Web conferencing in education

This was originally posted by Simon Evans 27 February 2012. This is cross-posted as part of the transition of Software for Learning to Enabling e-Learning.

Whether you use Skype to talk to the grandchildren, or Adobe Connect to participate in online workshops, you are using web conferencing software. There has been a steady increase in the use of web conferencing software globally as companies go multi-national and as students and teachers look for flexible, low-cost solutions for professional development and further education. With the cost of travel rising, and the cost of technology decreasing, web conferencing has become a means of delivering a wide variety of professional support, from hosting meetings to facilitating students’ programmes of learning.

Skype in the classroom, for example, highlights how teachers are successfully using Skype with their students. The educational potential of having experts, from around the world, Skype into your classroom is coming of age.

So, how are New Zealand schools making the most of web conferencing in our increasingly networked world?

There are many schools around New Zealand that participate in the Virtual Learning Network community (VLNc)'s Programmes of Learning. This is a network of school clusters and educational institutions who collaborate to provide access to a broad range of curriculum and learning opportunities for students through online learning. The Learning Communities Online Handbook was started in 2002 as a guide for rural secondary schools in New Zealand who were exploring the use of video conferencing as a means of expanding access to course options for students.

Web conferencing with peers or teachers can extend learning opportunities, link isolated groups of learners and provide a choice of options for engaging with the curriculum. Another benefit of web conferences is the ability for teachers to be available online for questions or discussion with students. Web conferencing can make learning more flexible and personal; students and teachers can discuss issues via the conference from home and are able to juggle other demands. Web conferencing offers a tremendous tool for educators and students alike.

It is worth noting that, even using face-to-face technology, such as Skype, being able to ‘web conference’ successfully and with the appropriate ‘netiquette’ is a skill students and teachers will require. In addition, online courses or workshops require a certain amount of self-motivation and drive as learners work without the pressure of physically presenting themselves week after week.

Web conferencing tools can include web pages, messageboards and emails, as well as presentational tools, such as Powerpoint, and video streaming. Sessions can be recorded so learners can review or catch up on a missed session.

There is a variety of software available, much of it free for educational use that requires only a headset and microphone. Support material and tutorials for much of the software listed below are available on the main product pages.

e-Learning Planning Framework: Technologies and Infrastructure

ENVIRONMENT: Technology is part of the physical environment of the school to enhance learning and administration. Online learning platforms - such as those provided in web conferencing software - provide student and community access to resources, and to connect to wider networks.

Below are some suggestions:

Skype freeware allows users to communicate in real time with or without video connection, and can be used with multiple users on the same call.

ooVoo is a desktop and mobile application VOIP (Voice over Internet protocol) allowing multi-user video conferencing.

Anymeeting is a web-based conferencing service . It is designed for hosting meetings of up to 200 delegates.

Dabbleboard is an online collaboration tool with an interface focused around a shared learning space similar to an interactive whiteboard.

Blackboard collaborate is a comprehensive learning platform designed specifically for education.

Elluminate Live! is a web conferencing program. It "rents out" virtual rooms or vSpaces where virtual schools can host classes.

Face Flow is a free video conferencing software which will allow you to converse with up to four participants at a time.

Adobe® Connect™ 8  provides the means to teach, learn, and collaborate remotely, at any time.

Google Hangouts now allows you to collaborate with others, you can view each other's desktops,  view and edit documents together, and scribble and share notes.

Further suggestions from Derek Wenmoth’s blog: Free Web Conferencing Tools.