The blended learning model of pedagogy facilitates opportunities to engage with your students online and this includes providing a platform for live support. Email has long been established as the primary communication tool for online support between two parties. However the synchronous nature of newer tools, means there are now opportunities to improve web-based support incorporating digital media.
There are numerous potential uses for live communication via the web, listed below are some examples of the ways in which live support can be used:
- Supporting teaching. Where courses are delivered either partly (blended) or fully online then online support is recommended. The choice of tool will depend on the support context. Providing both synchronous and asynchronous tools is usually a good option
- Assessment feedback. Providing support and guidance on a one-one basis particularly for those students away from campus, possibly internationally-based
- Live presentations. Often used at conferences where a speaker is unable to attend in person, but in an educational perspective allows for remote students to engage, opening up the potential for trans-national education and providing an inclusive experience
With this type of activity, planning is crucial for success as there are a myriad of options in terms of method, scope and software. Having a defined set of goals will help you maintain focus - worry about the tools later. It is easy to get caught up in adjusting your plans purely to suit the technology which is likely to lead to a dilution of focus and an unsuccessful outcome for the person you are supporting.
The live approach gives the audience the opportunity to ask questions in depth, getting immediate feedback and allowing for the discourse to be more natural.
Synchronous communication (real-time)
Synchronous communication is defined as communication that happens immediately, such as a telephone conversation or face-to-face conversation. Using the web this includes audio/video conferencing and other instant communication tools. A recently published research paper looks at design and implementation factors in blended synchronous learning environments and highlights seven case studies within the Australian education system.
It also discusses the challenges involved in using this type of technology and approach and highlights the student feedback. The outcome of the research has led to the development of a blended synchronous learning design framework (see the table below), which can assist the planning process of this type of activity for educators.
The blended synchronous learning design framework
Features of online support
Using the web as your medium to provide online support allows you to take advantage of the range of communication tools available and use the most appropriate tools for a session. Digital media is often key for achieving good results. For example the ability to share your screen is great for adding context to the situation. Below are some typical features of online support:
- The ability to organise the dialogue into manageable chunks that can be stored and used as an evidence trail for both parties to aid support
- Use of video features such as screen-sharing helps to quickly identify issues/problems by providing detailed additional context
- Embedding of external content such as images, video and audio for use in discussion and support
- Use video and audio for meetings with two or more participants
- Ability to record all activity including video/audio during sessions
- Use of audio for communicating
- Use of video, either pre-recorded or live streaming where required
- Show still images and other common content such as web pages
All of the above can support your ability to run effective online support sessions whereby learner's needs are met.
One example of using live video for support is from Shrewsbury Sixth Form College, who were involved in a Jisc case study on their use of video conferencing to support teaching and enhance learning. This involved a partnership with Sheffield University to link up with undergraduates and view university level lectures.
Where digital media can be used in online support
Most online tools are able to upload and share images and uses for support include:
- Providing a focal point for discussion and debate
- Collaborating on generating new ideas and solutions to tasks
Video of participants
The most common use of video is to see each other during sessions. The ability to see each other is often used but not essential for most online communication if quality audio is used.
Typically video is used when participants do not know each other. Video becomes difficult when there are more than several people in the same session, most often due to internet connection speed, so in these instances consider audio only.
Lots of the available tools have a feature that allows participants to share their screen. This becomes very helpful in support contexts where showing the screen can aid understanding of the situation and is one of the top reasons for using such tools.
Sometimes it is helpful to highlight problems to other participants through visual means and a screencast is one such method of doing this - it is good for those who wish to pre-record instead of sharing a screen and then making it available.
As with each media, it often possible to embed or link to externally located video such as YouTube. Recording of sessions, including all action shown on screen which is useful for keeping a log of questions and the answers provided.
Audio can be nearly always be used for live support, such as:
- Used to communicate to all participants and can be used in conjunction with the other two media above
- Recording of sessions
- Pre-recorded audio may also be used as a basis for discussion
Tip: when there are many people in a session, and everybody needs to contribute it is often wise to stick with using the text-chat tool as management of everybody wishing to speak at once becomes unmanageable.
Before the session
Decide what you need to achieve during the session and choose appropriate tools to support such requirements.
Where possible test the connection ahead of the meeting, noting any issues that may be useful to include in house rules.
Send everybody house rules - what's expected regarding the session including setting expectations, data protection and joining instructions.
Assign roles - chairperson, minute/note taker, technical support.
During the session
Have a chairperson to manage the house rules and maintain order of who has the ‘floor'.
Re-iterate any house rules that were provided in advance.
If there was a recording or noting-taking, action what will happen to this data, ensuring you follow data protection guidelines.
Note any issues and where possible seek to improve upon each session until you have found a system that works well for you.