Advice for Your First Web Conference

Advice for your first web conference
The first time your class meets virtually can be daunting. If you’re not practiced at web conferencing, it may feel awkward and foreign. You probably felt pretty nervous the first time you walked in front of a classroom of students, too. Here are a few tips to turn you into a web conferencing pro:

Create a sketch of the session
List your main goals and how you hope to accomplish them. Create an outline or “storyboard” of your session. Consider what features of the web conferencing software you will use and make note of any additional resources you will need such as links to websites, images, etc.

Keep it simple
Don’t try to use everything. You don’t need to use every tool in the software. Pick a few key ones and then focus on the content and communication. You don’t want your meeting to be about the tool. Don’t try to do too much in one session. If it’s your first online class meeting, your students may need to adjust to a different way of interacting. Keep your main goal in mind.

Include interaction
You may not be in the same room with your participants, but you can still interact with them. Consider including an icebreaker activity at the beginning of the session. If the group is small, give everyone a chance to introduce themselves. Ask them questions. If there’s a polling tool or emoticons, use it to get quick feedback. Avoid too much text and use graphics that work with your content.

Managing participation
Plan in advance how you will manage questions or comments from participants. Is there a “Raise Hand“ to request the microphone or get your attention? Will they type in the chat window? Send you a private chat message? Let participants know how they are expected to participate at the outset of the session. Being clear will help ease any confusion.

Practice, Practice, Practice
Do a dry run of your session using all the tools you will use in the real session. Treat it like a dress rehearsal. Invite a friend or colleague to be your “student.” The more comfortable you are with the virtual space and its tools, the less you have to think about them. This allows you to focus on your students and the presentation material.

Do a little self-reflection after the session. What worked? What didn’t? Why? What might you want to do differently next time? It’s easy to skip this important step, but don’t. Review while the session is still fresh in your mind.


What is Web Conferencing?

Skype session (3672031682)
What is web conferencing?
A web conference is a live online meeting. Each person sits at his or her own computer and interacts via a web application. Participants may communicate via audio, webcams and text chat. Often there’s a whiteboard tool that allows the instructor to show Powerpoint-style slides and mark them up on the fly.

What would I use web conferencing for?
Web conferencing is your virtual classroom. Students, guest speakers and distant subject matter experts can all visit without ever needing to come to campus. Invite that colleague from California to speak to your New England students. Hold class on a snow day. Conduct office hours from home. Participate in training and professional development offerings without traveling.

Web conferencing can open up the world. It can allow students and faculty to expand their network of knowledgeable colleagues beyond their town. While doing so, students also build technical skills, learn new ways of interacting and potentially learn a little about the culture of those distant individuals they are conferencing with.

What’s the downside?
Bandwidth, bandwidth, bandwidth. All that audio, video, and images can take a toll on someone’s internet connection. Participants on slower connections may find themselves feeling frustrated with choppy audio and missed content. Second, when scheduling a guest speaker keep time zones in mind. Your class may meet at 9am, but it’s only 6am on the west coast. Finally, less tech savvy users may find the learning curve for hosting a web conference overwhelming.

The good news is that all of these cons can be overcome with planning and practice. List your goals. Outline and storyboard your session. Then invite a friend to practice with. Do a ‘dress rehearsal’ of your meeting. This will build your confidence and allow you to focus on your content rather than the tool.

What about video chat?
Video chat is very similar to web conferencing, but simpler. It will let you have an audio and video phone call with several people. Text chat is often included in case someone’s microphone isn’t working, but this feature can also be used to pose questions and comments without interrupting the current speaker. It’s a great tool for group discussions and may work well for a Q&A with a guest speaker, but it won’t give you the more traditional classroom tools such as whiteboards and Powerpoint presentations.


Attending Your Residency Virtually

Toni Czekanski from the Center for Reading Recovery had a student who was due to have a baby and would not be able to attend residency in Cambridge. Students in residency spent time in small groups of three or four people analyzing and discussing videos of each other’s teaching before separating to work on individual tasks. Toni wanted to find a way for the student to participate in the group work that went beyond listening in on a conference call all day. She decided to give Blackboard IM (BB IM) a try.

Toni placed the student in a group that was already using online tools like YouTube or Vimeo to share their videos and asked each of them to install BB IM. The students viewed each others’ videos using the Web Tour feature and then held a discussion about their observations using the Skype-like audio and video group call functionality. They could also add quick comments or questions for the person speaking via the text-based chat without having to interrupt them or forget their comment. The Screen Sharing feature allowed them to share other documents on their computers.

During residency instructors could use BB IM to follow up with the distant student. After residency, they could also meet with all of their students online and the students could continue to work together in their groups.



Virtual Office Hours

How do you hold office hours for an online course? Sam Smiley uses Blackboard IM (BB IM). BB IM combines the ability to easily communicate via text, audio and video as in Skype with some web conferencing features such as whiteboards and screen sharing that allow faculty and students to collaborate online as they might in person.

In January 2012, Sam introduced BB IM to her Internship Seminar students. She then posted her Office Hours schedule in her myLesley course. Each Monday night, Sam would log into BB IM and field questions from students. Some were simple questions that could be handled with a quick text message and the student was on his or her way. Audio or video calls worked great for questions that required a bit more explanation or finesse that might not come across in text. The whiteboard tool allowed her Creative Arts and Learning students to share and annotate images while the desktop and website sharing tools allowed Sam to demonstrate processes or answer questions as she might in the face-to-face classroom using the projector or physical whiteboard.

It took a little time for Sam to build interest with her students, but by the end of the course her students were beginning to regularly check in. It worked so well that she is using BB IM with her current courses. As her students work on group projects, they can also use BB IM to collaborate on the fly without Sam needing to set up a space for them to do so.

Give BB IM a try!

Learn more about BB IM Office Hours.