Online Seminars: Better than being there…

On 3 March 2010, Beyond Distance (funded by the Higher Education Academy) hosted a Podcasting in Assessment Seminar (PANTHER) which was both face-to-face and online. 35 delegates gathered at the University of Leicester to share experience and evidence gathered in the use of podcasts for assessment. 31 delegates from around the world joined in by means of the web classroom software ‘Wimba.’ The blended nature of this seminar gave us the opportunity for some comparison between its face-to-face and online  experiences.

Before the seminar started, people came into the room pretty much on time, spoke politely to those sitting nearby, sat down and individually quietly prepared for the seminar. In the Wimba online room, people logged in as much as 45 minutes early, and, using the chat, introduced themselves and talked to each. The online chat was easy-going and often informal. Everyone online could see what every other e-delegate typed into the chatbox, allowing for integrated communication. Pre-seminar communication was therefore more plentiful and inclusive amongst online participants than among face-to-face participants.

During the seminar, people in the physical university room were quiet until invited to submit questions. Online participants, however, were able to comment immediately and ask questions at anytime. Our e-moderator gathered up and submitted questions to the panel at the question time. In the morning session, there were more questions from the online participants than from those face-to-face; in the afternoon, there were more face-to-face questions. However, online participants constantly discussed with each other throughout the seminar, using Wimba chat facility as their ‘back channel’.  A few of the participants in the University room had laptops with them and took part online too. These dual-mode delegates acted as bridges between the two environments and engaged in discussion with both groupings. Our impression is that face-to-face participants took more time to get warmed up and inducted into the nature of the sessions, whereas the online participants jumped right in. Also, online participants benefited from the freedom to constantly comment and discuss during the seminar.

At one point in the seminar, participants in the live session were divided into groups and asked to work together to plan and record a podcast episode, and to share it with everyone. Online participants did the same – some in groups, some individually.  The resulting files were emailed to us. We received files in a variety of languages and formats including some enhanced podcasts (podcasts with added visuals). It was fascinating to see how varied, creative, and resourceful these submissions were. Once we received these files, we played them for the face-to-face participants and made sure Wimba transmitted them as well, so all participants could hear and see what everyone else had produced.

I would not suggest that all face-to-face, physically based conferences should be replaced by online or virtual conferences.  But we have demonstrated that e-conferencing offers special benefits: more and freer discussion, faster engagement with the presentations; access to all other computer- and internet-based resources close at hand during the session, and money, time and carbon saved from avoiding travel.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist, Beyond Distance Research Alliance

 

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