Student's first experiences with a Web conferencing system – preliminary findings

Peter Vitartas[HREF1], Senior Lecturer, School of Commerce and Management [HREF2] , Southern Cross Univeristy, PO Box 157, Lismore [HREF3], NSW, 2480. peter.vitartas@scu.edu.au

Stephen Rowe [HREF4], Lecturer, School of Commerce and Management [HREF2] , Southern Cross University, PO Box 157, Lismore [HREF3], NSW, 2480. stephen.rowe@scu.edu.au

Allan Ellis[HREF5], Associate Professor, School of Commerce and Management [HREF2] , Southern Cross University, PO Box 157, Lismore [HREF3], NSW, 2480. allan.ellis@scu.edu.au

Abstract

This paper presents the preliminary results from 15 personal interviews with early users of a Web-based conferencing program that has been used to deliver lecture content in a business school at an Australian university. While initial experiences ranged from apprehension to being relaxed about the new technology the students' comments about its use were enlightening. External students in particular reported being more connected and engaged with the lecturer and colleagues and enjoyed being able to “listen-in”. Support by lecturers and clear information on the use of the technology were identified as critical in the success of the program.

Introduction

The introduction of new software and computer programs into the class situation needs to be incorporated seamlessly and it is important for educators to understand the factors affecting a students' preparedness to become involved in, and to utilise, any new technologies which aim to improve instruction and educational activities.

Following the successful trial of Elluminate Live! (hereafter Elluminate) [HREF6] (Rowe and Ellis 2006) in the School of Commerce and Management, it has been adopted campus-wide at Southern Cross University (SCU) as a tool to deliver online synchronous meetings with students. This includes substantial lecture content in a number of courses which are recorded and can be used in an asynchronous means by students.

As part of the initial trial, personal interviews were undertaken with students to assess factors influencing their adoption and to obtain feedback on their initial experiences using the program. Prior to presenting these findings this paper will outline details of the software that was used in the study and provide a brief discussion of synchronous and asynchronous communications. While it is acknowledged there is a substantial body of literature on new technology adoption (Rogers 1983) and more recently technology adoption in relation to education (see, for example, Laurillard 2002; Phillips 2005) it is beyond the scope of this paper to include a discussion of this material and the focus will be on presenting and discussing the findings from the study.

Background to the introduction of Elluminate at SCU

A wide range of audiographic software, now commonly described as “Web conferencing”, “virtual meetings” or “collaborative” software is available that creates environments where integrated instructional tools (VoIP, shared whiteboards, shared applications, video windows and archival recording) are available. Examples include: Centra 7 [HREF7], Webex [HREF8], Breeze 5 [HREF9], Live Classroom [HREF10], Elluminate [HREF6], Citrix MeetingToGo [HREF11], ASAP pro [HREF12] and Microsoft Live Meeting [HREF13] (see Rowe & Ellis (2006) for a more detailed review).

Elluminate is a Canadian based product and has evolved from an earlier product called vClass. It was specifically designed to offer an online, real-time training, demonstration and collaboration environment for remote teaching, training and meetings. A range of other uses have emerged, including online conferences and seminars and those uses continue to expand (Rowe et al. 2006). Unlike video conferencing, Elluminate provides unlimited multipoint access and does not need additional equipment, such as a bridge, to facilitate additional connections.

The program can be hosted on a server at Elluminate's Head Office ( Calgary , Canada ) or can be installed on a user's own server. The proprietary Collaborative Communications Framework (automatically ensures that everything is in the right place at the right time) was built specifically for live, multi-media collaboration. The product is Web browser based so from the users perspective is platform independent. There is very minimal lag time or garbled communication when using voice, either on a dial-up modem or a high-speed LAN. When there is a connection problem, you are automatically reconnected to the room at the point of interruption and information streamed to you at a slightly faster rate until you catch up. These are powerful features enabling users to maintain a clear focus on content rather than the technology (Elluminate Inc 2007). Schullo, et.al. (2007) provide a detailed analysis of these features in a comparison with Breeze 5 (now Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional).

Elluminate enables participants to talk over the Internet with full duplex audio, text chat, share video, whiteboards, multimedia files and share applications-all in one intuitive, Web browser interface.

The features within Elluminate result in synchronous communication, which, in the past have been criticised because of difficulties in scheduling common times, the high cost of the equipment, bandwidth requirements and reliability of equipment and connections (see Murphy and Ciszewska-Carr 2007). Within Elluminate, however, there is the option of recording sessions, enabling students to retrieve and review sessions in an asynchronous manner from their learning management system.

