Thursday, 31 March 2011

Online conferencing tools

Following our forays into Elluminate, we are encouraged to explore the conferencing and VoIP markets a bit further. It was suggested that we take a look at Google Talk, Windows Live or Skype, but I've used all of these for work or leisure quite extensively, so this post is going to be a quick romp through a few other tools I've heard about recently (but not used, so please don't treat these as recommendations!).

Skype in the Classroom, a dedicated teacher network, was launched this week. The aim seems to be to allow teachers to find other teachers using skype, to share their interests and collaborate on teaching and learning projects. More information is available here (where I heard about this), and of course from Skype itself.

VenueGen is an online, 3D virtual meeting and collaboration space. You can set up large and small events, and present content. Participants have an avatar (like Second Life) and can move around the space. As I said, I've not had a chance to try it out yet (though a free trial is available, and it would be fun to try with some other students if anyone is interested).

The look of it, and the features, remind me of Teleplace, which I have explored and blogged about before.

Next up is Vyew, which is another online collaboration space. Its feature list looks rather similar to some of Elluminate's offering, including desktop sharing, screen capture tools, white-boarding, built in VoIP, text chat, and shared and break out rooms. Again, I've not had an opportunity to try it, but it has a free version (ad-supported) which can be used by up to 10 people, so there is scope for having a go here.

There is an enormous list of of collaboration tools out there, which are more or less suited to educational purposes. I'd be really interested to hear experiences from others about their place in elearning today.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Conferencing on the net - using Elluminate

Well, I'm back, after a bit of a blogging hiatus. Life, work and study all just combined to get in the way. However, my interview with an innovator is done (and I hope to blog about it sometime, probably after the assignment based on it is out of the way), and assignment one is completed. It was painful, and a big reason why I've not been blogging!

But, now I am, and this week we are looking at conferencing on the net. We were invited to try out Elluminate Live!, a web-based conferencing system which includes audio, text chat, shared applications, private and shared whiteboards, polls, quizzes and more. Quite a number of OU courses now use Elluminate in some way, and some some H807 students already had experience with it. Other had none. And others, like me, have experience with similar technologies, but not this specific tool.

A group of five of us met in an Elluminate room, moderated by Kate, to try out some of the features. Our task was to discuss and collaboratively annotate a diagram uploaded to the shared whiteboard. Immediately this presented us with a difficulty as the diagram provided, once uploaded was of poor quality, difficult to re-size, and most people found it virtually unreadable.

The following are some of my reflections on the activity.

  • Useful for sharing content
  • Good for introducing and describing a task
  • Collaboration opportunities are good but this needs preparation by the moderator/leader (obviously collaboration doesn't feel like face-to-face, but assuming that that's not possible, this does have uses)
  • Variety of collaboration tools - hopefully this might mean there is something which suits everyone's way of working
  • Being able to hear voices of other students was good. It made people feel more 'real' than just another forum/blog poster.
  • Possible audio problems - echo seems to be a well-known issue
  • Need for preparation in order to guarantee a successful session - does this reduce spontaneity? (Is this any different to needing to prepare effectively for a classroom anyway)
  • Speaking on the audio channel can feel a little like talking to empty space. If no-one responds quickly then you are left wondering whether anyone heard, or whether you were talking nonsense. I suspect use of the gestures and emotions might be more widespread among more experienced users, and might reduce this feeling. Similarly, more use of brief text/audio responses by 'listeners', just so that the speaker knows they were heard might happen more amongst groups who have had experience of being the 'unheard' speaker.
  • Possibly more suited to teacher/trainer delivered learning. Students left to their own devices without sufficient guidance might feel lost or uncertain how to collaborate on a task (although again, this can be a problem in a classroom too).
  • The task needs to be well specified - this may be a case of getting students to prepare in advance. If students don't know how to use the features of the tool then they may well be distracted and miss the point of the learning activity
  • I found multiple talkers confusing - others in the group preferred this to the 'single radio channel' style where one one person could talk at once. I found sound quality problems and difficulties understanding if more than one person spoke simultaneously. People were polite and not deliberately talking over each other, but even small overlaps were tricky for me to deal with. 
  • The supplied resources for this activity were poor - or at least we felt they were. We had a number of still images, screenshots taken from an interactive global warming simulation tool. I think we were trying to pretend to use the simulation, which was clearly not possible from a still image. If we had focused on discussing the Elluminate tools which could be used to teach using a still image on the whiteboard then we might have been less frustrated (although in fact, image resolution was also poor, so we would not have been satisfied. This highlighted that there may be a need to prepare (or at least test) resources specifically for this medium.
  • I found it very easy and intuitive to use - but not all in the group agreed. I have an IT background and it's part of my job to pick up new tools quickly. I've used similar tools before, and was able to transfer knowledge with no difficulties. While this was nice for me it points out the need to be aware of varied experiences and backgrounds of students participating in a session. Different students can have very different experiences of the same conference 'experience'!
  • There are a number of features we didn't experiment with which I would like to try, including polls, quizzes and the web tour feature.
  • The number of communication 'channels' (voice, text chat, whiteboard, gestures/emotions etc) can become confusing or even overwhelming. Students may not know where to focus attention. Students may also attribute different value to the various modes, e.g. I preferred text chat to voice and saw it as an equivalent medium, but some people saw the text box as a peripheral channel.
Take-away messages
  • Students need training (time and practise) in using the tool's features - otherwise the technology could get in the way of the learning.
  • Going back to the theme of affordances - different tools will suit different jobs. Elluminate won't be a panacea for all distance-learning collaborative activities. 

