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Learners' experiences of synchronous online activities: final project report for ELESIG. May 2012

Learners' experiences of synchronous online activities: final project report for ELESIG. May 2012

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    Learners' experiences of synchronous online activities Learners' experiences of synchronous online activities Document Transcript

    •     Learners’  experiences  of   synchronous  online  activities         Project  report   May  2012             Sarah  Cornelius   Carole  Gordon   University  of  Aberdeen
    •  Please  cite  this  report  as:  Cornelius  S  and  Gordon  C  (2012)  Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  project  report.  Written  for  the  ELESIG  small  grants  scheme.  Aberdeen,  University  of  Aberdeen    Contributions and Acknowledgements  Carole  Gordon  acted  as  Principle  Investigator  for  this  project  until  June  2011  when  Sarah  Cornelius  took  over  this  role.    Research  was  conducted  jointly  by  Carole  and  Sarah.  The  support  of  colleagues  on  the  Teaching  Qualification  Further  Education  (TQFE)  –  Chris  Aldred,  Yvonne  Bain,  Margaret  Harris,  Lorna  Johnson  and  Jan  Schyma  -­‐  is  gratefully  acknowledged.  The  design  and  implementation  of  synchronous  online  learning  on  the  TQFE  has  been  a  team  effort,  and  members  of  the  team  have  supported  this  particular  project  in  various  ways,  including  providing  ideas  for  the  original  bid  for  funding  and  acting  as  critical  friends  throughout.  Thanks  are  also  due  to  members  of  the  Centre  for  Learning  and  Teaching  at  the  University  of  Aberdeen,  particularly  Sara  Preston,  Loraine  D’Antin  and  Rhian  Wood,  who  have  supported  the  teams’  work  with  web  conferencing.  Finally,  sincere  thanks  are  due  to  the  participants  who  gave  time  to  the  project  and  provided  frank  and  honest  feedback  on  their  experiences.      ContentsBackground  to  project…………………………………………………………………………………………    3  Aims……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………    5  Project  outputs……………………………………………………………………………………………………    5  Methodology………………………………………………………………………………………………………    6  Findings………………………………………………………………………………………………………………    8  Conclusions  and  recommendations……………………………………………………………………   27  References…………………………………………………………………………………………………………   29  Appendices………………………………………………………………………………………………………..   30    Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   2  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • Background to project    Web  conferencing  sessions  became  an  integral  part  of  the  online  version  of  the  Teaching  Qualification  in  Further  Education  (TQFE)  at  the  University  of  Aberdeen  in  2009.  By  the  start  of  this  research  project  in  2011  six  cohorts  of  learners  (over  60  in  total)  had  completed  the  programme  using  a  blended  online  approach.  This  includes  the  use  online  activities  delivered  via  a  virtual  learning  environment,  tutor  led  workshops  in  the  web  conferencing  software  Elluminate  Live!,  and  student-­‐led  collaborative  investigations.  Learners  on  the  programme  were  all  in-­‐service  lecturers  from  Scottish  Further  Education  colleges.  They  were  geographically  dispersed,  represented  a  variety  of  professional  and  vocational  subject  areas,  had  diverse  academic  backgrounds  and  varying  levels  of  IT  confidence  and  expertise.  Following  a  face-­‐to-­‐face  induction  session,  web  conferencing  was  accessed  by  participants  from  their  home  or  work  location  and  used  throughout  the  programme  to  provide  a  variety  of  learning  experiences  including:      Workshops.  Regular  sessions  involving  up  to  12  learners  included  tutor  led  activities   such  as  icebreakers,  individual  activities,  large  and  small  group  discussions,  short   presentations  and  student-­‐led  activities  such  as  poster  ‘presentations’.  They  included   frequent  opportunities  for  interaction  using  audio,  text,  whiteboard  tools,  emoticons   and  polling.  During  workshops  web  conferencing  was  often  combined  with  the  use  of   external  resources  including  web  sites,  YouTube  videos  and  documents.    Tutorials.  These  were  shorter  sessions  that  focused  on  assignment  tasks  and  included   tutor  led  activities  and  discussions  with  smaller  groups  on  assignment  related  study   skills.    Open  office  sessions.  Tutors  made  themselves  available  for  consultation  by  individual   learners  during  virtual  office  hours.  These  sessions  addressed  assignment  related   issues  and  file  sharing  was  a  commonly  used  tool.      Student-­‐led  meetings.  Learners  were  required  to  work  collaboratively  to  investigate   problems  and  issues  relevant  to  their  professional  practice  and  groups  were   encouraged  to  use  web  conferencing  to  facilitate  teamwork  between  geographically  Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   3  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • dispersed  group  members.  Some  groups  used  web  conferencing  on  a  regular  basis,  to   facilitate  interaction,  whilst  others  found  alternative  ways  of  collaborating.    By  the  end  of  the  online  TQFE  a  learner  will  have  completed  more  than  40  hours  of  study  time  using  web  conferencing.  Thus  they  can  be  regarded  as  experienced  users,  who  have  developed  a  high  level  of  familiarity  and  confidence  with  web  conferencing  software.    Learners  were  regularly  asked  to  provide  feedback  on  their  experiences  of  the  programme  and  the  delivery  approach.  Feedback  from  the  first  cohort  of  online  learners  led  to  changes  to  the  structure  and  presentation  of  sessions  and  activities,  for  example  the  inclusion  of  frequent  short  breaks  during  workshops,  and  revisions  to  the  approach  to  using  icebreaker  activities.    However,  despite  helpful  feedback  from  learners,  tutors  indicated  that  they  were  still  unsure  exactly  what  it  was  like  to  be  a  participant  in  the  virtual  classroom  sessions.  Reflection  on  the  tutoring  experience  led  the  tutoring  team  to  consider  the  ‘duality’  of  experience  that  might  be  taking  place  –  the  possibility  that  there  was  a  significant,  but  potentially  invisible,  difference  between  what  the  tutor  thinks  is  taking  place  and  what  the  learner  is  actually  doing  or  feeling.  For  example,  during  an  activity  which  involves  watching  a  short  video  clip  tutors  cannot  see  learners’  actions  or  responses,  so  it  is  almost  impossible  for  them  to  tell  if  learners  are  enjoying  the  film,  annoyed  by  it,  having  technical  problems  or  engaged  in  a  completely  different  activity.  At  the  same  time  tutors  suggested  that  it  was  important  to  be  able  to  appreciate  and  understand  learners’  experiences  to  facilitate  the  development  of  appropriate,  engaging  and  effective  activities  for  their  online  sessions.      Whilst  there  has  been  other  research  into  learners’  and  teachers’  experiences  of  web  conferencing,  much  of  this  has  involved  learners  and/or  teachers  relatively  new  to  the  environment  (for  example  Ng,  2007;  Kear  et  al.,  2012).  The  TQFE  programme  provided  the  opportunity  to  conduct  research  with  more  experienced  and  confident  learners  who  were  able  to  provide  evidence  of  a  wider  range  of  experiences  over  a  full  academic  year  –  a  period  longer  than  that  considered  in  most  other  studies  to  date  (including  McBrien  et  al.,  2009  and  Wang  and  Hsu,  2009).    Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   4  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • Project aims  The  main  aim  of  this  project  was  to  gain  a  better  understanding  of  our  learners’  experiences  in  synchronous  online  classroom  to  help  us,  and  others,  develop  engaging  and  effective  learning  experiences  informed  by  learner  feedback.      A  secondary  aim  was  to  share  some  of  the  activities  and  information  about  learners’  experiences  with  the  wider  HE  and  FE  community,  particularly  those  who  are  using  or  planning  to  use  web  conferencing.    