The White-Knuckle Ride of the Virtual Classroom

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Photo Credit: oiva_eskola via Compfight cc

Imagine if you had to check if your students could speak at the beginning of every class? Imagine if you were never 100% sure that they could hear you when you spoke? Imagine if you never knew for sure if the doors to your classroom were open (and would definitely stay open) for the duration of your class? Welcome, ladies and gentleman, to the rollercoaster ride of teaching in the virtual online classroom.

I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a professional development module on Online Teaching for the last semester at DCU. As you’d expect, we’ve used many different formats, approaches, and technologies – discussion forums, multimedia learning objects, Padlets, Soundcloud, Articulate, Google Docs and more. But without a shred of doubt, the virtual classroom experience has been the most challenging for me to get to grips with as a teacher.

Now part of me wonders if maybe it’s just me. But I consider myself moderately technically competent. I don’t think I’m stupid. And I’ve had the benefit of some practice and tinkering with systems such as Adobe Connect and Google Hangouts in the past. In fact, I’m part of a local (‘Meitheal’) community of practice where we regularly connect using web conferencing technology. So wouldn’t you think it would be a walk in the park? Well let me give you a flavour of how things went:

Webinar 1 –  over 20 participants attended and in retrospect, this was probably the most successful event technically. A written guide to Adobe Connect was distributed to attendees before hand, along with specific requests to complete connectivity diagnostic tests and audio configuration in advance. I benefited from great advice from Suzanne Stone about easing students into it with a fun, ‘no pressure’ orientation. At one point students were invited to use their microphones to tell us about their day. Despite some minor hiccups, most students were able to participate and use the mic. My colleague Pip Ferguson was also there to help moderate the discussion and keep track of the chat box activity while I led the session.  (Stress-o-meter rating: High. This was my first webinar of the course and I wasn’t sure how it would go.)

Webinar 2 – about 11 participants attended but it turned out that several others had tried and failed to access via Adobe Connect. This was due to an institution-wide ISS issue that I had no control over. That was rather disconcerting but at least I knew the session would be recorded. After being inspired by advice from Michael Hallissy, I was keen to use breakout rooms as part of the webinar so that people could split up into groups to discuss what they heard. Turned out my genius plan to split people into specific groups took longer than expected and there was noticeable delay while I moved people around into their respective groups.(Stress-o-meter rating: High. Dead air for a while – the minutes felt like hours.)

Webinar 3 – By now I was hoping that all of the teething problems would be sorted. Turns out that this time, several students had issues using their mics and there was a lot of not-so-scintillating “Can you hear me? No. I can hear you but you can’t hear me” conversation going on. This became particularly problematic during the breakout sessions which had to revert to chat box conversation mainly. This was particularly frustrating since I wanted participants to be able to talk about their online collaborative projects, by, well, collaborating online. (Stress-o-meter rating:  High. Growing despair about the way the technical issues were affecting how I wanted to run the course.)

Webinar 4 – about 14 participants attended. This time the technical problem was squarely at my end. Despite having reminded students about the importance of preparation, I was the one who couldn’t share my voice this time. Thankfully my colleague Muireann O’Keeffe was able to take the lead until I got sorted out. (Stress-o-meter rating:  Off the chart initially, when I couldn’t ‘speak’. Reduced by assistance from presenter who led the event at the start. )

So where am I going with with this saga, you may be wondering? And why does it matter to anyone else?  Well based on my own (limited) experience, and because forewarned is forearmed, I’d like to offer anyone considering hosting a virtual classroom session/webinar some words of advice. Here are five  critical conditions, as I see them, to give you a decent chance of success:

  1. Allow time for technology orientation – both for you as the host, and the students. This is particularly important if you want students to use the mic (see 4).
  2. Allow yourself flying time – expect a few wobbles as you gain confidence and skills. You will only improve over time but you won’t be perfect to begin with (if ever!)
  3. Have some technical backup – have a colleague and ideally some form of Tech Support on hand to help you moderate the discussion and/or step in as needed
  4. Do try to make the sessions interactive – it is probably much easier to broadcast rather than hear back from the class but then why bother with a webinar at all? If you’re doing all the talking, there’s a question to be asked. Polls, chat box questions, and most of all students’ voices help to democratize the learning experience.
  5. Run them again, and again, and again – the only way to get better at these, I suspect, is through frequency. Torturous as it may be, it’s probably best to practice as often as you can. They should get easier but I’ll get back to you on that!

I would also love to hear your experiences and thoughts too, so please do reply if you’ve got something to say about this. There are undoubtedly many many factors that determine if you will have a disaster or a dream live classroom event. And, of course, not all of them are within your control. But who ever learned by playing everything entirely safe?






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