Learning management systems (LMS) such as Blackboard are in heavy use at the high school and college level, particularly graduate programs. I have had quite a bit of experience with these systems, starting with WebCT back in the late 1990s. Often designed with a hierarchical programming owing to the computing capabilities in place when they were introduced, and maintaining that approach due to legacy and feature creep, these systems are limited in their ability to allow the kinds of rich interactions learners seek.
Recently I taught a graduate course that relied on Blackboard exclusively to deliver content and provide interaction with students. It was by far the worst class I’ve ever taught. This despite the fact that students could call me anytime for help, and could speak with one another through discussions and their own face-to-face meetings (they were all teachers at the same school district). I’m not a bad online instructor – what happened?
I think I know – there was no meaningful way for students to connect with me. This was mostly due to the lack of Blackboard and our video conferencing tool, Wimba, to convey my presence to students. Wimba was a terribly unreliable and clunky tool for us, and students just did not seem willing to figure out all the set-up (Java installs, microphone checks, and the several clicks to make it int0 the room) as well as how slow the system was. Video with Wimba (or Collaborate, the newer Blackboard product for conferencing) has never been a particular strong point of the platform, with the main purpose in mind by the designers appearing to be to have video allow the instructor be a “talking head” while giving a presentation using PowerPoint. To be fair I have seen it used in other ways, but rarely have I seen it work smoothly – the interface simply is not designed to do a good job.
So while the audio connection is nice, there is nothing like seeing one another to make a student feel like I am really there for them even if I can’t be in the room physically.
What are my potential alternatives? Good question – enter Google Hangouts! By now hopefully most people know about Hangouts, but if you don’t check it out right now (http://www.google.com/+/learnmore/hangouts/). Here are a few blog posts from others describing their experiences with Hangouts as a substitute for Blackboard’s in-house conferencing tools:
Why I think Hangouts could be the answer to my problem is:
1) It is great for video – in fact the whole interface is built around it. That is a big switch from the typical conferencing tool in an LMS, which is far more built around text chatting and audio.
2) Screensharing is easy – it doesn’t require a whole set of dialogue boxes to navigate and gain permissions for, it is just a widget added by the Hangout creator at the global level. To see all of the features check out this blog post at Google:
I have used Hangouts in one-to-one conference calls and those up to three persons, and so far it works great from wherever I connect – my office computer with its fast T-1 connection; my home computer on a cable line; my laptop on a wireless connection (want to try my iPad at the local coffee shop!). I was on for over an hour each time, no drop outs, some rare slowdowns and infrequent pixelating of video when it went full window.
Now for the downsides – right now Hangouts are limited to 10 people maximum (I’ve not yet tried a Hangout with that many people) , so I’m not sure it could work as a substitute for large group or full class connection – but then when would that ever be a good idea in an online course? If my goal is to maximize presence, it behooves me to keep my group sizes small so maybe this isn’t a bad limit to abide by.
The other minus I have found is that obviously it is not inside the LMS – it involves students using a different account on a different site. I can mitigate that some by using the On-Air option to make a YouTube video of the Hangout then post that into Blackboard as a form of archiving or allowing the students to review what we discussed. If it works well, I don’t think students will view having to log in to Google+ as an onerous demand in exchange for better connection with their instructor.
I’m going to give Hangouts a try this semester with some of my courses, and we’ll see how it plays out.