October 24, 2016

Some comments on synchronous online learning technologies

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A typical Webex interface

A typical Webex interface

Last week was a week of synchronous online sessions for me. I did ‘virtual’ keynotes into conferences in Tehran, Iran, and Beirut, the Lebanon, as well as a Contact North webinar.

The presentations

The topics were as follows:

The technologies

Each was done using a different combination of technologies:

  • Contact North’s was done using Cisco’s Webex, involving Powerpoint slides with my voice over in real time, and questions and comments submitted as text through the Webex chat facility; in this case there were fifty students from 16 different countries scattered around the world attending live. In addition there were about another fifty signed up who could later access a recording of the webinar;
  • the Iranian conference used a YouTube recording of a session I gave face-to-face at York University in 2012, which staff at York had recorded and uploaded to YouTube. The video presentation in the lecture hall was followed by an audio question and answer session from people in the conference hall using VOIP (voice over the Internet) through an American telecommunications company, Webco;
  • the Beirut conference used Citrix’s GoToMeeting web conferencing. This time, I ran the Powerpoint slides on my own computer, which then used GoToMeeting’s shared screen facility to deliver the slides (and my voice) into the lecture theatre in Beirut. Questions and comments were both sent by audio over the Internet and as text through the GoToMeeting chat facility.

In all three cases, as a presenter I was dependent on using the technology solution chosen by the client.

The results: technology

I haven’t seen any formal evaluation yet from participants. I would really like to hear from any participants about what their experience was of the technology. I am conscious then that I can report only from my perspective.

Technically, the smoothest by far was the Contact North webinar, even though the webinar was delivered to many different locations around the world using standard desktop computing and the Internet. The sound quality in particular was excellent. It is not surprising that the technical quality was high, as Contact North has a long history and great experience in audio conferencing. I had the services of an exceptionally high quality moderator provided by Contact North with lots of experience of moderating webinars. This is important, as he was able to pick up the text-based questions and comments that were arriving via the chat facility while I was presenting, and thus he was able to choose the order of questions and comments. (Contact North prefers not to use the audio for comments from participants when there are as many as fifty online different locations.) Also if there were unanswered questions during the session I could answer them later by e-mail, which Contact North would then distribute to those that had signed up.

With the Iranian conference, the use of a pre-existing video of one of my keynotes enabled a high quality technical presentation via local video and sound. However, the big problem for me was the quality of the sound coming back from the lecture theatre in Tehran when it came to the Q and A session. While I was responding to questions, I could hear my voice coming back from the lecture theatre speakers (with about a half second delay), even though I was using a headset and microphone, which meant I had to focus really hard on what I was saying. Also it was impossible for me to hear the questions being asked in Tehran, due to the poor quality of the audio by the time it reached me. I think this had more to do with the acoustics of a traditional lecture theatre and the use of hand-held microphones than the quality of the audio link over the Internet. However, the questions were converted into text via the chat facility, so I was able to respond to them verbally. Nevertheless, given that the presentation and the Q and A session was delivered in a foreign language, I suspect that it must have been difficult for many of the participants.

Language would not have been such a problem at the American University of Beirut, where the teaching is mainly in English. I can’t comment on the quality of the video and sound at the other end. Again, though, it was difficult for me to hear the questions from Beirut and again the chat facility was essential. However, in this case there was not much time for questions in any case.

Overall, audio quality is often the weakest link, especially if people are in an open lecture theatre. The technical problems interfered a little but not enough to prevent my getting across the main points of what I wanted to talk about. The Q and A sessions were not as smooth though as I would like on the conference presentations.

The results: pedagogical

This is more difficult to assess. The issues are general to all keynotes or presentations. Even though some technology systems allow the presenter to see at least a small group of the audience via video, I feel I am always talking into a vacuum when doing webinars or online presentations. Provided the technology is working this is not usually a major problem, but I have in the past been in a situation where I was talking for 15 minutes or more after a connection had been dropped before I became aware that I was talking to myself. Over time, though, the technology has become more reliable, although the basic design (a space for slides with voice over, and chat for questions and comments) has changed very little over the last 20 years.

The bigger issue is that it’s still a lecture and although I do my best to break it up with a few questions or opportunities for comment every ten minutes or so, I am deeply conscious that I am working in a way that is contrary to the message I am usually trying to get across.

Another limitation is that while there is plenty of opportunity for questions and comment, it is very difficult to get a genuine discussion going amongst the participants in the way that you can with an asynchronous discussion forum.

The real benefits

The real benefits of web conferencing are really to do with convenience, economics and ecology.

For participants, the advantage of being able to log on from home or the office rather than travel long distances to a conference or lecture theatre is considerable. For those in a conference, being able to access speakers at a distance enables a wider range of perspectives and approaches to be covered within the conference than would otherwise have been possible. This was particularly important for the people in Tehran who are really anxious to establish better contact with other specialists in online learning now that sanctions are being removed.

For presenters such as myself, the convenience is enormous. I get increasingly jet lagged by international travel, and being able to work from home is also very nice. (However, time differences can be a problem: my presentation into Beirut at 10.00 am their time meant I had to do the presentation between midnight and 1.00 am my time in Vancouver. It was not helped by having a dinner party that ended just before the presentation.) If I had travelled to Beirut or Tehran, it would have been a week out of my life, just for 40 minutes to one hour. Indeed, it wouldn’t have happened because I just don’t want to do that any more (when I was younger, it was different).

And of course there is the cost. Even without a speaker fee and flying economy, you are looking at something like $3,000 to bring a speaker from North America to the Middle East, by the time you have covered meals, hotel, taxis and air fare.

And lastly, there is the environment. The cost in greenhouse gases in flying such long distances is huge. Anything we can do to lower greenhouse gases these days is really worthwhile.

Nevertheless, there is a loss. I was in Tehran many years ago, but I would like to visit Beirut one day. You don’t get the close social interaction and networking that physical presence at a conference can provide, and these are often the most valuable parts of a conference for me. The technology is still a little awkward and clumsy and could be designed better to encourage more interaction. But the advantages so much outweigh the disadvantages.

Now I’m off to Toronto for the ChangTalks at Ryerson. This time I will be talking about building an effective teaching environment. It’s more about gardening though than technology. I’ll explain later.





  1. Bonnie Nicholas says:

    I was in the Contact North webinar and the technology worked well from my perspective as a participant. The sound quality was excellent. I agree that the moderator did a great job; he used my name a couple of times when reading my questions, which added to my feeling of engagement with the webinar.

  2. I’m glad that you addressed the pedagogical implications of teleconferencing in education. As with online learning it cannot be as simple as taking a face to face presentation and presenting it using a digital medium. There needs to be a conscientiousand systematic look at what is trying to be achieved and the methods that can be used to meet the goals.

  3. I am glad to found your stuff here. It becomes very advantageous for students to learn online. Without spending much time and effort you can gain more knowledge. You have elaborated it very well and I have got very useful and most informative things here. Thanks for posting your stuff through this way.

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