views of learning with technology – we are still focused on content, not on connections.

• The challenge is for educators to bring in connecting tools that permit connections to be made – with a focus on the end-user. (This permits one of the buzz words in current pedagogy: student-centred teaching and learning)

• Blogs, for example, allow continual learning and growing

• Acknowledging the opposing views exist is an important part of connectivism as a learning theory. (This is so essential in today’s movement toward globalization!)

There are quite a few new concepts here to me. At this point, I am interested on the implications for my own students as well as for my teaching colleagues as they are involved in “tech training” where I work.

I am not sure how much I agree with George Siemens when he states that we need to lose the focus on the content of our online courses and focus on the connections. Would this not depend on the learning goals set for the course unit? And how do we measure or assess success of this connectiveness over content?

Siemens continues to fascinate and challenge me with this new learning theory of connectivism. I hope to hear more from him in the future!

3 comments October 23rd, 2005

Blogging Do’s and Don’ts

In one of my earlier posts, Critical Thinking, Blogging, and Educational Reform, I presented a short review of James Farmer’s How You Should Use Blogs in Education and How Not to use Blogs in Education. They offer some very good guidelines on how to use blogs for educational purposes. For me, they answered a number of questions that I was wrestling with about how blogs “work” in connecting people that is different from a forum. For educational purposes, blogs do, indeed, create a different dynamic than a more goal-centred forum.

Today a friend pointed me to Jakob Nielsen’s Top Ten Design Mistakes for Weblog Usability which is a very easy and readable guide to creating a blog that will be seen and appreciated by all. I particularly liked his recommendation to remember that future bosses will see this blog, maybe not now, but even 10 years down the road. I also thought that he dealt with the issue of anonymity quite well, which addresses some of the concerns that have arisen in our Social Computing Class at Concordia University. It was interesting to me, as well, that he thought including a photo of the blogger was an important addition to a blog. I hadn’t really considered that before and am wondering if I really want to include one on my blog.

I also mentioned earlier that Stephen Downes has also written a much more comprehensive how-to on blogging, How to be Heard. In particular, I like his advice on what to write. I have found with my blogging that by going through the process of reflecting on what I am reading by so many others and then expressing my ideas about it has been a good self-discipline and aided in my own comprehension of the material. Frequently, I catch myself rambling incoherently, then stop myself and ask “What is it exactly that you want to say?” How many times have I taught that to my students! Forcing myself through the exercise of blogging has challenged me to express myself clearly and with focus. Not bad things for an English teacher to practice!

Add comment October 17th, 2005

Busy week of online activity

It’s been a busy week! On top of my regular teaching responsibilities I have been spending a lot of time fielding emails from around the world, engaging in audio meetings with teachers in Israel and trying to keep on top of the blogs and forums where the students have been very active.

So here’s the update. On Saturday, I spent several hours in two meetings with two sets of teachers from Israel. It was a pedagogically intense afternoon. In my first meeting, Nelly Deutsch, from Rabin High School in Israel, and I made contact for the first time and had a wonderful conversation about our shared love of using technology within our teaching practices. We decided we would use a webquest of the novel The Giver, by Lois Lowry as our collaborative project. Nelly had created this webquest for another class last year and as her Master’s thesis project. We are taking a different approach in this project than what I have done before. The students of both schools will be divided into teams to complete the webquest so it will be a real cross-cultural collaborative experience. I have taught the novel for a number of years at my previous school, so I am really happy to be using this wonderful book!

Today, the students from the class that will be participating in this project had a lively discussion on cultural rituals and identity based on the article “Nacirema” – which is an article which appeared in The American Anthropologist in 1958. It took them a while to pick up the satirical references. Fun stuff!

My second meeting on Saturday involved a meeting with the two teachers from Neveh Channah School in Israel, Leorah Addi and Reuven Werber (a very good friend from previous projects) for the other project. They needed a tutorial in the moodle environment I had created and I spent nearly two hours providing instruction for that in quite an unusual manner. We went into Talking Communities – an environment that not only allows us to have an audio conversation and instant text chat, but also has a webpage interface that permits one of the users to force a webpage into the browsers of the other users. So I was able to provide a tutorial with audio, text, and visuals! It has to be the most unique experience I have had in instruction. We are each providing two short stories from our cultures as the literature for our collaborative projects.

Today, the students from that class went into the shared forum area of the Learning Management system I had created with moodle and made their introductions. We kicked off the unit with a discussion about culture and trying to avoid superficial introductions. On Monday, the students in Israel will be going into the forum area during their lab time to make their own introductions and respond to ours.

I may have mentioned to you that a teacher from New Zealand has approached me through a mutual contact to investigate the possibility of a possible communication experience between our gr. 7 students. We are just in the initial email stages, but I hope we can meet soon for an audio meeting to create the lesson plan and goals for this project. Karen Fahy is from Cashmere School in Christchurch on the South Island. I will continue to keep you updated on progress with that situation.