Project outputs  Project  outputs  include:     1. The  learners’  experiences  blog.  Contributions  to  the  blog  were  made  between   February  and  May  2011,  but  the  blog  remains  accessible  at   wtolexperiences.wordpress.com.   2. Recommendations  for  web  conferencing  faciltators  based  on  learners’  experiences.   Appendix  1  contains  the  final  set  of  recommendations  developed  from  the  findings   of  this  project.  These  recommendations  have  been  made  freely  available  via   slideshare  and  the  ELESIG  ning  site,   3. This  project  report   4. Webinar  and  conference  presentations.  An  online  presentation  was  delivered  to  the   JISC  e-­‐learning  conference  in  Novemebr  2011  and  a  recording  of  this  session  is  freely   available  at:   http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/elearningpedagogy/elpconference11 /Activity%20Week.aspx.  A  paper  was  also  presented  to  the  4th  International   Conference  on  Computer  Supported  Learning  and  received  the  best  conference   paper  award  (see  http://www.csedu.org/PreviousAwards.aspx).  In  addition,   presentations  and  a  poster  (Appendix  1)  drawing  on  the  project  have  been  shared  Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   5  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • internally  within  the  University  of  Aberdeen.  All  of  these  events  have  provided  the   opportunity  to  share  details  of  some  of  the  synchronous  online  activities  used  on  the   TQFE.   5. Publications.  A  paper  based  on  the  conference  paper  presented  is  in  preparation   and  an  additional  unforeseen  outcome  is  that  the  findings  of  this  research  will   contribute  to  a  book  on  live  online  learning  being  co-­‐authored  by  four  of  the  TQFE   team.  Work  on  this  is  currently  underway  and  publication  expected  in  2013/4.      Methodology    Two  methods  of  obtaining  detailed  accounts  of  learners’  experiences  were  used.      1.  Open  Access  blog  An  open  access  blog  was  set  up  at  wtolexperiences.wordpress.com.  The  blog  was  introduced  at  an  online  ‘project  launch’  event  in  February  2011  and  all  TQFE  participants  who  had  completed  the  programme  were  invited  by  email  to  contribute.  They  were  provided  with  instructions  on  how  to  find  the  blog,  how  to  add  comments  and  how  to  receive  RSS  feeds.  Three  tutors  posted  blog  entries  on  various  aspects  of  the  programme  (for  example  ice  breakers,  small  group  work  in  breakout  rooms  and  discussions),  raising  questions  to  prompt  learners  to  reflect  on  and  share  their  experiences  (an  example  is  provided  in  Figure  1).  Eight  ‘starter  postings’  were  made  by  tutors  between  February  and  May  2011.  Twenty  one  comments  were  received  from  six  learners,  some  lengthy  and  detailed.  The  blog  was  promoted  on  the  ELESIG  website  to  encourage  contributions  from  other  learners  and  tutors,  however,  all  contributions  received  were  from  TQFE  participants.    Blog  entries  were  reviewed  by  the  two  researchers  to  identify  the  main  emerging  themes  and  issues  for  further  discussion  (see  Appendix  2).        Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   6  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    •  Figure  1:  Screenshots  from  the  wtolexperiences  blog  showing  an  example  message  posted  by   tutors.  Two  comments  were  received  in  response  to  this  posting.    2.  Group  interview  The  emerging  themes  and  questions  (Appendix  2)  were  circulated  to  all  blog  contributors  along  with  an  invitation  to  participate  in  a  semi-­‐structured  group  interview  to  allow  further  exploration  of  issues  raised.  The  group  interview  took  place  at  a  FE  college  in  Central  Scotland  in  May  2011  and  was  attended  by  three  participants  and  the  two  researchers.  A  brief  summary  of  the  blog  postings  was  presented  to  open  the  discussion,  but  participants  were  allowed  to  take  the  conversation  in  any  direction  they  wished  and  raise  additional  topics.  The  interview  provided  rich  detail  of  the  participants’  experiences  and  indicates  areas  of  common  and  diverse  experiences.    The  conversation  was  recorded  and  transcribed  in  full.      Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   7  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    •  Analysis  The  blog  postings  and  interview  transcript  were  analysed  iteratively  by  the  two  researchers  to  identify  emerging  themes  and  illustrative  quotations.  Following  independent  analysis,  themes  were  discussed,  sorted  and  classified  to  inform  the  recommendations  and  sub-­‐recommendations,  each  supported  by  appropriate  quotations  from  learners.      Findings  Analysis  led  to  the  identification  of  nine  themes,  each  with  a  number  of  sub  themes  that  were  re-­‐worded  to  produce  recommendations.  The  final  recommendations  are  presented  in  Appendix  3  and  are  considered  in  turn  below.    For  each  theme  the  recommendation,  a  summary  statement  and  any  sub-­‐recommendations  are  presented,  followed  by  a  narrative  section  which  includes  extracts  from  blog  and  interview  contributions  to  indicate  how  the  evidence  obtained  from  learners  has  contributed  to  the  recommendations  drafted.    Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   8  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • Theme  1:  Preparation  and  initial  guidance  Recommendation:    Prepare  learners  for  learning  in  the  Virtual  Classroom    Learners  should  be  encouraged  to  consider  their  study  location  and  technical  set  up  before  engaging  in  formal  learning  sessions.  Advise  them  to  engage  with  sessions  from  a  location  that  suits  them  –  preferably  somewhere  where  they  will  feel  relaxed  and  where  there  are  minimal  distractions  and  interruptions.  Initial  technological  problems  create  anxieties  for  learners  and  impact  on  their  experiences.  Facilitators  can  help  by  providing  clear  and  precise  information  about  equipment  requirements  and  allocating  time  to  help  with  technological  issues.  Making  the  Virtual  Classroom  easy  to  find  and  access  will  prevent  learners  getting  ‘lost’.    Sub-­‐recommendation  1:  Encourage  learners  to  consider  where  they  will  be  when  engaging  with  the  Virtual  Classroom  –  and  be  aware  of  where  your  learners  are  Sub-­‐recommendation  2:  Allow  time  and  provide  support  to  help  learners  get  set  up  technically  Sub-­‐Recommendation  3:  Make  the  Virtual  Classroom  easy  to  find    Learners  should  be  encouraged  to  consider  their  study  location  and  technical  set  up  before  engaging  in  ‘formal’  learning  sessions.    They  should  be  advised  to  engage  with  sessions  from  a  location  that  suits  them  –  preferably  somewhere  where  they  will  feel  relaxed  and  where  there  are  minimal  distractions  and  interruptions.  One  blogger  worked  exclusively  from  home  where  she  was  more  relaxed:  “I  attended  all  my  classes  from  home…[this]  worked  really  well  for  me  since  I  had  no  distractions…  [it]  worked  well  for  evening  [student-­‐led]  meetings  too.  Atmosphere  at  home  was  more  relaxed  than  it  would  have  been  in  the  office  and  a  constant  supply  of  tea  and  biscuits  helped.  My  office  environment  would  have  been  far  too  noisy,  busy  and  cold  to  allow  proper  concentration  and  I  suspect  there  would  have  been  multiple  interruptions.  ”  Another  blogger  tried  various  locations,  also  noting  the  importance  of  avoiding  distractions  but  preferring  a  place  where  she  had  control  over  her  technological  set  up,  “[Initially  I]  used  an  empty  office  to  participate  in  the  workshop.  The  environment  was  a  good  one  though  as  I  could  lock  myself  in  and  disconnect  the  phone  -­‐  I  had  no  Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   9  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • distractions.  […]  In  the  second  block  I  began  to  participate  in  the  workshops  from  home  with  my  personal  laptop.  This  was  much  better  as  I  don’t  have  to  involve  technicians  when  I  need  anything  updated.”  