Elluminate Impressions

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)?

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7 comments on “Elluminate Impressions

  1. Very close to what I’ve experienced myself, and what I’ve heard and seen with other instructors.

    The chat window, whiteboard, etc. competing for attention can definitely present a cognitive load issue. Some instructors go so far as to remove whiteboard and text chat privileges from the students while they’re talking (the students can still enter text, but only the moderator can see it), others have a TA monitor the chat window. Things are even worse when you have a combined f2f/distance class. When Tom Anderson and I were working on one of those, one of us would monitor everything in Elluminate while the other monitored the f2f classroom. I don’t think it’d be possible for one person to do that effectively. Maybe an air traffic controller could pull it off.

    The “simultaneous speakers” feature only works well if everyone is using a headset and you can enforce it with a Stalinist level of rigor. Otherwise you’re going to get feedback problems.

    The feeling that you’re speaking into the void is also common. That works both ways… Elluminate lectures can be deadly from the student perspective, unless the instructor REALLY works at it.

    One reason why this isn’t as bad in Moodle (or Facebook) is the picture. Even a simple still picture helps a lot, and video is better. There are things you can do to improve things even more. Let me just say that active research is under way in this area. 🙂

  2. I agree that the three competing stimuli–voice, chat, whiteboard–were too much in this case. Maybe that wouldn’t always be the case? Maybe, as Tony mentions above, taking out the non-voice options is a possibility. Maybe just removing one–I like having something else besides just voice, so maybe restricting it to just voice and whiteboard or just voice and chat. But I think that the “multi” modes are an important part of the experience, and keeps it from feeling like it’s just a lecture.

    I also noticed that in the chat window, we were more jokey and informal than usual. I know I felt more relaxed and more inclined to try and be funny when chatting than I did when talking. Our class seems to have a pretty good rapport, which may have had something to do with it, but I wonder how a chat window works with a new class of freshmen, using it from day 1. If we were noticeably more informal, the chat window could get some people in trouble if they fall into the chat habits they have with their friends. Maybe I’m not giving students enough credit here. It’s also possible they would worry about it being recorded that they would clam up. Do people have any experience with this?

    And I had the same feeling of relief you had, Kory, when the video windows showed up. It felt a lot more like there were real people the room all of a sudden. That may just be the unfamiliarity of the technology, and if we didn’t have the f2f background I might not have needed it as much. But I definitely felt it.

  3. For the record, I too much prefer the f2f class, with its more sensory, more tactile nature–I hesitate to say “more human” because, let’s face it, if you wear glasses, or a watch, or even the technology of clothes, you’re already Haraway’s posthuman/cyborg.

    That said, I’d like to elaborate on something I said during the virtual class. For those who don’t have the option or luxury (be it geographical or time-wise) of attending f2f classes, having access to the virtual is an empowering equaliser. Just imagine what kinds of more educated legislation Governor Jan Brewer would make had she the opportunity to take online critical thinking and civic liberties classes. But it’s difficult to do with resistance from educators ourselves. The multimodal interface may be initially disconcerting, but I think it’s similar to learning a new language–just its own kind of literacy. I once went incognito, backpacking for a year with no direct contact to family and friends, and so I forced myself to use chatting programs online. It takes more than two hours (took me several weeks) to fully acculturate into any virtual mode of communication.

    As for the distractions, I think the discipline and protocols need to be developed over a longer period of time. They were, as you mentioned, perhaps the result of task novelty–kind of like getting a new TV/computer/phone, and tinkering around with features to familiarise yourself with it.

  4. I just wanted to mention that the chat comments were often (but not always) related to what was being said. It offered a chance for us to voice our agreement or add a qualification to what was being said, in other words to respond quickly without having to take a turn. To keep the two strands working together, the instructor could insist that chats be related to the ongoing conversation, but short responses (“good idea,” “not sure about that” while talking)or longer responses during the breaks in the conversation, such as when conversation switches from one speaker to the other.

    I discovered that I enjoyed a synchronous chat related to class topics (much more than the speaking element) and I am now considering the possibilities of using a synchronous chat to further extend class discussions or as an online class. Perhaps students could choose to participate in either the audio or the chat board and then there wouldn’t be a problem of one distracting from the other. As for the audio sections, they worked much better, I felt, in small groups of three or four people.

  5. I think I can safely say that all of us missed the f2f interactions and seeing everybody’s facial expressions, gestures, and other physical manifestations. It was also a relief for me to see my classmaters’ faces on the webcams.

    As I reflect back on the experience, I have to admit that I feel closer now to all of you than I did before. Not to be corny, but I think that having that experiencing the virtual classroom together, being mischievous in our collaborative virtual whiteboard doodling, and interacting with each other with just voice were really intimate things, and I think it brought the class together in a different way than a f2f classroom experience would. It was also really interesting how the medium changes classroom participation (some of us, myself included, felt nervous about speaking into the void, etc.). It also made me a lot more conscious of what I was going to say.

    I like Ron’s idea about the possibility of extending class discussions in an online space, and think that a synchronous text chat or video chat would be great for that. I personally would love to experiment with video conferencing if we were to hold another online class, and then see how the experience differs from our previous online class, which was mostly text and voice chats.

    I also want to say that I enjoyed breaking up into small groups, and then coming back to the whole group to discuss what we talked about in our small groups.

    Kory–I think your example of writing on the whiteboard online versus writing on the whiteboard in a physical classroom is a really interesting one. It brings up questions of what kinds of subject positions students take on when they are in an online class vs f2f, and what the implications are in terms of power and representation. I could not imagine taking over the whiteboard in a f2f classroom space and pasting photos of my cat on the whiteboard while class is going on (though it would be fun), and it calls attention to the different literacies we are displaying and practicing in both mediums. I think that the online class is a great way to call attention to the materiality of the medium in which we interact with each other and collaborate, and what kinds of affordances or barriers they generate. I think a hybrid class could be very productive and could allow for great collaborative projects to take place, if we were to use the online class as a space for collaborating in, say, a writing project, for instance…

  6. I think the important thing to remember with tools like Elluminate is that they are never going to replicate a f2f classroom, so if we want/ need to use them we have to think of what principles we would emphasize in a f2f class and then invent online reasonable facsimiles that may seem entirely different but in effect teach the same principles.

    I thought the most interesting thing about the multiple windows was when the chat comments did in fact echo the voice dialogue. To me they kind of operated like footnotes or parentheses, or maybe like the internal dialogues we all have during a f2f class discussion that doesn’t make it into the mainstream for whatever reason.

    I actually thought the “raise hand” function made it really easy to mark your place in line and claim the intention to participate, and for that reason I think I may have participated more in our synchronous online discussion than I do in class.

  7. I think for the most part I would like to echo what Ron had to say! When I first entered the chat I felt very uncomfortable and did not the idea of having to “talk” to an empty room. Once I began to hear people talking I started to ease up a little but I still didn’t feel comfortable participating. When we were placed in the group room I had no problem voicing my concerns and my group even had a few giggles and ummm’s, it felt much more like the f2f environment. I also found the multimodal component to be very useful, I am a visual learner and being able to read and participate in the chat proved to be very helpful. I was not a fan of the whiteboard because I found the drawings to be very distracting but given the right guidelines I do see how productive they can be. I welcome the opportunity to teach an online course and overall found the transaction very useful but as Kory mentioned I think I would introduce the online component first in a f2f classroom before making the change over. I think this was a good dry run and I am glad that we had the opportunity to experience it.

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