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August 12, 2010

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THE TECH EFFECT: Through the Computer Screen--On the Other Side of the Webinar

THE TECH EFFECT: Through the Computer Screen--On the Other Side of the Webinar

“And what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?” —Lewis Carroll

Like most educators, I’ve logged in to my fair share of webinars. These seminars, conducted through the internet, have some distinct advantages over the traditional, face-to-face group meetings. For one thing, every participant has a front row seat. Because meetings can be recorded, those who miss training sessions can view them in segments or in their entirety at a later date.

There’s no question that webinars save on time and travel costs for both participants and presenters. They also balance information formats—visual information presented on the screen is just as vital as the auditory information coming through the speaker, while textual information, often in the form of hyperlinks, allows participants to further explore the concepts being presented in the session. Social types can interact through simultaneous chat pods and viewer polls. Well-planned webinars include a little something for everyone, with enough options to keep the attention of today’s multitasking public. Besides, webinars are the ultimate “come as you are” form of professional development. If you log into a session wearing your favorite old sweatsuit from your college days and a pair of cowgirl slippers, who’s to know? All in all, it’s a convenient, efficient—and comfortable—way to receive and deliver information.

But not everyone is a fan of webinar delivery. There are plenty of strong opinions in the opposite camp, many of them coming from students and teachers. Complaints range from inept presenters to the conspicuous absence of real, face-to-face interaction. It’s true that webinar formats are, shall we say, lacking in human dynamics. Devoid of the signals that let presenters know whether their audience is engaged, confused, or bored, facilitators tend to plow through their material relentlessly and without pause. Technical problems—echoing audio, presenters unsure of just how to switch screens or use the software options—throw another monkey wrench into the scenario, creating distraction and a general lack of trust in the delivery system. There are some attendees who freely admit to getting through webinar sessions only by opening another window and dividing their time between Facebook and Farm Ville. “Every time I sit through a webinar, I feel my will to live start to flag,” confessed one school administrator on his blog. Bottom line: efficient and convenient do not an engaging presentation make. And if you’re not engaged in learning, well … you won’t learn.

 

Down the Rabbit Hole

In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again. —Lewis Carroll

These reflections—along with a few cautionary visuals—flitted through my mind at lightning speed when I received an invitation to present a series of webinars, based on my book, Engaging the Eye Generation: Visual Literacy Strategies for the K–5 Classroom , to teachers and administrators in Michigan’s Oakland Intermediate School District (ISD) (www.oakland.k12.mi.us). Educators in Oakland ISD have been taking a close look at literacy, basing their studies on the Four Resources Model developed by Peter Freebody and Allan Luke (www.newliteracies.com.au/what-are-new-literacies?/116). Oakland ISD continued its professional development focus on literacy with a 2010 initiative on the topics of critical and developing literacy.

True confession: My previous experiences with webinars fell firmly in the category of “passive pastime.” My tendency was to log on and follow along, perhaps not always as diligently as I should have. If I was inspired to refill my cup of coffee or let the dog in without bothering to press the “step away” icon, who was to know? Should I accept the assignment offered to me by the folks in Oakland, I would become the creator and deliverer, the talking head. I would transmute into the person that people secretly stepped away from . This particular bit of cognition gave me a distinct transcendental jolt and a resolve to become a more forthcoming and transparent participant. Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice with her looking glass, I experienced a distinct sense of stepping through the computer screen. Far beyond paying more attention to the presentation, I would now have to navigate the show, be the show, engage the learners, and find a way to connect through the impersonal stretch of cyberspace. I would have to find something to encourage the “participants” to actually participate. I needed to become not only friendly but fluent with a new piece of software. Frankly, I wasn’t sure that I had the cadre of skills required to pull this off. But I accepted anyway. One thing was certain: I was going to grow.

Figuring It Out Together

Begin at the beginning … and go on till you come to the end: then stop. —Lewis Carroll

Fortunately, I had brave and knowledgeable collaborators who were willing to assist me in my upward climb. Bill Devers, K–12 English language arts consultant, and Les Howard, English language arts/literacy consultant, both affiliated with Oakland ISD, were on hand to act as hosts and co-creators of the webinars. Like most school districts throughout the U.S., Oakland ISD is always looking for resourceful ways to meet the needs of its learning community.

Bill let me know up front that this would be the district’s first attempt at professional development via webinar. He and Les would be using Adobe Connect and would be working through practice sessions to master the various aspects of the software. “Count me in!” I answered, welcoming every opportunity to familiarize myself with the responsibilities and skills of my upcoming role.

Meanwhile, I downloaded a 30-day trial of Adobe Connect (you can get one too by logging on to www.adobe.com/products/acrobatconnectpro/trial) in order to get a feeling for what life was like on the other side of the screen. I also accessed my old friend YouTube for a wide range of Adobe Connect training videos. Adobe offers a wealth of training videos, many of which have been created by universities and school districts for the specific audience of educators. I practiced using the software with both my personal and school-issue laptop computers, logging in to one as the presenter and to the other as the participant so that I could begin to understand the interaction between the two. (This was an important detail, because the screen views and access to options are quite different.) These resources, along with plenty of practice time, helped me get up-to-speed with Adobe Connect and to explore the options available through the program.

Know Thy Content

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. —Lewis Carroll

I’ve been talking and writing about multiple-literacy learning for a while now. I speak confidently on the topic. I keep a repository of visuals, links, and presentations on my subject, as do most speakers and trainers. But every teacher knows that the way you choose to present and teach material is greatly influenced by the makeup of the audience and the nature of the presentation. The shape and available options of the delivery software, in this case Adobe Connect, drove much of the form and facets of the presentation.