Other  respondents,  possibly  those  with  less  confidence,  preferred  to  engage  where  support  was  locally  available.  Finding  out  where  learners  are  engaging  from  may  help  a  facilitator  provide  appropriate  support.    Initial  technological  problems  create  anxieties  for  learners  and  impact  on  their  experiences.    One  interviewee  recounted  her  experiences  of  the  first  workshop  when  she  couldn’t  get  connected  “I  was  frantic…it  was  awful.”  Audio  problems  have  a  significant  impact  on  learners,  as  one  interviewee  explained:  “[there]  was  whistling,  it  sounded  like  the  aliens  were  landing  …  it  was  horrendous.”  One  interviewee  felt  she  spoke  for  other  students,  and  would  have  appreciated  specific  advice  about  which  headset  to  use  to  prevent  audio  problems  “I  don’t  think  I  would  be  alone  in  being  faced  with  a  range  of  possible  [headsets]  you  could  buy.  Which  is  the  best  for  this  task?  I  got  to  the  point  where  it  didn’t  really  matter  what  it  cost  because  I  needed  to  hear  what  was  going  on,  but  it  was  about  product  knowledge”.  Additional  help  to  develop  protocols  for  microphone  use  to  prevent  audio  problems  are  also  considered  under  Recommendation  2.    Facilitators  can  help  ensure  successful  initial  experiences  by  providing  clear  and  precise  information  about  equipment  requirements  and  allocating  time  to  help  with  technological  issues.  Despite  valuing  induction  time  in  a  face  to  face  context,  respondents  suggested  that  time  for  testing  and  set  up  from  their  study  location  would  also  be  useful:  “I  was  also  confident  after  taking  part  in  the  [induction  day]  activities  involving  ICT  and  accessing  the  University’s  on-­‐line  community.  However,  this  was  in  stark  contrast  to  accessing  them  from  home/work.  It  might  be  more  useful  to  try  these  tasks  from  the  PC  you  will  be  using  to  take  part.”    Making  the  Virtual  Classroom  easy  to  find  and  access  will  prevent  learners  getting  ‘lost’.  Interviewees  reported  going  into  the  ‘wrong  room’  where  there  were  several  options  available  and  suggested  that  ensuring  that  all  sessions  took  place  in  the  same  space  would  be  helpful.    Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   10  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • Theme  2:  Etiquette  and  protocols  Recommendation:    Establish  commonly  accepted  etiquette  with  learners  for  working  online,  and  adopt  a  set  of  protocols  to  facilitate  communication    Learning  online  via  web  conferencing  calls  for  a  certain  shared  etiquette  to  be  observed  by  all  participants,  and  for  protocols  to  be  in  place  to  handle  group  interaction.    Early  establishment  of  orderly  group  communication  by  means  of  a  ‘hands  up’  tool  helps  to  settle  the  group  into  the  fairness  of  a  queuing  system  during  group  discussion.    Use  tools  such  as  emoticons  or  ticks  and  crosses  to  get  instant  snapshot  feedback.    When  the  group  is  very  small,  or  in  breakout  rooms,  there  is  less  need  for  formal  etiquette,  such  as  indicating  a  wish  to  speak  or  remembering  to  turn  off  microphones,  and  you  should  be  aware  of  when  and  how  to  adapt  your  own  practice  in  these  instances.  Be  prepared  for  silences  and  develop  strategies  to  respond  to  them.    Sub-­‐recommendation  1:  Use  web  conferencing  tools  such  as  ‘hands  up’  to  control  microphone  use  and  to  impose  order  on  group  communication  Sub-­‐recommendation  2:  Establish  group  use  of  tools  such  as  emoticons  Sub-­‐Recommendation  3:  Be  prepared  to  change  protocol  if  the  group  is  very  small,  or  in  breakout  rooms  Sub-­‐Recommendation  4:  Establish  your  own  protocol  for  handing  silences  online    Web  conferencing  calls  for  a  certain  shared  etiquette  to  be  observed  by  all  learners,  and  for  protocols  to  be  in  place  to  handle  group  interaction.  When  a  whole  group  is  present,  using  the  ‘hands  up’  tool  to  indicate  a  wish  to  contribute  is  a  useful  way  to  manage  the  group,  and  it  works  well,  displaying  a  queue  of  speakers.    When  the  tutor  indicates  whose  turn  it  is  to  speak,  then  that  learner  should  turn  on  their  microphone,  make  their  contribution,  and  turn  off  their  microphone  when  finished  speaking.    Too  many  microphones  on  at  once  frequently  produces  an  unpleasant  echo  effect.    An  interviewee  commented  that  “it  would  be  frustrating  if  there  were  no  protocols  for  people  to  contribute...  There  has  to  be  some  kind  of  control  over  group  discussions  and  it  is  no  different  online  as  it  would  be  in  a  real  classroom  situation  –  it  would  be  chaotic  if  everyone  just  shouted  out  when  they  wanted.”    Another  Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   11  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • learner  recorded  on  the  blog  “My  group  quickly  settled  into  the  ‘hands  up  to  speak’  mode  and  I  was  not  aware  of  any  issues  from  the  group  regarding  this.  The  tutor  was  usually  on  the  ball  in  terms  of  facilitating  the  discussion  and  ensuring  everyone  got  their  chance  to  talk.”    Similarly,  it  is  good  etiquette  for  the  tutor  to  be  aware  of  which  microphones  are  on  or  off  and  to  politely  request  turn-­‐off  if  a  learner  has  left  one  on  inadvertently.    Online  etiquette  should  also  utilise  the  emoticon  tools:  these  are  useful  to  check  “whether  everyone  is  ‘on  track.”  Etiquette  may  differ  however  if  the  group  is  very  small,  or  in  breakout  rooms.  A  tutor  commented  “In  the  main  groups  or  in  a  slightly  larger  group  you  needed  the  hands  up,  a  protocol  just  to  keep  it  from  being  chaotic.  In  the  smaller  groups  you  could  dispense  with  that,  so  if  there  were  three  or  four  of  you,  you  could  all  just  keep  your  microphones  switched  on,  you  could  all  just  pitch  in.”    There  is  also  an  issue  around  the  tolerance  of  silent  spaces,  and  here  it  may  be  different  from  face-­‐to-­‐face  interaction.    One  learner  said  “I  found  it  difficult  when  a  question  was  asked  and  there  was  just  silence”,  while  another  added  “Yes,  dead  silence,  you  start  thinking  ‘should  I  say  something?’.”    A  tutor  responded,  “and  that’s  somehow  different  from  face  to  face.    If  you  ask  a  question  in  a  face  to  face  group,  you  can  sort  of  tolerate  a  wee  silence  and  you  just  wait  for  a  response  and  you  know  how  to  handle  that.  Or  you  say  something  else  and  that  produces  a  response.  Online  it  is  difficult  to  know  how  long  to  maintain  that  silence.”    Allied  to  this  is  the  learner  experience  not  only  of  the  fact  of  a  silence,  but  also  the  weighing  of  their  own  contribution  history,  and  deciding  about  whether  to  break  the  silence.    One  learner  stated,  “Yes,  and  sometimes  I  have  to  physically  stop  myself  because  I  think,  ‘you’ve  answered  every  question  so  far’,”  while  another  added,  “I’m  also  aware  that  I  talk  a  lot  and  I  don’t  want  to  take  over.”    The  first  learner  again  -­‐    “I’ve  actually  had  to  physically  stop  myself  on  a  few  occasions...  you  don’t  have  the  non-­‐verbal  cues  you  have  in  normal  face  to  face.”    Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   12  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • Theme  3:  Icebreakers  Recommendation:    Use  icebreakers  to  welcome  learners  to  the  online  session  and  to  familiarise  them  with  the  web  conferencing  tools  they  will  need  to  use.    The  use  of  icebreakers  at  the  start  of  an  online  session  can  be  used  to  help  learners  ‘settle  in’  to  the  session,  encourage  participation,  and  to  familiarise  them  with  web  conferencing  tools  they  will  use  later.    The  level  of  challenge  in  icebreakers  should  be  low  to  moderate,  so  as  to  be  non-­‐threatening.    Be  aware  that  learner  opinion  on  the  use  of  icebreakers  may  be  polarised,  in  accordance  with  learner  preferences  and  learning  styles.    