Friday, 11 March 2011

Talking to an innovator

I'm excited to announce that my interviewee will be Phil Hall, CEO of Elzware, who develop conversational systems which they say enable "users to interact with websites as easily as they might on real-world premises - whether that is a shop, classroom, factory, call centre or office".

Er, what's a conversational system again?
Conversational agents, chatbots, or virtual agents are software 'entities' which a user can talk to (usually through typed messages), and get answers, service or information that they require. They are 'natural language' systems, which means the user doesn't have to use any special codes, words or computer languages to communicate - they just type in their own, natural, language and the conversational system 'understands' and responds appropriately.

And how's that related to eLearning?
These conversational systems offer more than just simple question and answer or FAQs. They can take and pose questions, in natural language, and they can also suggest other points of reference, useful information, links or guide a user through a dialogue. Specifically, Elzware is behind

According to the TeachBot website, TeachBot is a Virtual Teaching Assistant developed using their cutting edge conversational system approach. Bristol City Learning Centres and their expert educational consultants worked in conjunction with Elzware to create an "innovative, effective, affordable and engaging educational tool, which would most importantly, help students achieve better grades". Essentially, it offers personalised educational support in English reading and writing, at home or in the classroom, for students working towards their GCSEs in Years 8, 9, 10 and 11.

This is Blob, the teaching assistant students interact with. You can experience chatting to Blob on the TeachBot site, or chat to Yhaken, Elzware's original conversational system.

Phil has a fascinating and varied background, including experience as an Engineer, Cabinetmaker and Anthropologist. I know he's going to have some very interesting insights into innovation in elearning!

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Affordances confusion - and much musing!

This week is looking at the concept of affordances (the quality of an object, or an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action - Wikipedia). I have come across the concept before. I know the Norman reference, and I've probably cited it somewhere in the past. All the descriptions of affordances in the Weller text (the H807 course notes) seemed to make sense, and I could see how they were being applied... but then activity 1 asked for the affordances found in email and blogs, and I got mired in grammatical confusion.

Affordance seemed to be a noun (you could have a set of affordances, characteristics of a technology), but then affordances could be found in a technology. I'm familiar from previous work and research with making statements like "this function affords the user the ability to...x or y", in which case affords is a verb, and it means something like "allows" the user, but with a bit more pushing them towards a particular action rather than just permitting it.

Maybe I got most confused by (and so am happy if I ignore) the sentence "Suggest the affordances found in each technology". I'm not sure affordances are in technologies. I think I'm happy with saying this technology affords x or y... so here's my stab at affordances of email and blogging (as required for Activity 1).

  • Ease of writing - can edit/save etc
  • Can sent instantly or delay if required
  • Can quote from previous emails, encouraging dialogue
  • Delivered instantly (although sometimes technology fails"), so can facilitate an almost real-time 'conversation'
  • Or, may be read later, asynchronously - the recipient chooses when suites them
  • Allows writing to be tailored to the specific recipient
  • Easy to copy in additional recipients - though CC and BCC can be much used and abused
  • Awareness of writing for audience may influence tone or content
  • Ease of publishing to wide audience - questions about retro-editing and authenticity
  • Commenting facilities - tend to encourage short interaction - may spin off into email exchange
  • More of a one-way communications method - blogs can be very self-centred, albeit with an acknowledgement that other may or will read what is posted
So, was the concept of affordances useful when thinking about the technology?
Well, not especially, since I'm not quite clear enough about what it really means. I can ask "is it intuitive", "what types of communication does it encourage", "how does the design of this technology influence its use" - all without needing the concept of affordances.

I think it could be useful to think about where or why affordances arise. Are they designed? Are they emergent properties? Do affordances change when you combine various technologies in otherwise unexpected ways? Some of those emergent properties might be beneficial - but they equally well might not be and we need to be aware of their potential implications in designing elearning.

