When my son was growing up, he immersed himself in all of the, then, newest gaming devices. I remember Sega Genesis, Nintendo, and countless games on those ancient five and a quarter inch floppy discs. As he got older, the games became more sophisticated and expensive. Not to mention, they required more skill. Even after hours of one-on-one tutoring with my four-year-old daughter, I just could not get the hang of the Little Mermaid game! My son’s love of gaming lead to a degree in computer game design. He is not unique among millennials in their knowledge and skill with digital games and social media. Many of you reading this may recall Frogger, Mine Shaft, and World of Warcraft.
As a special education classroom teacher for many decades, I saw the impact of an increasingly tech-savvy generation in the classroom. Students quickly become bored with worksheets and traditional sage-on-the-stage lectures. At the college level, online learning is exploding as universities seek to expand their student recruitment combined with reaching the adult learner with limited time, or geographical limits. Especially for a diverse student population, it is critical for professors to plunge into the depths of this digital world. Faculty and staff who have no formal training in instructional design and technology (Huett, Moller, Foshay, & Coleman, 2008) often develop research shows online classes. You may be a subject matter expert, but there are nuances to online learning. One aspect of online instruction is asynchronous learning activities. I have discovered that using blogs, discussion boards, journals, and wikis are simply not enough for students in the course to forge a sense of connectedness and community. While these tools certainly have their function in the online environment, students may do the minimum and do not go back to the activities once they have completed the criteria. It is also necessary for the instructor to stay active in these tools.
So, let us talk about synchronous learning tools. This blog is to compare just a few of the platforms I have used in online learning. I am going to focus on those that are free and for which I have experience. First, Skype. This is the platform I have used the longest and it is one of the original videoconferencing tools. Pros: It is free! It has the option to share desktops, is easy to install and rather user friendly, calls are free anywhere in the world, and there are no limits to number of chats or video conferences. Cons: Does not support conference recording, is not entirely safe from hackers, if you use a webcam, the quality of the call is compromised, numerous dropped calls, and background noise. In conclusion, I do not like Skype for an online course tool. It is sort of all right for a one-on-one and you could use this for digital office hours, but for engaging the entire class, this would not be useful.
Google Hangout is another platform I have used quite a bit. I have research meetings with people all around the world. The connections are often strong and clearer than Skype. Pros: It is free!, It is easy to install and set-up, you can have up to 10 people on one call, the app is pre-installed on most Android phones, easy to record sessions for later viewing, and contains productivity apps. This leads to the cons: The more apps you download- the slower the connection, no single click conferencing-meaning the user must create a hangout account and then invite participants, you need to have a Google+ account to use the advanced features, and there is a good possibility that someone will be dropped from the call. Another disadvantage is screen sharing as you will need to download an additional app.
Finally, the platform I like the most – Zoom! This is a free download and easy to set-up. They have three tier options for the paid version. In the free platform, your time is limited to 40 minutes and capped at 25 participants. The paid tiers allow much more time and participants. So for shorter meetings, it is great! I found that the connections are strong and reliable. Pros: You can record the conference for later viewing. All participants can share their desktop with each other, and like Skype and Hangout, it can be used on many devices, e.g. tablets, cellphones, etc. Another advantage is that participants can instant message during the meeting. You can also plan meetings in advance and it connects to your Dropbox account. The only con is that you cannot share real time documents. The paid versions are inexpensive and I think I read somewhere that for educational agencies, it costs as little as .99 cents, but even at the regular price of $9.99 a month, it is quite affordable. I have been using Zoom for my classroom observations of teachers in my special education program. I feel as if I am in the room with them and I can give instant feedback. I also use this once a week for a synchronous meeting with small groups of students.
For online learners, it is critical to develop a sense of community and belonging. Even with all of the fancy tools in Blackboard, I feel that you still need live contact. It helps the student to see you and to interact with their peers. There are a plethora of online video conferencing tools available, each with their own unique advantages and disadvantages. Consider, also, the universal design for learning and the accessibility of learners with exceptionalities. Closed captioning would be perfect for these learners and all three of the tools I mentioned are able to have closed captions, but someone must type in the transcript.
When I prepare technology based activities for my online students that I think are creative and collaborative, I spend so much time spent explaining the technology that they lose the sense of engagement with the class. Therefore, it is best to start with an orientation the first day of the course where you walk through how to use all of the technology in the course. You can do this through asynchronous platforms like Panotpto, which is available in Blackboard, but I think it would be better to have a live orientation through one of the video conferencing tools. You are bound to get many questions!
Another tip for successful online instruction, meet with your students through a synchronous tool at least once a week. If you have a small class, you could talk to everyone at once. For those huge courses, you can break students up into cohort groups and either meet with the cohort group or have them choose a representative who will meet with you once a week. They can take turns as the rep, and you will be able to interface with more students.
I hope this has been helpful. One caveat, I know that Blackboard has Collaborate embedded in it, but I have not experienced success with this at all! There are several blogs on the IDT website that can help with this tool!