This past week we held our seminar online using Elluminate, which is sort of a virtual classroom system that uses an array of features like audio (via voice over internet protocol), text chat, a whiteboard, on-the-fly polling, and application sharing. Since this was really my first time using an application like this, I haven’t really decided whether it was a positive experience or not. However, I thought I’d share some of my impressions from the virtual meeting:
- I found that having both VOIP audio and a text chat window going at the same time was unnerving. Maybe this is more about me than anything else, but it felt like two channels competing for my attention. One of the course students mentioned (in the chat window) that she could tell when I was distracted by something in the chat window — apparently I paused while speaking. I may just be really bad at multitasking (although I contend that *everybody* is bad at multitasking, but most don’t realize it).
- At the same time, I kind of liked the backchannel quality of the chat window. It reminded me a bit of that Pop Up Video thing they used to do on VH1. Maybe it would be possible to lay down some ground rules for using the chat window that would make it more productive than distracting.
- It took us a little while to work out the audio (VOIP) procedures. Apparently, it is possible to allow up to six different people to have their microphones open at a time, but doing so caused serious chaos. Some participants were using speakers, so when their mics were open, we got bizarre echoes and feedback. The psychedelic quality of this had only limited charm. What we eventually settled into was having only two mics open — one for me as the moderator of discussion, and one for whoever else was talking. By the end, I thought this part was working pretty well.
- I think application sharing has maybe the most potential for an online writing course. Any participant (I think) could open a Word document, for instance, and other participants could take turns modifying, revising, or editing the document while others watched. This might work especially well for online conferences or peer response groups.
- We tried to use the whiteboard feature of Elluminate to edit text, but that was much less successful. I like the fact that everyone can post text and images to the whiteboard at any time, but (like the chat feature) this became somewhat distracting for me. As we discussed Scott Warnock’s Teaching Writing Online, someone in the class pulled an image of Warnock off the web and pasted it into the whiteboard space. Then, of course, others began doodling over the image. It was funny enough to be distracting to me. (Just to be clear: I didn’t think of this as a ‘classroom discipline’ issue nor did I resent it. It’s just something I noticed.)
- This made me wonder, though — how often in f2f classes do students feel comfortable with going up to the whiteboard and doodling on it during class? Maybe it’s the fact that it’s kind of hard to tell who’s doing what on the virtual whiteboard. Or maybe we’re just an especially unruly crowd.
- If I were to do this again, I’d do an in-class (i.e., f2f) introduction to Elluminate before jumping in. None of us had done it before, so we spent the first half hour or so just getting oriented. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, but it was clear to me that some of us were frustrated by the experience.
- I honestly did not expect to miss f2f interaction, but I did. This became really clear to me when we started playing with the video conference feature of Elluminate. Like the VOIP audio, it is possible to have up to six people visible via webcam. When a bunch of students turned theirs on, and I could see them, I noticed that I suddenly felt inexplicably relieved, as if I thought “oh, there they are.” I realized that, up to that point, I had been feeling frustrated at only really being able to interact with one student at a time. I guess maybe I do more visual “checking in” with students in a f2f class than I thought.
As I said, I’m not sure how I feel overall about the experience. Maybe some of my misgivings are just a result of task novelty, and I’d find my groove if I did it more. Or maybe there are things about f2f classes that I value more than I would have expected (given my relatively introverted nature).
Let me open up the question: how did others feel about the Elluminate experience? Or, if you’re not a member of our course, what experiences have you had with Elluminate or other similar products (like Adobe Connect or Breeze)?