And what about how different users might experience the same technology? The original use of the term affordances in biology by Gibson described the interaction an environment offers an organism. The same environment (or technology) will have different affordances for different organisms/people. We need to be aware in designing technology (and educational technology) that difference people will experience the opportunities or facilities that we provide in different ways. What is intuitive or easy to use for one learner maybe not suit another.

Could there be other explanations (other than affordances) for behavioural influences? I think so. Community usage for a start may encourage or discourage various interactions or behaviours. Maybe some would label this a social affordance (as in Krejins et al). But social expectations or norms of behaviour could influence activity, outside of any affordances of the technology itself. It's also possible that people use a particular technology because they are unaware of alternatives - and while in this case it doesn't meant that the technology doesn't afford them what they need, it doesn't mean that need might be better met elsewhere. 


Gibson, J.J. (1979) The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Boston, Houghton Mifflin.

Kreijns, K., Kirschner, P.A. and Jochems, W. (2002) ‘The sociability of computer-supported collaborative learning environments’, Journal of Educational Technology & Society, vol.5, no.1, pp.8–22; also available online at (Accessed 2 December 2010).

Norman, D.A. (1988) The Psychology of Everyday Things, New York, Basic Books.

Friday, 4 March 2011


While I was thinking about things which are challenging me - which seem to be about putting my views out there for all to see - this Tweet from iOPT popped up on my screen...
"The Internet requires us to adopt norms of open sharing & participation - publishing has become the new literacy" - Clay Shirky
This fits so nicely both with my current struggles about publishing a podcast and sharing posts in a forum (and the internal debates and doubts I had about starting a blog way back at the beginning of the MA ODE), and with the wider themes of sharing and participation which have emerged through our discussions of the definition of innovation in elearning.

Warning: unanswered questions ahead. Cognitive dissonance in progress.

If it is the Internet which is requiring us to adopt these norms, can we chose to go another way, to ignore 'the Internet'? It seems unlikely - that genie is well and truly out of the bottle - except, perhaps this isn't the case, as we've also seen that individuals and, in particular, institutions, are struggling to cope with new methods of openness, sharing and collaboration.

Could it be that the is Internet requiring this of us because actually it's designed/developed/emerged from the way people actually think - another Tweet from iOPT:
The Internet is not changing people's way of thinking but rather it is adapting to the way people think - Steven Pinker
So which is the innovator and which the adopter here - the Internet, or the people who use it? Is it the Internet pushing (or pulling) us and our students... or is it us who are responsible for shaping what it has become? And what are the implications for education? We know norms are shifting, and expectations and opportunities are changing, but how much control can the individual have over the effects on them and their personal learning or teaching? Where does choice end and societal pressure begin?

Whatever the case, the concept that publishing is a new required literacy is very real. We now need to learn, not only to use language to communicate, but to understand what it means to publish it, to identify and evaluate sources, to understand how we credit original work, and to have an eye on the social and cultural effects of publishing, and being part of a community of publishers.

This week...

... has not been my most productive on this course so far! In fact, no posts here, but two posts there suggest I might be avoiding or procrastinating, and I am (even by writing this post!). So, let's attempt to turn it into some more useful reflection...

What am I avoiding?
Two things - making a podcast, and posting things in the forum.

The podcast - I really hate the idea of recording my voice. There's also a bit of a challenge of coming up with content, but I know I can do that really. So it's the voice recording thing which is just so hideous an idea to me. Kate used xtranormal to do a brilliant alternative podcast - a short animation, for which she wrote the script.

And the forum? There's been quite a bit of discussion this week about how hectic it is, trying to keep up with all the posts, and the difficulties if people post their notes rather than real discussions. I think it's a bit problematic as a lot of the activities suggest you share your notes (or at least your thoughts) with your tutor group, and to get the ball rolling with that, some people will need to post their initial reactions to an activity. I'm now conscious that there are quite a few people in the group who are not happy about wading through posts, and I'm not sure I feel so happy posting any more  - and I worry that my contribution may not be valuable at the best of times anyway.

So how am I going to get passed this?
Well, the podcast I think I might quietly shove under the carpet. I'm quite happy with the technical side of recording, uploading, setting up a feed etc, so I don't feel I particularly need that practice (I might download Audacity though, as it's such a good tool and I think it'll come in handy for the upcoming interview).

And the forum? I probably just have to get on and keep posting! I try to write posts that will be relevant for other students, but I know I can't interest everyone, and certainly not all the time. I guess I just have to let them be selective - they can skip past my post if they want, and then I haven't upset anyone have I? 

But what's gone well?
Well, I have at least arranged my interviewee for the 'interviewing an elearning innovator' task. I shan't reveal who it is yet as we've not been through the release forms, but I'm hoping I'll be able to soon.

Hmm, that doesn't feel like quality reflection... not sure I learnt anything. In which case, maybe it was just procrastination. Damn!