Sunday, November 11, 2018

Taking webinars outdoors

CC BY Some rights reserved by  David Röthler
I organise and participate in many webinars and together with colleagues have been trying to develop methods to make them as interactive as possible, using chats, polls, collaborative web pages and breakout groups. Today many webinars have escaped from the traditional lecture model and try to involve participants as much as possible. However, we tend to be rather static in terms of location; generally sitting at our desks with a background of bookshelves or a plain white wall. This limitation is necessary because wireless connections tend to cause very uneven voice and video quality as well as delay (several seconds is not unusual). However, as wireless networks improve we should be able to take our webinars outside and a whole new range of teaching and learning opportunities arise.

To test this, my colleague, David Röthler, and I ran an experimental outdoor webinar last week, Let's go beyond - extending the webinar, as part of a two-day Webinar Festival run by the Norwegian university NTNU. Here's our abstract for the webinar.

Webinars are becoming an increasingly popular arena for education, primarily in the form of online presentations to distributed audiences or in workshop-like settings. Web conferences erase the barriers of geography and make it easy for anyone to join a virtual meeting from anywhere. However, the webinar experience can be extended significantly if further hardware and software are applied. We can add new perspectives using mobile devices and remote cameras enabling live transmission from field trips and even aerial coverage from drones. This presentation will show and discuss new opportunities for extending the affordances of a webinar using a number of innovative solutions.

I moderated from an indoor studio but David was out in his garden just outside Salzburg and thankfully the November weather in Austria was mild and sunny. This allowed him to demonstrate using different cameras, one or which I was able to control from my laptop in Sweden. One device called Swivl is worth noting since it allows you to mount a mobile or tablet as a camera and will follow whoever has the small microphone that is connected wirelessly. This means that the camera will move from one speaker to another in a discussion but can also give the presenter the freedom to move around, in this case a tour of the garden. It could also be used to move around a room at a museum or show interesting features of a building or historical site.

If you want to take the camera with you on a tour then a gimbal is a useful handheld device that keeps the camera stable while you are walking or even running. However to take the webinar to new dimensions we demonstrated using a drone to show views of the Salzburg suburbs and surrounding countryside. Participants quickly saw educational applications for this that included fields like town planning, archaeology, geography, geology and history. Participant's ideas are shown below.

For this webinar we "cheated" just a little in that David had a wired internet connection from the house to his desk in the garden. This was to ensure that everything worked as we wanted. However if you can make sure you have a good 4G mobile connection or a stable wifi connection then you can start taking webinars outdoors and give participants perspectives that would otherwise be impossible. Virtual field trips can be arranged or, better still, let the participants join via their mobiles and show their locations. Of course, this is not realistic for everyone since wireless internet is still very limited in many areas but why not start experimenting now (reminding the participants not to expect everything to work smoothly)?

Below you can watch the recording of our webinar.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Towards smarter classrooms

Classroom technology can be extremely frustrating. Every room I use seems to have different equipment and controls. Some rooms have old-school wall switches and several remote controls that activate the projectors and screens. Other rooms have a touch screen that controls everything. I tend to get to the room at least 15 minutes before the start of the session, preferably 30 minutes, in case the infrastructure doesn't like me. Sometimes everything just works and I am pleasantly surprised but other times I simply can't work out how to get the system to recognise my laptop or in some cases I can't get the blinds to work. Sometimes there are a row of switches with no indication of what they do and so when I try to turn on a light the black-out curtain starts descending. If all classrooms had the same interface that would be fine but they seem to be all different. This takes up a lot of time and energy from the teacher.

I was therefore pleased to read about a project at Indiana University to create smart classrooms as described in an article in Campus Tech, Are 'Smart' Classrooms the Future?. The vision is to have truly smart classrooms that log you in as you walk in the door and then automatically setting up the lighting, screens, browser, slideshows etc according to your preferences. Students can also log into the room and get access to the necessary resources for the session. No mysterious switches or confusing touch screens to negotiate. If you are going to get teachers to buy into using technology then that technology must make life easier for them and free them from irritatingly time-consuming activities. According to Stacy Morrone, IU associate vice president for learning technologies:

"We want to free up faculty from many of the routine tasks they need to complete during every class period to give them more time to interact with their students, starting from the moment they walk into the classroom."

IU invited a number of stakeholders to participate in a working group to brainstorm ideas for realising the smart classroom of the future. Their conclusions can be found in a report, the Indiana University Smart Classroom Summit. Among the ideas was to have smartboard functionality on walls and tables so that students could write and draw anywhere and be able to save everything digitally. Most importantly the technology should become invisible and biometrically or voice-activated.

Even more interesting would be to have classrooms that are designed to fully integrate distance students into the class with smart microphones and cameras that track whoever is speaking in the room as well as allowing distance students to contribute seamlessly. The vital element here is that the online participants are always visible and can participate in all activities. This could mean that they can be assigned to work in a group with classroom students or working as an online group but contributing to the common work spaces shared by  the whole class. In today's classrooms the online students are usually passive spectators.

I look forward to walking into my first smart classroom where everything just works.