Sub-­‐recommendation  1:  Provide  icebreaker  activities  to  welcome  learners  to  the  online  session  and  to  encourage  participation  Sub-­‐recommendation  2:  Provide  icebreaker  activities  to  familiarise  learners  with  web  conferencing  tools  Sub-­‐Recommendation  3:  Use  icebreakers  that  are  fun  and  interesting,  with  a  level  of  challenge  that  is  non-­‐threatening  Sub-­‐Recommendation  4:  Know  why  you  are  using  icebreakers    The  use  of  icebreakers  at  the  start  of  an  online  session  helps  learners  ‘settle  in’  and  encourages  participation.    One  blogger  wrote  that  “having  simple  fun  activities  as  icebreakers  puts  people  at  ease  and  is  a  good  warm  up  for  the  workshop”,  and  that  they  were  useful  in  “getting  everyone  to  participate  and  work  as  a  team.”    A  number  of  learners  posted  blog  messages  saying  that  they  liked  the  icebreakers.    One  interviewee  said,  “I  thought  it  sort  of  put  you  at  ease...  you  are  kind  of  on  edge  and  you  are  hoping  everything  is  going  to  work  properly  and  to  just  take  that  time  instead  of  going  straight  into  ‘this  is  what  we’re  doing  and  do  this  now’  –  it  just  gave  a  wee  time  to  settle  in.”    One  tutor  commented  on  the  beneficial  use  of  icebreakers  online,  “compared  with  the  face  to  face  workshops  where  I  don’t  think  there  was  so  much  need  for  them.”    Apart  from  the  social  welcoming  function  of  icebreakers,  they  can  also  be  used  to  introduce  learners    to  web  conferencing  tools  they  will  use  later.    A  tutor  commented  on  this  double  Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   13  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • function  when  she  said,  “you  were  getting  into  your  space  for  learning,  to  switch  off  from  whatever  you  were  doing,  settle  down,  try  out  the  tools  that  we  are  going  to  use  today,  because  there  might  be  a  new  one  and  this  is  an  opportunity  to  do  that.”    Similarly,  an  interviewee  stated  “I  think  when  we  were  doing  tasks  like  that,  ...  for  instance  doing  the  crossword  or  drawing  the  picture,  they  were  very,  very  useful  for  getting  used  to  the  tools.”      Icebreakers  should  be  fun,  interesting,  and  it  is  important  that  as  a  welcoming  activity  they  should  be  non-­‐threatening,  which  means  that  their  challenge  should  be  low  to  moderate.    While  learners  may  use  them  to  familiarise  themselves  with  the  tools,  getting  it  wrong  and  making  mistakes  should  be  allowable,  and  there  should  be  no  concept  of  failing.    One  blogger  expressed  this  well  from  the  learner’s  perspective  –  “I  felt  comfortable  with  the  icebreaker,  as  it  wasn’t  a  pass  or  fail  thing  but  a  chance  to  experiment  and  familiarise  myself  with  the  Elluminate  tools.”    However,  it  is  important  to  recognise  that  learners  are  not  alike,  and  the  use  of  icebreakers  can  result  in  some  polarised  opinions  expressed  by  learners.    “The  ice  breakers  were  a  little  childish  and  a  waste  of  time”  wrote  one  blogger,  while  another  wrote  “I  didn’t  mind  the  drawing  practice  at  the  induction  day,  however  [icebreakers]  irritated  me  big  style  on  a  weekly  basis  ...[They]  were  wasting  10  minutes  of  valuable  time  every  week.”    One  tutor  wondered  if  icebreakers  should  be  explicitly  justified  to  learners,  but  an  interviewee  did  not  agree  that  this  was  necessary  –  “I  think  [what  was  provided]  was  enough  explanation,  I  don’t  think  you  should  have  to  justify....”    Perhaps  what  is  important  here  is  awareness  on  the  part  of  the  facilitator  that  differences  exist  in  terms  of  learner  preferences  and  learning  styles,  and  to  always  know  their  purpose  in  providing  an  icebreaker  activity.    Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   14  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • Theme  4:  Breakout  rooms  Recommendation:    Use  breakout  rooms  for  small  group  activities    Choosing  interesting  or  relevant  names  for  breakout  rooms  can  build  motivation  from  the  start  of  an  online  session.    Optimising  the  numbers  in  breakout  rooms  means  that  learners  can  discuss  and  communicate  with  others  easily  –  three  or  four  per  room  was  felt  to  be  ideal.    Move  between  the  breakout  rooms  when  it  is  felt  that  you  may  be  asked  supplementary  questions  or  for  clarification.    You  can  do  so  fairly  unobtrusively,  although  at  times  you  may  want  to  give  learners  their  private  space  for  discussion.    Tools  such  as  the  timer  can  greatly  aid  time  management  in  breakout  rooms  and  allow  learners  autonomy  in  their  moving  backwards  and  forwards  between  main  and  breakout  rooms.    Sub-­‐recommendation  1:  Choose  names  for  breakout  rooms  that  allow  for  helpful  learner  anticipation  Sub-­‐recommendation  2:  Select  optimum  numbers  for  breakout  rooms  and  allow  learners  to  move  in  and  out  of  rooms  as  appropriate  Sub-­‐Recommendation  3:  Facilitate  group  work  in  breakout  rooms  by  moving  between  the  rooms  judiciously  Sub-­‐Recommendation  4:  Use  the  breakout  rooms  as  a  safe  space  for  small  numbers  of  learners  to  communicate  and  discuss  Sub-­‐Recommendation  5:  Use  tools  such  as  the  timer  to  support  group  work    Breakout  rooms  can  be  an  enormously  helpful  way  of  varying  an  online  session.      The  use  of  breakout  rooms  was  generally  very  well  received.    A  blogger  was  of  the  opinion  that  “break  out  rooms  worked  well  and  were  easy  to  move  in  and  out  of.”  Right  from  the  start  of  the  session,  if  you  allocate  breakout  room  names  that  are  interesting,  or  relevant  to  the  group  tasks,  learners  will  notice  the  names  on  log-­‐in,  and  then  already  there  is  some  interest  and  perhaps  intrigue  as  to  how  the  rooms  will  be  used  and  what  will  be  required  of  learners.    One  blogger  said,  “Overall  I  think  the  breakout  rooms  are  an  excellent  tool…when  we  log  on  initially,  we  get  a  small  idea  of  what  is  to  come  by  seeing  the  breakout  rooms  and  what  they  are  called  –  builds  the  anticipation.”    An  interviewee  added,  “I  do  look  at  the  breakout  rooms  Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   15  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • and  see  what  they  are  named  and  what  they  are,  and  if  it’s  something  like  ‘red’  ‘blue’  and  ‘gold’,  I  wonder  what  that  is.”    Learners  were  of  the  opinion  that  an  optimum  number  for  each  breakout  room  is  three  or  four.    Facilitators  have  choices  about  how  to  allocate  learners  to  breakout  rooms.    This  may  be  done  on  the  basis  of  interest  groups,  ability  level,  or  some  other  factor,  or  it  may  be  done  randomly  -­‐  the  software  should  allow  you  to  do  this.    One  blogger  said,  “I  don’t  mind  how  we  divide  up  to  go  into  a  room  –  whether  we  are  asked  to  go  to  a  particular  room  specifically  or  it  is  chosen  randomly.  Saying  that,  I  hope  you  never  use  the  ‘team  captains  taking  turns  to  choose  who  they  want  in  a  group’  as  happened  in  school  as  that  would  dredge  up  memories  of  gym  class!”    Moving  between  rooms  worked  reasonably  well,  and  it  is  probably  best  to  provide  learners  a  sense  of  autonomy  by  allowing  them  to  take  themselves  to  their  respective  rooms,  and  back  again,  rather  than  you  as  tutor  moving  them  (or  as  the  jargon  has  it,  ‘dragging’  them).    One  blogger  explained  a  technical  issue  about  seeing  learner  names  move  about  rapidly  on  the  screen  during  this  kind  of  movement  to  breakout  rooms,  and  she  had  her  own  strategy  –  “It  is  fairly  easy  to  get  into  the  breakout  rooms  although  I  do  find  that  when  everyone  jumps  into  a  room,  my  name  on  the  list  moves  too  rapidly  for  me  to  quickly  drag  so  I  sometimes  wait  until  the  rush  is  over  and  then  drag  my  name  into  the  room.”  Care  needs  to  be  taken  to  ensure  that  there  are  at  least  two  people  in  any  breakout  room.    