A question I occasionally hear is “why can’t we just use our web conferencing service for live online learning?”

The question is certainly a reasonable one. After all, web conferencing services that were little more than teleconferencing with slide push have improved. The good ones even support video, chat, and slide annotation.

But the focus of general-purpose web conferencing is not on learning outcomes.  These low cost/no cost on-demand meeting services are built for quick, informal get-togethers. Enterprise-level meeting systems are designed primarily to cost-effectively sell products and services.  An educational mission is different.  While universities and K-12 schools do have to watch the bottom line, their needs differ from those of commercial sales.  Just ask anyone who has both given a sales presentation and stood in front of a classroom.

So just what will make web conferencing work for online learning?

For starters, a virtual classroom should allow instructors to manage student interactions in ways that are as engaging as in a physical class. No, an instructor won’t be able to toss an eraser at a dozing student, but he should be able to mix things up by setting up breakouts, freely dropping in and out, and moving students and their content back to the main room when exercise time is up.

Instructors also need to stay in control of their class. When the class is online in real-time, this means letting them fine-tune permissions for individuals, staying in charge of who gets to write on the whiteboard, chat, or move from breakout to breakout. It also means “seeing” who’s in class and what they’re doing.  Are they technically in-synch with the class flow – or lagging behind due to bandwidth?  Are they speaking, chatting, or signaling that the pace is too fast?  How have students responded to a multiple choice question?   Who put that clever idea on the whiteboard?

For K-12 classes, teaching online may involve supervising and archiving the text chat – either for control or policy reasons.  And you may even need to toss a disruptive student out and lock the virtual door.   Whether an instructor lectures in a traditional way or moderates to encourage collaboration, the solution needs to support all styles and capture the complete experience, including interactivity, in recordings.

An instructor’s involvement with students doesn’t end when the bell rings. Sometimes students need to seek out instructors and each other for a quick question or a virtual drop-in visit.  Instructor and classmate presence, instant messaging, and virtual office hours with queuing are features that a general-purpose meeting service is unlikely to include.

I’m not saying you need a solution built for learning in addition to your web conferencing service.  A solution optimized for learning is also great for highly productive meetings, so one solution can serve all.   After all, engagement plus take-charge moderation captures attention, naturally draws involvement, and produces results.  Now that’s beyond the PowerPoint slide push and phone audio we often get with plain old online meetings. 

Interested in reading more about essentials of a collaboration solution purpose-built for education? Check out our new white paper: The Five Critical Elements of a Collaboration Solution for Education, a Guide for Academic Technologists and Chief Academic Officers.

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