Adobe Connect offers a series of pods, each with specific functions, from which the webinar creators can choose to create a custom screen. The most commonly used and largest pod offers the participants a share screen controlled by the presenter. The primary conduit for visual information, the share screen allows the facilitator to open software for demonstrations, to show visuals, to write and draw on a whiteboard, or to open PDFs for viewing. Another pod enables the web camera and voice options so that participants can hear and see the presenter. There is also an option that offers polls to the participants and shares the results of their responses in bar graph form. Yet another allows participants to type in responses, questions, and comments. Finally, the attendee pod includes icons that participants can direct to raise hands, to disagree, to applaud, or to laugh … emoticon style. In order to keep our audience as participatory and engaged as possible, Bill, Les, and I decided to avail our participants of every option available.

Something for Everyone

“The time has come,” the Walrus said / “To talk of many things …” —Lewis Carroll

The to-do list grew exponentially over the next few weeks. My initial syllabus branched out in this new cybersoil to include a number of weekly poll questions (How did you use your visual literacy skills today?), a selection of reflections (Take a closer look at Andrew Churches’ “Bloom’s Taxonomy Blooms Digitally,” and allow yourself some time to analyze the strategies and tools that you chose for literacy instruction), guiding questions (What cultural developments influence the way we view literacy?), and spontaneous questions (What kind of phrases and words would you include in a modern definition of literacy?). Although I prepared a foundation of information for each session—lecture, demonstrations, slides, videos, links, and so on—a portion of my presentation would need to be dedicated to acknowledging and discussing the responses of my audience. And I would have to fit all of that into three 1-hour sessions.

I decided that the best way to accommodate that was to create a “presenter’s script,” noting the gist of the content, the appropriate visuals and links, and estimated time for presenter response. The scheduling necessitated a third laptop, but it worked out pretty well in the end. A lifelong over-preparer (perhaps it has something to do with growing up in hurricane country), I also threw in an outline printed on chart paper. I was broadcasting from my home, so my husband was on hand to deal with phones, doorbells, and barking dogs. Armed with newly acquired software skills, comprehensive content know ledge, the support of Bill and Les, and a fresh glass of iced tea, I felt prepared for my first session.

It went well. Our audience was well-informed on the topic, and most of them had read Engaging the Eye Generation . When I was initially unable to turn on my web camera (I had to re-enter the session in order to do so), suggestions poured in from the attendee chat pod, enabling me to pick out the media specialists on the spot. The group was chatty, friendly, participatory, and full of ideas. Bill and Les, acting as hosts, kept the poll questions moving, facilitated much of the chat, called my attention to questions I missed along the way, and posted the reflections. At the close of each webinar, the three of us logged on again to chat about the session, to suggest changes, and to discuss participant responses.

The reviews were kind. We received some encouraging emails from participants:

“I’ve seen more than a handful of VERY BORING webinars this year, but this one was much more relevant to our times than any other I’ve viewed. Love the interactive and video components along with the ppt view. It sure looks like a lot of time was spent developing the session.”

We were especially thrilled when we passed the litmus test of webinars: Les and Bill reported that teachers, hearing about the first session from their colleagues, requested participation in the remaining two presentations.

 

And Here’s What We Learned

I can’t go back to yesterday, because I was a different person then. —Lewis Carroll

Agreeing that we must be doing something right, Bill, Les, and I followed the same architecture for our subsequent presentations. We continued to provide a wide range of information formats and offered frequent opportunities for exchange between participants and presenter. We continued to strike a balance between structure, based on the material outline, and fluidity, generated from audience questions and comments.

Buoyed by either positive feedback or familiarity with the process, we all became more comfortable as we went along. After each session, the three of us logged in to discuss the session, the responses of the participants, and the resulting content of our next session. We were morphing into a team of cyber teachers with open dialogue and shared goals. Eventually, the hosts (Bill and Les) accessed the web and voice pod to chime into the discussion, making a point about a resource or calling my attention to a question or comment that was not within my view as the presenter. This action added an important dynamic to the experience and replicated the energy and exchange of real-life classrooms. We learned that a successful webinar requires team effort. There is just too much activity and interaction going on for a webinar to be successful and meaningful as a one-man show.

Perhaps the most important thing we discovered about creating and delivering webinars is that they must be thoughtfully tailored. Webinars, like any form of education, simply cannot be effective when dished out as fixed scripts delivered to a faceless audience. We live in a world where education and information are increasingly broad and personalized, and webinars need to reflect that reality. Like ’em or hate ’em, webinars are here to stay. But who’s to say what their next incarnation will look like? If web broadcasting brings a holographic Einstein into my living room to illustrate his theories of a static universe with a 3D visual of the known galaxies, I guarantee that I will not be slipping out of the session to refill my coffee cup.

Johanna Riddle writes and teaches on the topic of integrated learning and multiple literacies, drawing on 25 years of experience as a classroom teacher, an art teacher, an arts administrator, and a media specialist. Johanna is the author of Engaging the Eye Generation (Stenhouse, 2009). Her work in the classroom has been featured in T.H.E. Journal and has been the subject of an Adobe educational video. She is a nationally certified media educator, a Fulbright Scholar, and an Adobe Education Leader. Email her at johannariddle@gmail.com.

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