A  blogger  had  an  unfortunate  experience  –  “The  breakout  rooms  work  well  when  there  are  a  good  number  of  students.  I  remember  being  in  a  breakout  room  and  no-­‐one  else  being  there…feels  lonely.”    One  issue  for  the  tutor  in  using  breakout  rooms  is  whether  or  not  to  ‘visit’  the  rooms,  to  be  available  in  the  smaller  groups  if  required.  It  could  be  held  that  learners’  privacy  should  be  respected,  and  breakout  rooms  are  their  own  space  to  discuss  with  each  other  unobserved  and  uninterrupted.    One  tutor  raised  this  question  with  interviewees  –  “I  just  wondered  about  how  you  felt  the  way  we  were  facilitating  when  you  were  in  breakout  rooms.  Certainly  with  my  groups,  sometimes  I  would  pop  in  and  sometimes  I  wouldn’t  –  you’ve  said  in  the  blog  that  you  did  notice  if  we  popped  in  –  I  was  never  sure  if  anyone  had  noticed  me  or  not.”    Interviewees  seemed  to  have  been  generally  unaware  of  the  tutor’s  presence  –  “I  didn’t  Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   16  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • notice  unless  someone  said  something.”    Others  did  notice,  and  saw  it  as  a  neutral  activity,  “I  found  I  was  aware  of  tutors  entering  but  didn’t  feel  the  need  to  interrupt  the  flow  of  discussion  to  acknowledge  their  presence,”  or,  “I  do  tend  to  notice  when  the  tutor  pops  in  and  don’t  mind  at  all.”    Moreover,  the  presence  of  tutors  in  a  breakout  room  can  be  seen  by  learners  as  an  opportunity  to  clarify  or  ask  supplementary  questions.    Bloggers  said,  “sometimes  it  can  be  easier  to  ask  a  question  when  in  a  breakout  room”,  “we  did  on  occasions  request  the  tutor  to  come  in”,  and  “it  gives  an  opportunity  to  ask  questions  when  the  tutor  ‘pops  in’  if  anyone  is  nervous  about  that  kind  of  thing.”    All  in  all,  breakout  rooms  provide  a  safe  and  confidential  space  for  small  groups  to  discuss  ideas.    A  blogger  put  it,  “They  are  great  when  used  to  collaborate  and  then  return  with  feedback  for  the  group.”      The  use  of  the  timer  tool  can  be  extremely  useful  in  conjunction  with  breakout  rooms.    Bloggers  said,  “Timers  were  a  very  good  tool  for  ensuring  we  kept  to  time”,  and,  “It  was  easy  to  get  into  and  out  of  the  rooms  and  with  the  timer  on  you  could  still  see  when  you  were  expected  to  be  back  in  the  main  room.”  This  gives  learners  the  responsibility  for  time  management,  and  to  return  themselves  to  the  main  room  at  the  appropriate  time;  otherwise,  the  tutor  has  to  go  round  the  rooms  and  possibly  cajole  people  to  return.        Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   17  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • Theme  5:  Diversity  Recommendation:    Provide  a  variety  of  activities  to  meet  different  learning  preferences    Learners  will  display  wide  differences  in  how  they  think  and  learn,  and  it  is  in  our  interests  as  tutors  to  have  an  awareness  of  this  and  to  deliberately  vary  the  activities  we  provide  online.    It  is  not  possible  to  please  everyone  all  of  the  time,  but  respect  for  learners’  differences  will  enable  us  to  select  for  variation  and  also  to  be  sensitive  to  the  variety  of  responses  and  unintended  consequences  of  our  facilitation.    Sub-­‐recommendation  1:  Do  all  you  can  to  accommodate  different  thinking  and  learning  styles  Sub-­‐recommendation  2:  Respect  learners’  privacy,  in  terms  of  what  we  ask  of  them    One  tutor  reflected  on  the  variety  of  learning  preferences  in  a  group,  and  spoke  of  the  difficulty  in  accommodating  these  differences  –  “It’s  interesting  isn’t  it  the  diversity  of  thinking  styles  in  any  group...  you’ve  got  divergent  thinkers  and  convergent  thinkers...  we’ve  got  people  who  are  happy  to  discuss  and  to  look  at  ideas  and  to  spend  time  talking  about  ideas  in  a  more  divergent  way.  And  other  people  that  want  to  be  focused,  to  know  what  they’ve  got  to  do  to  pass  [the  course]  and  they  find  it  infuriating  if  it’s  too  waffly  and  too  discursive.  So  trying  to  accommodate  these  different  types  of  thinking  styles  is  difficult.”    An  interviewee  replied  by  saying  that  “I…like  to  go  off  at  a  tangent.  To  me  it’s  not  waffling,  but  that’s  just  the  way  my  mind  works.  It  is  sort  of  creative  like  that.”    This  learner  clearly  valued  the  opportunity  to  be  divergent  and  creative.        As  a  facilitator,  one  of  the  types  of  activities  you  can  use  to  maintain  variation  is  the  integration  of  external  sources,  provided  via  a  link  to  an  Internet  site,  or  other  source.    Be  aware  however  that  you  cannot  please  everyone  all  the  time.    One  blogger  spoke  about  being  “neither  up  nor  down”  about  using  external  resources:  “From  the  practical  point  of  view,  I  would  have  preferred  to  review  them  before  coming  to  class.  I  felt  at  times  there  was  not  enough  time  to  digest  them  or  reflect  on  the  questions  posed  before  being  asked  to  respond,  and  being  first  alphabetically,  I  was  more  often  than  not  the  first  one  asked.  My  Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   18  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • answers  would  have  been  a  bit  more  coherent  and  structured  if  I  had  more  time.”    Expressing  an  alternative  view,  another  blogger  wrote,  “I  like  the  surprise  of  using  external  resources  during  the  session...  sometimes  an  unprepared  response  to  an  activity  can  be  more  interesting  (and  nerve  wracking  at  first).  If  I  was  asked  to  review  something  beforehand  and  it  was  repeated  in  the  session  (for  example  a  YouTube  clip),  I  could  see  myself  losing  interest  as  I  would  already  have  seen  it  and  I  dislike  repeating  an  activity.”    Another  aspect  of  tutor  sensitivity  to  learners’  preferences  concerns  what  we  call  here  ‘personal  privacy  and  feelings’.    At  least  two  bloggers  spoke  of  a  dislike  for  being  “put  on  the  spot”  with  questions  from  the  tutor  in  an  online  session,  in  one  case  saying  that  “my  mind  goes  blank!”,  while  the  other  experienced  embarrassment  and  momentary  lack  of  articulation  –  “I  must  have  sounded  like  the  King’s  Speech”,  making  reference  to  the  film  of  the  same  name.    Facilitators  should  also  be  aware  that  what  may  seem  a  question  requesting  innocuous  information,  possibly  as  part  of  an  icebreaker  activity,  can  impose  on  the  privacy  of  a  learner  in  an  unintended  way.    One  blogger  expressed  it  like  this,  “I  didn’t  like  giving  out  personal  information  in  a  public  forum,  for  example  what  I  did  in  my  holidays”,  and  as  a  result,  “I  felt  under  pressure  to  join  in  and  if  anything  [this]  turned  me  off  in  terms  of  participation.”    Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   19  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • Theme  6:  Relationships  Recommendation:    Foster  student-­‐tutor  and  student-­‐student  relationships  throughout  the  course    Relationships  of  various  kinds  -­‐  learner  to  learner  and  between  learner  and  tutor  -­‐  are  vital  for  a  good  online  group  experience,  and  the  learner  identity  as  part  of  the  group  should  be  fostered  from  the  start.    Mutual  peer  support  should  be  encouraged.    Sub-­‐recommendation  1:  Provide  opportunities  for  the  development  of  relationships  between  learners  if  participants  are  not  already  known  to  one  another  Sub-­‐recommendation  2:  Encourage  mutual  support  and  problem-­‐solving  Sub-­‐recommendation  3:  Don’t  get  so  caught  up  with  technology  that  you  forget  your  relationship  with  your  learners    Online  relationships  are  vital  to  the  success  of  a  web  conferencing  course.    Right  from  the  beginning  of  a  course,  it  is  important  to  facilitate  the  formation  of  a  community.    This  can  be  achieved  in  various  ways,  including  if  possible  a  one-­‐off  face-­‐to-­‐face  event.    