Sunday, March 28, 2010

How to facilitate synchronous learning for real and virtual learners using technology?

The other day I had interesting discussions with Geetha Krishnan about possible ways of using technology to facilitate synchronous learning for remote learners.

Let's explore a scenario. An institute wants to deliver a training program to a global audience not only for its on-campus learners but also for remote learners. The faculty uses various tools and approaches to facilitate discussion, sharing, and participation in the class.

The challenge for the institute is - Can you facilitate a 7-day program for a client such that 10 of their top managers are present in the institute campus while 10 others join in from a remote campus?

What are the program objectives?

- Conduct the program successfully for both real and virtual teams.

- Client should derive the same value from the virtual program as they have derived from the real one.

- There should not be significant change in content delivery and design.

What are the challenges?

- Motivation of real and virtual teams can vary significantly

- Faculty needs to explore and improvise to make the program participative for both teams (real and virtual)

- Online learners should enjoy all benefits - discussions, debates, hands-on activities, and impromptu sharing

- Make the program run beyond the physical constraints of the classroom and yet retain the flavor of a face-to-face session.

This kind of delivery has 2 challenges if both the programs happen synchronously:

The campus participants will have to interact with the remote participants.

The faculty will have to deliver to both the real and virtual participants. This means all instructional activities must be designed to support this.

Let's explore some alternatives/suggestions

1) Webcast classroom proceedings live

This is a good approach if the duration of delivery is not more than one hour. However, beyond an hour, the virtual participants will be restless and lose attention. In addition, unless there is sufficient interactivity between real and virtual learners, the class will be dull, boring, and passive. In such a scenario, the faculty will have additional responsibility of delivering lectures as well as creating activities that are inclusive and participative for both sets of learners.

2) Has to be a blend of synchronous and asynchronous events

Have you watched a cricket match live in a stadium? Am sure many of us have watched a cricket match synchronously on television as well. What are the ingredients that make both versions entertaining with both parties having their share of fun? Live viewing on the cricket field has the audience engaged in on-field match as well as the stadium activities. The crowd bonds and participates together in sharing the fun on the field. Each hit or a wicket draws out reactions from the spectators as they experience the excitement together.

On the other hand, for the audience, viewing the match on television, has other attractions. They not only watch the on-field activities and proceedings, they get to listen to some entertaining commentaries about the match. They get to listen to analysis from experts, watch statistics on the screen, and watch action replay of critical moments. Added to that there are visuals, graphics, and a lot of trivia to sustain their interest and engage them completely. What they miss out in terms of live on-field experience they more than make up for it from the multi-pronged information sources directed at them through the tele. The only significant exception is that both sets of audience do not need to interact with each other.

This can be clubbed with other asynchronous activities such as team projects, recommended readings, research, lab activities, and preparations.

3) Some interesting information about virtual classroom and do's, and don'ts about technology to be used

a. An interesting presentation on Streaming Theater in a virtual classroom:

b. Innovations Showcase: Virtual classroom in a Web 2.0 world

c. An interesting analysis of Web2.0 tools for learning Are Web 2.0 tools designed to support learning?

d. Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age - A longish video (watch it with a large mug of coffee)

4) What's the team like?

a. Technology team: Quite obviously, the tech team needs to set up a lab to webcast the proceedings and not just a front view footage of the faculty talking. They must cover interesting happenings, reactions, and discussions. Need special application of hardware, software and network technologies to auto generate j-i-t content based on inputs from participants and faculty.

b. Graphics team: There must be a team of graphic designers who can create interesting templates for analysis of events unfolding in the class. They must be ready to provide interesting visual interpretation and visual summary of events as and when needed.

c. Instructional Design team: The team of IDs should collaborate with the faculty well in advance to plan the learning activities (classroom as well as offline). They should be prepared with the content analysis, attention grabbers, trivia, de-briefs of case studies or discussions, provide data on the fly to the graphic design and technology team.

5) What are the ID challenges?

a. In short, the ID team should orchestrate the session in close collaboration with the faculty, the technology team, the graphic design team and all the while keep their focus on the learners, their needs, and the content to be delivered.

b. Design activities for virtual learners and facilitate sharing across barriers.

c. Synchronize these activities such that there is no time lag and activity time is well utilized.

d. Use a delivery platform that will make the sharing synchronous and real time; almost like a video conferencing tool where participants can actually talk to each other.

e. Interaction has to be one to one and one to many.

f. Activities have to be a combination of individual and group; online and offline (synchronous and asynchronous)

g. Use social networking tool like yammer for discussion n exchange of ideas. However, exercise caution with social networking tools. While you may have an evolved set of learners but they may not necessarily be tech savvy.

I would like to ask my fellow Instructional Designers, educationists, and bloggers to share their experience with virtual and real collaboration; the kind of technology they have used; the possible pitfalls and the possible improvements.

On a lighter note, if what you see below was possible in 1977, anything is possible in 2010!

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