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Using Webconferencing in Online Classes

Synchronous communication in an online class can be beneficial in community building and development of critical thinking, but it does have drawbacks.

  • Finding a common time for “class discussions”, particularly if students are spread over multiple time zones.
  • Ensuring the availability of faculty and student hardware requirements, including videocams and headsets.  Some laptops have built-in cameras and microphones, but they tend to pick up a lot of extraneous noise.
  • Coordination as the number of participants rise.  Conferencing with 15 is a different experience to conferencing with 150.

Nevertheless, there are clear advantages to web conferencing.  Faculty can “see” or at least hear their students (and vice versa), adding the richness of vocal inflections and even body language to the discussion.  It is an excellent way to brainstorm or hold group activities, and for math or science classes, adds the dimension of the unfolding development of a solution to a math or physics problem.  Synchronous communications work well for office hours.  It also allows for multiple presenters to connect with a class from multiple locations.

A recent study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (Vilaitis et al, 2007) found that participants in web conferencing fell into three groups – pragmatists, positive communicators, and shy enthusiasts – but that all three groups valued web conferencing over no meetings and text-based communications alone.

The primary tool for web conferencing built in to our Blackboard LMS is Wimba Classroom.  It features a live, virtual class environment in which faculty and students can display and share content, from powerpoints to websites to software such as Excel.  It has a built-in “whiteboard” as well as a chat area.  Faculty can monitor and control audio and video links from students.  For instance, if too many people are trying to talk, faculty can on-the-fly disable all student microphones and then enable selected students as they raise their virtual hands.

Features in Wimba Classroom include:

  • Engage in two-way audio (students can use a headset (recommended) or a phone)
  • Deliver presentation in PowerPoint and a range of other graphic formats
  • Engage in public / private text chat
  • Share desktop applications for demonstration and instructional purposes
  • Push web pages to participants
  • Use a live whiteboard for drawing and annotation
  • Conduct real time polls and surveys
  • Build lessons to be accessed and delivered directly from Blackboard
  • Archive sessions for later review by both those who were present and those absent

Blackboard is used as a front end to build and deliver Wimba Classroom,  It can be accessed in the COMMUNICATIONS area of the menu.  If it is going to be routinely used, it would be a good idea to add a menu button using the ADD TOOL LINK function in Manage Course Menu in the Control Panel.

Wimba provides frequent online workshops on successfully using Wimba Classroom.

In order to talk online in Live Classroom, you and your students will need a computer headset with microphone. Headsets are available from stores like Office Depot, Best Buy, Target or Wal-Mart. Expect to pay between $15 and $20 for a mini-plug headset or $30 -$90 for a USB headset, which is recommended. We have not found that the more expensive headsets work any better than the less expensive ones, just be sure the headset that you purchase is made for use with your computer – cell phone and radio headsets will not work properly.

Help desk technical support is being provided by our corporate partner, Wimba. You can contact their help desk 24/7 at the following toll free number: (1.866.350.4978)

For smaller groups or for office hours, several other products can be used for web conferencing.  The web continues to evolve and add a number of applications for connecting and communicating with colleagues and students. Several that are worth examining:

Skype is a software application that allows for computer-to-computer telephone or video calls over the internet. Calls computer-to-computer are currently free. Skype does charge for calling a cellphone or landline.  However, Skype uses a lot of bandwidth, so you may find it easier to use from home than from your office through the VCU network (who may throttle it if heavy usage impacts network reliability.

The nice feature about Skype is that, through videocams, you can see who you are talking to and they can see you.

DimDim is a free web conferencing application. One can share your desktop, show slides, collaborate, chat, talk and broadcast via webcam with absolutely no download required to host or attend meetings. The free version allows for up to 20 participants at a time in a web conference.

Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 09/22/2009
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