In  commenting  on  this,  one  blogger  said,  “I  thought  the  induction  session  was  both  useful  and  necessary,  as  it  gave  me  a  chance  to  see  in  person  the  people  with  whom  I  would  be  chatting  to  for  a  year  or  more.”  One  blogger  who  already  knew  a  number  of  course  participants  still  saw  a  benefit  in  initial  relationship  building  –  “The  main  benefit  [of  the  induction]  was  ice  breaking  with  the  tutor  who  would  be  working  with  us  so  I  could  ask  any  questions  I  had.”  If  such  a  face-­‐to-­‐face  introductory  event  is  possible,  take  a  group  photograph,  or  else  compile  a  collage  from  submitted  photos.    Some  learners  pinned  their  class  photo  above  their  computer  as  a  reminder  of  their  identity  as  a  group,  and  a  blogger  said,  “I  needed  the  class  photograph  to  refer  to  now  and  again  to  help  put  a  face  to  a  name  and  a  voice.”    Mutual  support  and  problem-­‐solving  between  learners  should  be  encouraged.    Apart  from  course  content  designed  to  do  this,  some  quite  informal  peer  support  can  help  to  build  relationships  and  be  beneficial  to  the  group.    Varying  IT  skills  may  provide  an  opportunity  for  the  more  skilled  members  to  help  those  who  are  less  skilled.    A  tutor  commented  to  an  Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   20  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • interviewee  who  had  been  particularly  helpful  on  a  number  of  occasions,  “not  everybody  was  quite  au  fait  with  the  IT  and  quite  often  you  came  in  and  helped  out  with  questions”,  and  received  the  response,  “I  know,  I  can’t  resist  myself  sometimes!  ”    As  a  tutor,  it  is  vitally  important  to  remember  the  pre-­‐eminence  of  relationships.    Particularly  when  new  to  the  online  web  conferencing  environment,  it  is  all  too  possible  to  focus  on  the  technology,  while  forgetting  about  the  tutor  relationship  with  learners  –  “oh  gosh,  you  know,  what  about  my  relationship  with  my  students  in  there?”    There  is  a  lot  for  the  tutor  to  manage  and  to  monitor,  while  bearing  in  mind  the  learners  and  their  experiences  in  the  group,  and  their  feelings  as  part  of  the  group.    Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   21  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • Theme  7:  Minimalists  Recommendation:    Consider  ways  to  identify  and  manage  those  who  participate  minimally    In  any  online  course,  those  who  fail  to  participate  or  who  participate  minimally  are  problematic  not  only  for  the  tutor,  but  also  for  their  peers  and  for  the  success  of  the  course  as  a  whole.    Sub-­‐recommendation  1:  Be  aware  that  those  who  participate  minimally  have  a  negative  effect  on  their  peers,  and  consider  ways  to  manage  this  Sub-­‐recommendation  2:  Consider  that  your  provision  of  learning  aids  such  as  blogs  or  discussion  groups  may  not  meet  the  learning  needs  of  all  students    Inevitably  in  any  group  of  learners  there  will  be  some  whose  participation  levels  fall  at  the  low  end  of  the  scale.    We  call  them  ‘minimalists’.    A  variety  of  behaviours  can  come  into  this  category,  from  those  who  do  not  attend  events  arranged  for  them,  to  those  who  attend  but  do  not  participate  well.    Online,  this  can  cause  difficulties  for  the  group  as  a  whole.    One  interviewee  labelled  such  non-­‐participation  “annoying”,  while  another  explained,  “In  our  group  there  were  some  people,  like  me,  who  were  quite  happy  to  talk  all  the  time,  but  there  were  others  who  weren’t  and  that  was  very,  very  obvious,  they  didn’t  seem  to  want  to  participate.”    One  interviewee  pointed  out  that  in  a  face-­‐to-­‐face  situation,  there  is  more  opportunity  for  the  tutor  to  see  what  is  happening,  and  to  intervene.    Online  it  is  not  so  easy.    Identification  may  be  more  difficult,  and  sensitivity  is  required  to  handle  the  minimalist,  not  having  complete  understanding  of  reasons  for  it.    In  collaborative  work  online,  it  can  become  even  more  problematic  when  one  in  the  group  fails  to  participate  or  is  less  committed  or  does  not  make  the  same  amount  of  effort  as  others.    Interviewees  spoke  of  the  “stress”  of  this  situation,  which  they  were  perhaps  reluctant  to  share  with  the  tutor  –  “It  creates  a  level  of  stress  that  possibly  you  guys  [tutors]  aren’t  aware  of.”    One  interviewee  regarded  coping  with  a  minimalist  peer  in  their  group  as  being  the  most  stressful  part  of  the  whole  programme.    Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   22  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • Another  aspect  of  the  minimalist  issue  is  where  the  tutor  provides  learning  activities  such  as  blogs  or  discussion  groups  as  part  of  the  course  design,  but  still  some  learners  fail  to  contribute.  It  may  be  that  such  activities  do  not  in  fact  aid  learning  for  some  people.    However,  in  a  group  situation,  it  will  be  observed  that  some  learners  fail  to  participate,  and  this  engenders  feelings  in  the  others  –  “I  was  quite  disappointed  with  the  amount  of  people  who  did  actually  input  to  the  blog.”    One  interviewee  felt  that  it  was  too  easy  to  opt  out,  another  was  more  willing  to  make  allowances,  saying  that  time  pressure  of  other  aspects  of  work  was  a  factor,  while  yet  another  interviewee  spoke  of  initial  enthusiasm  in  using  the  blog  provided,  and  then  becoming  discouraged  by  the  lack  of  peer  response  –  “I  have  to  confess  then  I  fell  away  from  it  because  I  wasn’t  getting  responses.”  This  de-­‐motivation  can  be  detrimental  to  the  group  as  a  whole,  and  to  the  success  of  the  online  course,  and  should  be  closely  monitored  by  the  tutor.    Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   23  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • Theme  8:  Use  of  Media  Recommendation:    Choose  how  to  use  the  media  at  your  disposal  to  suit  the  situation  –  video,  audio  and  chat  can  be  used  separately  or  in  combination    In  web  conferencing  you  may  have  the  choice  of  video,  audio  and  chat  facilities.    It  is  worth  considering  the  pros  and  cons  of  the  various  media  in  the  overall  design  of  the  course  and  in  its  day-­‐to-­‐day  operation  in  order  to  react  to  circumstances  such  as  microphone  problems,  which  may  disadvantage  some  of  the  group.    Sub-­‐recommendation  1:  Consider  whether  video  or  audio  is  really  necessary  Sub-­‐recommendation  2:  Consider  using  the  chat  facility  as  a  means  of  equality  of  opportunity  when  there  are  microphone  problems  Sub-­‐recommendation  3:  Be  aware  that  text  can  be  misconstrued,  and  use  emoticons  or  other  devices  to  minimise  this    Web  conferencing  facilities  include  a  number  of  media,  and  part  of  the  planning  exercise  for  the  tutor  should  be  which  media  are  suitable  in  general,  or  in  particular  circumstances  during  course  delivery.    While  it  may  be  tempting  to  assume  that  ‘all  singing,  all  dancing’  facilities  should  be  used,  in  practice  this  might  not  be  the  best  choice.    Use  of  video,  for  example,  may  be  impractical  if  the  group  size  is  fairly  large,  and  also  quite  distracting  to  have  multiple  video  images  on  the  screen  as  well  as  everything  else.    One  interviewee  certainly  did  not  feel  disadvantaged  in  being  restricted  to  audio,  and  said,  “I’m  not  sure  we  missed  too  much  not  being  in  the  same  room  as  one  another,  you  can  pick  up  meaning  from  tone  of  voice  rather  than  facial  expressions.”    Some  learners  actively  do  not  wish  to  have  video  switched  on,  and  one  said,  “it’s  just  as  well  you  couldn’t  see  my  face  some  days!  Don’t  ever  do  video  conferencing!”      Even  the  audio  facility,  which  might  be  considered  the  ‘bread-­‐and-­‐butter’  of  web  conferencing,  might  on  occasions  be  forsaken  in  favour  of  using  the  chat  facility  only.    