A number of Universities in Australia are examining the use of Web based technologies for the delivery of lecture material and content. The adoption of such technology has raised questions as to whether these new methods will result in falling lecturer attendance or even the death of lectures as a mode of teaching, as well as the impact on learning experience (Phillips et al. 2007). Others have expressed that this new synchronous technology will result in a return to the “the lecturer out the front doing all the talking” although experienced online presenters don't agree with this view (Coghlan 2004).

In developing and adopting these learning tools universities need to understand the value they provide to students and how to make a smooth transition to these environments.

For instructors, introducing new computer software into the instructional design presents a number of barriers. The introduction of Learning Management Systems (LMS) programs such as Blackboard [HREF14] have taken many years and yet adoption is still not complete. Limitations, such as students having access to computers, have been largely overcome but there is still resistance by some students and instructors. The introduction of any new software will have its critics and problems until students have used and become familiar with the software. In SCU's business courses most students have become familiar with online systems such as Blackboard and students at many Universities throughout Australia are being introduced to other Web-based applications such as online enrolment.

The purpose of this study was to develop an understanding of the underlying student factors that determine students' intention to use Web conferencing environments and obtain feedback on their initial experiences with Elluminate to guide further developments at SCU.

The study

The study was a follow-up to an online pre-class quantitative survey evaluating the effects of student's self efficacy and motivation on the adoption of the new environment, the results of which have been reported elsewhere (Vitartas 2006; Vitartas et al. 2007). At the completion of the survey students could opt to be included in a follow-up study by providing their contact details. Fifteen personal interviews were conducted with students who agreed to participate in the follow-up study.

The respondents were students who had used been introduced to Elluminate either in the semester they were interviewed or the one prior to that semester. They were predominantly external and their experiences covered a range of business courses offered by different lecturers. There was a mix of gender (one-third males, two-thirds female) and a range of years of study, from first through the final year students.

Findings from the study

The following sections present a summary of the key ideas that emerged from an analysis of the responses to three structured questions that asked students to tell of their first experiences using Elluminate, how it was being used in their current courses and what suggestions did they have for further improvement in the use of Elluminate. Brief statements are included in the commentary to provide rich examples of comments made by the students in the interviews. Real names have been disguised for the purpose of maintaining student anonymity.

First experiences - apprehension

Many of the students mentioned some level of nervousness or lack of confidence when first encountering Elluminate. This may have been because their introduction came as somewhat of a surprise or was unexpected. For example, a number of students indicated they heard about it when they first logged on to their Blackboard LMS to obtain their course materials

Sally: I had not used it before or heard about it before. The lecturer indicated at the beginning of semester in the MySCU unit noticeboard that there would be Elluminate sessions. However, there was no other notification and there was very little contact from the lecturer in the unit, including little information about Elluminate sessions.

Sue: At first it felt weird. The students were a bit weary [sic] at first but then they became more confident. It is important that the lecturer was patient. It would be difficult if students were expected to log in without support.

However as people settled in to using the environment they started to see the potential and benefits. For example Todd had used the environment four times.

Todd: “I think everyone was a little bit nervous to start with cause we didn't really have any time to talk with each other, it was just straight in, say your name and where you're from, so I think people were a bit stand-offish when it came to giving responses. And then occasionally everyone would try…cause no one would try and respond and then everyone would try and respond and sort of… you can't have everyone talking at once obviously…It was good. I think it is really good. It gives people who are studying from a distance the opportunity to have discussions and ask questions, similar to face-to-face sort of situation”.

Last year Kel had been in internal classes where Elluminate was being used simultaneously with external students. He observed what was happening in class and indicated he was interested with the way it was being used. This year he is in a class that uses Elluminate each week.

Kel: It is being offered as there were not sufficient number of people to run it internally, it's not my choice to study external but I'm confident in using Elluminate because I had seen it being used in class and it didn't look difficult. I was concerned initially that I would be disadvantaged having to study externally but using Elluminate means it is not a disadvantage at all'.

For other students the experience was more positive and they appeared not be daunted by the new technology. Jamie had not used Elluminate prior to the survey but had read about it in the discussion boards where students were asking the lecturer if it was going to be available in the current courses. At the same time they were explaining the program to other students and how it “works like a classroom”. From this first experience he thought it sounded like a good idea. For Todd it was accepted without concern.

Todd: “I went in and had a bit of a look around with it just before we had to do the actual session. Merely to make sure I had the right headset and microphone, and just so I knew where and what all the features were. So I played around on it for about 15 minutes. Very easy to pick up... It was like a virtual tour of it that was pretty helpful…and the help tool... It just ran through all the functions and buttons”.