For the Global Virtual Classroom Web Design Contest, we have been allowed this year to choose one of our two partners with whom we may have worked in the past or whom we have met in the “Teacher’s Lounge” in the Nicenet forum area. My two former partners from Israel and Michigan wanted to team up again, but the ages of their students are much higher than mine, so I stepped back from those partnerships. Instead, I approached a teacher of 12-13 year old students at the Kuwait English School who wanted a group who was interested in working on literature and reading as a theme/topic for the website we will create. David Kellam has agreed to be one of our partners and I am thoroughly delighted because he has had considerable experience in web design for educational purposes. The overseers of the contest will pick our third school member to the team – probably next week.

I was also approached by a school in Siberia to team up with for the contest, but I had already committed to Kuwait. We have sent several emails back and forth about our GVC experiences and Milana Zubritskaya, (from Lyceum NSTU, Novosibirsk, Russia) asked if I would permit one of her students to interview me for a website they are making about educational practices around the world, which I was happy to do. I told her to send along the website address when they have finished that project.

The grade 7 students have been very excited about their blogs on Blog Meister and it was fun this week to take some time in class to read some of the blogs from the Smart Board. I have recently heard from a teacher at another school who would like to share our class blogs with each other, so that may be happening soon.

The larger projects of GVC and the collaborative lit. projects do not get underway in a serious manner until mid-October which is great because I need some breathing space to correct my stacks of marking!!

1 comment September 22nd, 2005

Have you heard of the new learning theory?

Just when we could barely get our minds wrapped around constructivist learning theories in all its permutations, a new learning theory has been proposed to more adequately address how learning is taking place into today’s digitized world. George Siemens calls it connectivism and explains it in his short but significant paper Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. In it he points out the shortcomings of constructivist and cognitive theories of learning to propose a theory that can address chaos, networks, and connectivity in organizations. I guess you can say it is a macro approach to learning theory from a postmodernist position. Just recently, I finished reading The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman and can say that these two independent works are pretty much pointing out a similar phenomenon. That is, a paradigm shift has taken place in pedagogy and practice over how people are making meaning and opportunities for themselves using knowledge capital in the midst of a technology and information glut.

Recently, in his own blog on connectivism, Siemens tackled the definition of learning as fundamentally being an activity of meaning-making. While it has left him unsatisfied, I think it is better than a simple acquisition of knowledge. Never before in history has an individual been exposed to so much readily available information. We know that mere exposure does not constitute learning. It seems to me that meaning-making is at least a good beginning to defining the process of learning. And so, I have been challenging myself as a teacher of adolescent learners – how am I providing an environment for my students in which they can engage in meaning-making? How do I go about presenting information and evaluating their performance given this position? As an educational technologist, how do I persuade my colleagues that technology can be an appropriate support for meaning-making in this paradigm shift? How do I explain to parents that this paradigm shift implicitly affects the type of educational tools that will be required by their children to best prepare them for a future in this digital world?

Another statement of Siemen’s that resonates with my experiences and perspective: Learning must link to real life. Never has the world been more flat or connected. Now we must prepare the next generation to understand and flourish within this connectedness.

2 comments September 18th, 2005

Why School should be more like Summer Camp

I just returned from a week at summer camp where we co-directed a co-ed teen camp. For the last number of years, camp has been an important part of my 3 kids’ summer lives while memories of camp have dominated their winter lives. Admittedly, co-directing a full week of activities for about 125 teenagers involved a steep learning curve, a great deal of creativity, energy and patience with the other co-directors.

Obviously, as a high school teacher, I have had a fair amount of experience working with adolescent learners. However, it was surprising to recognize in the camp environment so many similarities to a school environment. It was even more surprising to observe the great differences in the teens’ attitudes, motivations, and learning outcomes.

Let’s begin with the basic similarities in learning environments. At camp, there are rules about who is in charge (the counselors, directors, etc.), a schedule which moves campers from place to place every hour or so, breaks for meals, safety and behaviour rules with disciplinary consequences and forced team and group events often with expectations for the creation of a “product” in the form of a craft, song or skit. Often, there are competitions which rely on some sort of evaluation or assessment process by judges. Sound familiar?

What is different about this environment is that the campers must also live together for a week sharing living space. This can aid in the development of a community. It is an opportunity for the campers to develop care and appreciation for their community through beneficial maintenance and stewardship of camp territory. Some take longer than others to acquire this appreciation!

Other differences are in the outcomes and attitudes of the camper/learners. By its very nature, camp is able to better offer multiple learning style opportunities to suit the learning style needs of the campers. Kinesthetic learners in particular are offered many opportunities at camp. Certainly much less reading material is offered at camp. Campers must rely much more on visual and audio messages to function well in this setting.