Describing  one  occasion  when  some  microphones  were  not  working,  an  interviewee  remarked,  “we  used  the  text  box  and  the  whiteboard  in  addition  [to  audio]  and  in  my  Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   24  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • opinion  this  was  just  as  good  as  a  face  to  face  discussion.  This  meant  feedback/opinion  could  be  given  while  someone  was  talking  without  actually  interrupting  them  and  there  was  no  domineering  person  trying  to  take  over  the  conversation.”      Inevitably,  technical  problems  occur  from  time  to  time,  and  it  is  not  uncommon  for  a  learner  to  have  an  issue  with  their  microphone  not  working  properly.    Suggesting  to  that  particular  learner  that  they  use  the  chat  tool  to  type  their  responses  or  questions  into  the  text  box  is  possible,  although  interviewees  pointed  out  that  this  does  disadvantage  that  learner,  perhaps  partly  because  of  the  time  taken  to  type  as  opposed  to  speaking,  and  also  because  other  learners  do  not  necessarily  notice  what  is  typed  in  the  text  box.    This  may  be  helped  by  the  tutor  drawing  attention  to  the  fact  that  some  dialogue  is  taking  place  via  chat,  or  even  reading  out  the  text  for  the  benefit  of  the  whole  group.    One  possibility  to  minimise  any  disadvantage  is  to  suggest  that  the  whole  group  use  chat  rather  than  their  microphones,  even  as  an  occasional  feature.    It  is  always  important  for  the  tutor  to  be  aware  that  the  nature  of  chat  or  text  means  that  it  is  open  to  misinterpretation.    One  interviewee  spoke  of  such  a  misunderstanding  when  someone  took  what  they  had  written  in  the  wrong  way,  and  suggested  something  that  might  help  –  “You  know  how  you  felt  when  you  typed  it,  but  the  person  who  reads  it  doesn’t  always.  So  the  smiley  faces  are  a  good  way  of  telling  people  whether  you  are  tongue  in  cheek  or  whether  you  are  serious.”    For  this  person,  the  additional  information  supplied  via  emoticons  can  help  to  supply  the  missing  part  of  the  communication,  for  example  whether  information  is  intended  to  be  humorous.    Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   25  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • Theme  9:  Tutoring  Recommendation:    Reassure,  encourage,  keep  things  simple    Missing  some  of  the  feedback  cues  of  the  face-­‐to-­‐face  environment,  learners  seek  and  need  regular  reassurance  and  encouragement  online.    For  the  tutor,  keeping  things  clear  and  within  the  learners’  comfort  zone,  should  be  balanced  with  the  need  to  be  creative  and  spontaneous  in  trying  something  new.    Sub-­‐recommendation  1:  Remember  that  learners  need  regular  reassurance  and  encouragement  Sub-­‐recommendation  2:  Maintain  procedural  simplicity,  don’t  overcomplicate  things    Learners  in  the  online  environment  need  regular  “encouragement  and  reassurance”  as  a  check  that  they  are  on  the  right  track,  especially  when  new  tools,  new  activities,  or  some  other  new  feature  is  being  introduced.    Unlike  the  face-­‐to-­‐face  environment,  many  of  the  feedback  cues  learners  look  for  are  missing,  leading  to  a  greater  need  for  tutor  feedback  that  is  clear  and  constructive.    Procedurally,  it  is  important  that  the  tutor  gives  a  clear  lead  in  terms  of  “organising  us  and  explaining  what  we  [are]  going  to  do.”    One  interviewee  spoke  of  simplicity  as  being  a  key  feature  of  online  tutoring,  and  went  on  to  say,  “I  think  people  are  often  intimidated  by  what  the  task  is”,  and  went  on  to  make  a  case  for  keeping  the  procedure  simple  and  straightforward.    Potentially  there  is  some  tension  here,  as  one  tutor  spoke  of  her  developing  expertise  and  familiarity  with  the  environment  as  a  springboard  for  spontaneity  and  creativity  –  “our  skills  as  facilitators  have  developed  a  bit  so  we’re  a  bit  more  able  to  suddenly  think  ‘oh  let’s  have  a  poll,  or  let’s  do  this  in  the  chat’  whereas  to  start  with  we  felt  we  had  to  stick  very  much  to  the  plan.”    Obviously  there  is  a  balance  here  that  should  be  struck  between  trying  out  new  ideas,  on  the  one  hand,  and  maintaining  comfort  for  the  learners.    Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   26  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • Discussion and Conclusions  This  study  aimed  to  gain  an  insight  into  learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities.  Despite  attracting  only  a  small  number  of  participants,  the  research  approach  enabled  rich  and  detailed  accounts  of  experiences  to  be  obtained,  and  these  have  been  used  to  develop  recommendations  for  facilitators.  Some  of  the  recommendations  and  experiences  reported  reflect  ideas  presented  in  other  ‘good  practice’  guides  and  texts  about  synchronous  online  facilitation.  For  instance  Anderson  et  al.  (2006),  Chatterton  (2010),  Sampson  and  Shepherd  (2010)  and  Shepherd  et  al.  (2011)  all  emphasise  the  need  for  careful  planning  and  the  inclusion  of  variety  in  sessions  and  these  ideas  are  echoed  here.  Some  of  the  reported  experiences,  for  example  comments  on  the  use  of  text  and  video  reflect  theoretical  ideas  that  have  been  applied  to  web  conferencing,  such  as  the  challenge  of  cognitive  load  in  a  complex  multi-­‐media  environment  (Kear  et  al.,  2012).  Other  experiences  suggest  the  need  for  facilitators  to  pay  attention  to  generally  accepted  principles  of  effective  teaching  and  learning,  including  the  building  of  appropriate  relationships  and  the  development  of  learner  independence  and  autonomy.      However,  other  themes  emerging  from  this  study  were  unexpected  and  add  to  existing  guidance.  For  example,  there  is  limited  information  in  current  guidelines  about  the  effect  of  tutors’  actions  when  using  breakout  rooms.  Similarly  the  impact  of  minimalist  learners  is  not  considered  in  other  sources,  other  than  though  suggestions,  such  as  that  heard  in  a  training  session,  to  ‘randomly  pick  on  individuals’  which,  our  research  suggests,  might  be  an  uncomfortable  approach  for  adult  learners.      Clearly  these  recommendations  are  made  based  on  the  experiences  of  a  very  small  number  of  learners,  albeit  a  group  who  have  considerable  experience  gained  over  the  duration  of  a  whole  programme  of  study.  Although  some  divergent  views  were  expressed  within  the  small  sample  (for  example  on  the  use  of  icebreakers)  it  is  still  possible  that  the  data  obtained  does  not  reflect  the  experiences  of  all  TQFE  participants,  and  the  recommendations  may  not  be  generalisable  to  other  contexts.  The  proposed  guidelines  need  to  be  adapted  to  suit  different  learner  groups  or  different  web  conferencing  Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   27  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • applications  (for  example,  one-­‐to-­‐one  teaching,  internationally  distributed  learner  groups,  or  guest  expert  led  sessions).  That  said,  we  feel  that  they  provide  a  useful  starting  point  for  discussion  of  effective  facilitation  strategies,  and  they  are  grounded  in  the  evidence  and  stories  provided  by  experienced  participants.    The  aim  to  share  some  of  the  activities  and  resources  produced  by  the  TQFE  team  has  not  been  so  effectively  met  by  this  project  to  date.  The  original  vision  was  that  the  open  access  blog  would  be  a  venue  for  tutors  to  share  activities  and  experiences,  but  there  was  a  lack  of  external  involvement  despite  announcements  made  via  the  ELESIG  ning  site  and  twitter.  Perhaps  further  efforts  to  promote  the  blog  and  encourage  contributions  could  have  been  made,  however,  anecdotal  evidence  suggests  that  many  facilitators  are  still  at  an  early  stage  of  practice  with  web  conferencing,  and  it  may  be  that  for  many  it  is  too  soon  for  them  to  have  the  confidence  to  share  their  success  stories  and  challenges  with  the  technology.  At  the  same  time,  dissemination  of  the  findings  has  provided  the  opportunity  to  present  some  of  the  strategies  and  activities  used,  and  this  has  encouraged  discussion  amongst  facilitators  about  effective  approaches.  Future  dissemination  of  this  project  and  other  work  on  facilitators’  and  learners’  experiences  of  web  conferencing  may  contribute  further  towards  this  aim.    For  the  researchers,  and  the  TQFE  team,  this  project  report  is  not  an  end  to  the  research.  The  desire  to  develop  best  practice  in  synchronous  online  facilitation,  in  a  manner  that  is  sensitive  to  and  appropriate  for  learners’  needs  continues  and  we  will  be  pursuing  further  work  in  this  area.  We  are  grateful  for  the  ELESIG  funding  which  has  allowed  us  to  reflect  on  our  own  practice,  begin  systematic  investigations  and,  we  hope,  provided  an  insight  into  learners’  experiences  which  will  be  helpful  for  other  facilitators.    Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   28  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