The variety of experiences outlined above indicates that students can be expected to have a range of reactions. When implementing the introduction of new technology a “one size fits all” should be avoided and strategies for more apprehensive students incorporated into the learning materials.

Current experiences

It would appear having overcome the initial apprehension students engage with the new technology very positively. In particular many of the external students commented on how connected the program makes them feel to the lecturer and other students. Kellie was into her second semester of using Elluminate.

Kellie: “Its great for externals…it feels ‘like a virtual classroom'…You are in contact with real people'. It can be very isolating for externals. To have voices and hear the lecturer makes the topic more relevant. It is good to hear the students' questions and to be more interactive. You are more in touch.”

Sue: ‘It is very useful for learning. It is very good for externals. It is easier to talk to somebody, whether it is sitting in a lecture room or using an Elluminate class. Elluminate is similar to being in class.'

Sue went on and explained that this year she is enjoying using it, as the lecturer has shown students how to use the features, such as being moderators and sharing files. She believes it needs to be run as an online class and it is helpful to have the lecturer confident in using it as it makes it easy for students to learn the software highlighting a need for staff development in any adoption of such technology. Others concur.

Sally: The Lecturer makes everyone aware and comfortable. He makes you feel like you are a part of the class. He asks questions and then asks people online to give responses and prompts how to do this.

Kel: The lecturer takes into account the people using Elluminate, as well as the people in class and the people who listen to the recordings. He has made it much easier. He always reminds the students about how to interact using Elluminate. He provides prompts and includes everybody.

Jamie: I still like face-to-face but this is pretty close to it. With Elluminate you can still put your opinion in, you can still speak and be involved sitting at home.

Students liked the way learning could be facilitated through more than just a straight lecture.

Kel: ‘Having an online tutorial with a short summary is good - e.g. a Powerpoint to give an overview. [Lecturer] Steve had them using wiki groups, which was a ‘bit daunting'… Steve provided an overview that made it easier and provided a link to a tutorial and examples, which could be read in your own time'.

As the confidence of students increases they then start to teach others – even other lecturers!

Jamie: This year, we have told another lecturer some of the features - we have been able to teach her'.

The current experiences reported from this sample are positive and highlight the potential for Elluminate to be used as an interactive learning tool that can engage students. It would also appear that early positive experiences build the confidence of students and can lead them to support other students and in some instances other lecturers.

Timing of classes

As with face-to-face lectures some students still had difficulty attending the live broadcast of Elluminate classes.

Tim: “I really don't like it. It is a real pain... Well the times that they give you to use it…you're usually not home that time…the session times… 6:30 to 7:30. So if they did it at a later time, it would be a lot better… I have looked at the times and said ‘ah, come on!' I'm usually out till at least 8:30”.

Todd: “I work in hospitality so, but they made the sessions, last time there was one at 10 till 11 so I could fit into that, but they have a couple of different ones. There's one at 10, one at 5 and one at 7 so I can choose around my roster. Work's pretty flexible because I've been there for a while…”

Lyn: “Most of the people who are using it work like 38, 40 hours a week anyway and have got kids, so to do the subjects as well as go and practice other things, it's hard to find the time.”

It would appear that there is no single solution as to when to run online classes given the diversity of the student cohort. The ability to record sessions however, does enable students to catch up on sessions they cannot make.

Recordings – time shifting

As a result of time problems with attending live broadcasts students found the recordings indispensible if they missed the live sessions and enabled them to use them for revision prior to examinations. A number of students commented on being able to review their sessions while another wanted the recordings to be available in MP3 format for further flexibility.

Tim: If they can't get to the live session then they can listen to what was said in the [recorded] session and take notes from that in order to study.

Sally: It is good that you can re-listen to the Elluminate session.

Kellie: Make the recording available as a downloadable file - MP3 so that students can listen to it on the move (driving, ‘checking the cattle'). It can be difficult to attend all of the sessions or have the time to sit for two hours.

While recordings are useful in catching up with missed sessions, there is also an interest in making the recordings portable.

Lecturers' expertise builds confidence

Students appreciated those lecturers who were comfortable using the environment and provide support to students to encourage them to participate. They also reflected on how different staff had used the environment in different ways which was generally accepted as a good thing.

Sue: The Lecturer needs to understand how to use all of the features and to be confident in the class. The lecturers need to be taught how to run a session and how to get the students involved.

Sally: The Lecturer can make it interactive and tell the students what to click on to participate…. The Lecturer needs to keep ‘checking in' to see if everyone understands with the students rather than just talking.