I am familiar with many of the teen campers, counselors and staff that were present at camp this year. Many of them had not flourished well in an academic environment. Yet, at camp, their latent skills and gifts were coaxed out and I observed leadership and citizenship abilities and competencies which were truly outstanding, Not only that, but they were sincere and enthusiastic in their various achievements.

As an educator, I was humbled by what I witnessed. Why can’t school environment be more like summer camp?

Add comment August 28th, 2005

Critical Thinking, Blogging, and Educational Reform

The topic of critical thinking had come up a number of times at dept. meetings and critical friends’ group meetings at LCC in the last couple of months before we broke for summer. Apparently our school will soon be evaluated by an independent organization and one of the criteria will be how much critical thinking is being demonstrated by our students. Some discussion was given to what exactly the concept “critical thinking” implied and how current pedagogy went about it explaining how it could be fostered and developed. It was a catch phrase that seemed to mean something somewhat different to each teacher. So I was very interested to see this latest set of resources from wwwtools for teachers on the topic of ICTs for Critical Thinking. The resources represent everything from research on the topic to a variety of tools, such as simulations and virtual learning environments. The paper that has provided the most inspiration to me on that topic is certainly “Computers as Mindtools for Engaging Learners in Critical Thinking” by David Jonassen. I believe it is widely regarded as the seminal work on the value of technology as a tool for learning using a constructivist approach.

In my continuing quest to find good resources and practices for the classroom for blogs, I have come across several excellent blogs recently. Colleagues and friends have kindly emailed me some of these, so I thank them for their consideration. Blogsavvy has posted two articles: How not to use blogs in education and How you should use blogs in education. Blogsavvy dude James Farmer provides some excellent tips and advice for best practice use of blogs in education. It was gratifying to see so many of my own thoughts on blogging validated in his articles. In his paper proposal for an upcoming conference, he articulates well the difference between a forum area or learning management system and a blog, using diagrams and research that has taken place in several different places about the pedagogy of blogs. While he speaks mostly of the use of blogs in higher education, I can see how much can be applicable for high school (or lower) use. He stresses that blogs are individualized areas that present opportunities for reflection and empowerment through individualized environments. Aggregation is highlighted as one of the most important advantages of blogging, but I am not sure that aggregation would be appropriate for high school students due to its open nature and the issue of safety for students.

Stephen Downes continues to astound me with his prolific writing and his latest paper “How to be Heard” is no exception. I am not sure that I have the stamina to follow all of his advice and strategies, but here he presents some excellent practical advice on developing and maintaining a presence in the blogosphere.

And, of course, I was delighted to find Teaching and Developing Online, a blog with a focus on high school online learning by a Canadian high school teacher, Darren Cannell. His blogs are informative and useful for those of us who are interested in the education of high school students.

On a colleague’s suggestion, I visited the site to the 21st Century Learning Initiative. The site offers some papers which addresses the need for systemic educational reform with a move to a more constructivist approach to learning. As a teacher who has regarded herself as a little cog in the vast educational machine, I have only been able to effect change at the very local level of my own classroom. With three of my own kids in the school system (and access to an unlimited number of their friends!), I see the disparity between educational theory (i.e. constructivism, connectivism) and educational practice all too clearly. A solution to the problem of much-needed educational reform is not so clear….

5 comments August 2nd, 2005

Blended Projecting

Blended Projecting…. I love that label! Reuven Werber just created it on the fly after we had a very successful audio conference (with a webcam too - though using two different apps) to plan our next collaborative literature project between our two schools - LCC, here in Montreal, and Neveh Channah in Etzion Bloc, Israel.

Reuven has passed along some websites about blended learning to me recently. Here is a wiki dedicated to blended learning, which also points to the wikipedia article on the same. Also, Reuven passed along this article by Diane Oblinger from Educause about the future of e-learning and our need for a better definition of the concept. There are many different flavours of e-learning these days and we must be careful to choose the best approach for our learners as we go along.

We had a terrific meeting and I met both Phylis, English dept. head at N.C. and Leora, the teacher I will be collaborating with. It was great to see Reuven too. For this year’s lit project, we have decided to do short stories. The teachers have selected 3 Israel short stories, which will be translated into English - so two different subject areas will be involved as they hope they can get the Hebrew teacher to teach the stories in that course as well. I will choose a similar amount of Canadian short stories for my students. We created a timeline for the project during the meeting. Then we took a look at the moodle learning management system that I had created and played around in it to explore its features. We decided we would use it as the place the students will communicate with each other, but will take it for a test drive for the rest of the summer to make sure it is stable. It has a nifty instant messaging feature (a true plus!) plus the ability to create quizzes and even wikis.

I am quite excited about our project this year!

2 comments July 27th, 2005

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