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    •   Appendix 1: The full recommendations   Recommendation   Sub-­‐recommendations  1.  Prepare  learners  for   1.1  Encourage  learners  to  consider  where  they  will  be  when  engaging  with   learning  in  the  Virtual   the  Virtual  Classroom  –  and  be  aware  of  where  your  learners  are   Classroom   1.2  Allow  time  and  provide  support  to  help  learners  get  set  up  technically   1.3  Make  the  Virtual  Classroom  easy  to  find  2.  Establish  commonly   2.1  Use  web  conferencing  tools  such  as  ‘hands-­‐up’  to  control  microphone   accepted  etiquette  with   use  and  to  provide  order  to  group  communication   learners  for  working  online,   2.2  Establish  group  use  of  tools  such  as  emoticons   and  adopt  a  set  of  protocols   2.3  Be  prepared  to  change  protocol  if  the  group  is  very  small,  or  in  break  out   to  facilitate  communication   rooms   2.4  Establish  your  own  protocol  for  handling  silences  online  3.  Use  icebreakers  to  welcome   3.1Provide  icebreaker  activities  to  welcome  learners  to  the  online  session   learners  and  to  familiarise   and  to  encourage  participation   them  with  the  web   3.2  Provide  icebreaker  activities  to  familiarise  learners  with  web   conferencing  tools  they  will   conferencing  tools   need  to  use   3.3  Use  icebreakers  that  are  fun  and  interesting,  with  a  level  of  challenge   that  is  non-­‐threatening   3.4  Know  why  you  are  using  icebreakers  4.  Use  breakout  rooms  to   4.1  Choose  names  for  breakout  rooms  that  allow  for  helpful  learner   facilitate  small  group   anticipation   activities   4.2  Select  optimum  numbers  for  breakout  rooms  and  allow  learners  to  move     themselves  in  and  out  of  rooms  as  appropriate   4.3  Facilitate  group  work  by  moving  between  the  rooms  judiciously   4.4  Use  the  breakout  rooms  as  a  safe  space  for  small  numbers  of  learners  to   communicate  and  discuss   4.5  Use  tools  such  as  the  timer  to  support  groupwork  5.  Provide  a  variety  of   5.1  Do  all  you  can  to  accommodate  different  thinking  and  learning   activities  to  meet  different   preferences   learning  preferences   5.2  Respect  learners’  privacy,  in  terms  of  what  you  ask  of  them  6.  Foster  student-­‐student  and   6.1  Provide  opportunities  for  the  development  of  relationships  between   student-­‐tutor  relationships   learners  if  participants  are  not  already  known  to  one  another   throughout  a  course   6.2  Encourage  mutual  support  and  problem-­‐solving   6.3  Don’t  get  so  caught  up  with  technology  that  you  forget  your  relationship   with  your  learners  7.  Consider  ways  to  identify   7.1  Be  aware  that  those  who  participate  minimally  have  a  negative  effect  on   and  manage  those  who   their  peers,  and  consider  ways  to  manage  this   participate  minimally   7.2  Consider  that  your  provision  of  additional  tools  such  as  blogs  or   discussion  groups  may  not  meet  the  needs  of  all  learners  8.  Choose  how  to  use  the   8.1  Consider  whether  video  or  audio  is  really  necessary   media  at  your  disposal  to   8.2  Consider  using  the  chat  facility  to  provide  equality  of  opportunity  when   suit  the  situation  –  video,   there  are  audio  problems   audio  and  chat  can  be  used   8.3  Be  aware  that  text  messages  can  be  misconstrued,  and  use  emoticons   separately  or  in   and  other  devices  to  minimise  this   combination  9.  Reassure,  encourage  and   9.1  Remember  that  learners  need  regular  reassurance  and  encouragement   keep  things  simple   9.2  Maintain  procedural  simplicity,  don’t  overcomplicate  things   Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   30   University  of  Aberdeen   May  2012  
    • Appendix 2: Summary of Blog output to informsemi-structured interview   Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities   Summary  of  lessons  drawn  from  the  wtol  experiences  blog   Carole  Gordon  and  Sarah  Cornelius,  May  2011    Preparation     - The  introductory  day  had  benefits  in  terms  of  socialisation  (e.g.  getting  to  know  tutor   and  photograph)  and  helped  with  technology  issues   - It  might  be  useful  for  tutors  to  get  learners  to  think  about  their  learning  environment   (space,  quiet,  distractions,  etc.)    Icebreakers   - These  need  to  be  explained  and  justified  clearly  to  participants  (e.g.  role  in   socialisation,  building  confidence  with  tools)   - Some  could  be  made  more  relevant  to  course  content  to  prevent  irritation   - Tutors  should  expect  a  diversity  of  responses  to  icebreakers  Group  work   - There  may  be  an  optimal  number  of  participants  for  small  group  work   - Clear  timings  are  helpful   - Naming  rooms  can  create  a  sense  of  anticipation   - Tutors  need  to  balance  privacy  for  groups  and  a  sense  of  their  presence     - A  tutor’s  presence  in  small  group  rooms  will  be  noticed  by  learners  and  may   encourage  questions  that  would  not  be  asked  in  a  larger  group  Activities  with  external  sources   - The  opportunity  to  prepare  is  valued  by  some,  whilst  the  element  of  surprise  is   important  to  others  –  there  is  likely  to  be  a  diversity  of  reactions  from  participants.     - Tutors  need  to  ensure  a  variety  of  strategies  are  used,  and  justify  their  approach  Interaction  Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   31  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012  
    • - Interaction  is  generally  fine,  participants  feel  they  have  opportunities  to  speak  and   that  everyone  is  heard.  Tone  of  voice  allows  appreciation  of  meaning  and  interaction   can  be  just  as  good  as  face  to  face   - Interaction  needs  to  be  managed  in  larger  groups  using  appropriate  protocols   - In  smaller  groups  participants  can  just  ‘chip  in’  to  the  conversations  Other  issues   - Learners  may  feel  under  pressure  to  participate  and  may  not  like  being  put  on  the   spot.      Questions  for  further  discussion     1. What  is  the  optimal  number  of  participants  in  a  small  group  discussion?  Does  this   vary  depending  on  the  communication  channels  being  used  (e.g.  voice  vs  text)?     2. Does  the  tutor  need  to  explain  and  justify  the  teaching  and  learning  strategies  being   used  (e.g.  icebreakers,  lack  of  opportunity  to  engage  with  external  sources  in   advance)?     3. How  can  the  tutor  make  accommodate  the  diversity  of  learning  preferences  and   personalities?       4. What  protocols  encourage  effective  interaction  –  for  example  in  large  group   discussions,  or  in  smaller  break  out  groups?     5. What  preparatory  activities  are  most  important?  Should  the  tutor  encourage   learners  to  think  about  their  learning  environment?     6. Is  there  anything  else  that  tutors  could  do  to  facilitate  your  learning  in  the  virtual   classroom?        Learners’  experiences  of  synchronous  online  activities:  a  project  report   32  University  of  Aberdeen  May  2012