Kellie; I did not like Elluminate last year when there was a Lecturer who could not use it. It was boring just listening to the Lecturer talk. The Lecturer and the students did not realise that there were other features available to use.

Kel: ‘…in a statistics course it was good to have all the formulas on the screen to watch. For auditing it is more sitting there and listening. Different subjects have different purposes – which is good”.

The excerpts and comments by students in the section above highlight the importance of staff development and training for the use of this technology. It would appear that each staff member has to adapt the learning environment in a way that suits their course best.

Initial information is important

It became evident that having an orientation and initial information with clear directions about the Elluminate environment early in the semester is important for students and will influence the way they perceive their lecturer.

Sue: I clicked on the Elluminate link in the unit and had a look at it but I did not know what I was doing so did not use it because I was not told to use it. There was nothing posted about when to use Elluminate or how to use it. The lecturer is not communicating with us at all.

Mel: “Um, probably an explanation to the new students. A lot of us when we first signed up got told Elluminate class tonight, we're sort of sitting there going ‘oh my god what's that?' so I guess just a bit of an explanation on what it is when your packs come out. Other than that I think Elluminate is pretty explanatory when you're on there.

Having adequate and appropriate information suitable for students with different levels of skills is necessary to ensure a smooth introduction to the learning environment.

Technical problems

Technical problems were reported by a small number of students. These ranged from the whole class being locked out of the class through to a student's individual equipment not working and delay due do dial up connections. It appeared that students accepted these technical issues as part and parcel of adopting new technology.

Jamie: The only problem was when the whole class could not get on due to some technical problems with Elluminate.

Grace: “I've really had no problem with it apart from the initial set up”

Technical problems appear to be accepted as part of the process of adoption, although it is most likely that not finding solutions to such problems would be unacceptable.

Recommendations and Conclusions

The findings from these initial interviews of early experiences with the Elluminate environment indicate students are positive about the technology and can see the benefit of the positive interaction it facilitates. In particular for the external student Elluminate enables them to feel they are part of a real class.

Two clear points appear from the findings. Students need clear information about the Elluminate sessions and how to use the technology. For first time users, and in particular first year students, Elluminate can appear daunting for some, but not for all students. Instruction in the form of a demonstration session, as has been used and advocated by one of the staff using the environment is recommended. This was scheduled in ‘O' week and well attended by students. The second point is that student's confidence is developed by lecturers who are experienced with the environment and develop interactive classes that are engaging. Clearly there is a need for staff development in this area to ensure staff are comfortable with the technology in the first instance, but also that they have integrated the technology into their teaching materials in a way that is inclusive of the students' needs.

References

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Hypertext References

HREF1
http://www.scu.edu.au/staffdirectory/person_detail.php?person_id=87
HREF2
http://www.scu.edu.au/schools/comm/
HREF3
http://www.scu.edu.au/
HREF4
http://www.scu.edu.au/staffdirectory/person_detail.php?person_id=258
HREF5
http://www.scu.edu.au/staffdirectory/person_detail.php?person_id=88
HREF6
http://www.elluminate.com/
HREF7
http://www.saba.com/products/centra/index.htm
HREF8
http://webex.com.au/au/webexhome.html
HREF9
http://www.macromedia.com/software/breeze/
HREF10
http://horizonwimba.com/products/liveclassroom/
HREF11
http://www.citrixonline.com/
HREF12
http://www.convoq.com/
HREF13
http://microsoft.com/office/uc/livemeeting/default.mspx
HREF14
http://www.blackboard.com/us/index.Bb
HREF15
http://users.chariot.net.au/~michaelc/synch/surv_discuss.htm
HREF16
http://www.elluminate.com/support/docs/8.0/Elluminate_Live_V8_Moderator_Guide.pdf
HREF17
http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet23/murphy.html
HREF18
http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/brisbane05/blogs/proceedings/62_Phillips.pdf
HREF19
http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/singapore07/procs/phillips.pdf
HREF20
http://ausweb.scu.edu.au/aw06/papers/refereed/rowe/index.html
HREF21
http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/sydney06//proceeding/html_abstracts/194.html
HREF22
http://jolt.merlot.org/documents/hilbelink.pdf
HREF23
http://ausweb.scu.edu.au/aw06/papers/refereed/virtartis/paper.html
HREF24
http://ausweb.scu.edu.au/aw07/papers/refereed/vitartas/paper.html

Copyright

Peter Vitartas, Stephen Rowe and Allan Ellis, © 2008. The authors assign to Southern Cross University and other educational and non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Southern Cross University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM and in printed form with the conference papers and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web.