by Geraint Evans (SOCSI)
Geraint is an eLearning Officer within the SOCSI eLearning team at the Cardiff School of Social Sciences. He is the eLearning lead for the Continuing Professional Education and Learning (CPEL) programmes commissioned by the Care Council for Wales. This blog describes initial experiences with Blackboard Collaborate on a distance learning programme in the School of Social Sciences.
The CPEL framework is a suite of programmes within the School of Social Sciences (leading an alliance with three other Welsh Universities) that has been designed to support the national career pathway for social workers in Wales. It is delivered as a blended learning programme with a significant focus on online distance learning; students currently attend a single face-to-face ‘module orientation day’ at the beginning of each module, and the rest of their interaction is online through Learning Central.
Initial feedback has suggested that some of our students, many of whom are not particularly confident with technology, feel slightly isolated by this mode of study, and a number have asked for more face-to-face time on the programme. While not unexpected, this has sharpened the focus on providing an online learning experience that emphasises communication and collaboration, contact time with both the tutor and fellow students, and the building of an effective learning community.
As well as using discussion boards effectively, it was felt that ‘real time’ engagement should be provided; we initially tried the Learning Central chat rooms but found that these in fact did not work. Fortunately in the School of Social Sciences we currently have a one year licence for Blackboard Collaborate that we can use and it was decided to try this.
Blackboard Collaborate is a synchronous online classroom that provides video, audio and text interaction and includes a number of other useful tools such as a whiteboard, polling, application sharing and breakout rooms.
Practicalities and attendance
In February 2015 we staged four (initially) Collaborate workshops on the Mental Health and Well Being module of the CPEL Experienced Practitioner Programme. There were three main aims of these sessions;
- To test out the Blackboard Collaborate environment.
- To get feedback from students on the module thus far.
- To encourage sharing of ideas around some of the main themes of the module.
We asked students to sign up for a session of choice beforehand using the Learning Central sign-up sheets, which didn’t prove particularly intuitive; however we had 30 students sign up with a relatively even distribution between the four sessions (7, 5, 12 and 6).
The Collaborate Learning Central integration proved flexible and intuitive, and sessions were created within the Mental Health and Wellbeing module. We provided students beforehand with instructions on how to access their session, and guidance on using Blackboard Collaborate that included a strong recommendation to test their computer set-up prior to the session using Collaborate’s ‘First Time Users’ page, and in particular the configuration room.
Three sessions were during work time and one was in the evening – the evening session was the least popular and this may reflect the fact that it is a work-based programme. The first session was very successful, with all 7 students managing to access relatively easily and on time. The remaining three sessions were much more mixed, and successful participation closer to 50%. There were various reasons students didn’t manage to participate:
- Personal / work reasons – some students had unforeseen demands on their time that took priority over the session.
- Technical reasons – in particular issues with opening the Collaborate interface.
- Other reasons – such as not following instructions to find the correct links etc.
Due to the significant level of non-engagement in the initial four sessions, two catch-up sessions were offered; this gave students the chance to attend where they had missed a session initially and also to rectify technical problems (or access from home instead of the workplace).
Having used Blackboard Collaborate at another institution, it did not come as a total surprise that a number of students struggled to successfully access the sessions due to technical barriers, most of which were related to the infrastructure of Collaborate but compounded by other factors.
For example, Collaborate relies on Java to launch, and while the exact nature of problems varied, most students who had problems opening Collaborate were accessing from their workplace (local authorities across Wales) or from a work laptop, and restrictions and firewalls prevented many from either installing the Collaborate launcher or opening the necessary ‘meeting.collab’ file for entry into the room.
Nearly all of the students who accessed from the workplace needed the help of their local IT support team; in most cases this helped them resolve problems and get access but a few were still unable to access even with this help. Most students who accessed from home were able to do so without significant problems.
A number of students who had problems claimed to have accessed the Collaborate configuration room successfully beforehand as recommended; this suggests that the Collaborate configuration room might not be as useful as previously thought as a preparatory and diagnostic tool. It may in future be better to ask students to test their computer set-up within Learning Central, possibly using one of the default module rooms.
Running the sessions
The academic who ran the sessions managed to access Collaborate without issue from a number of locations and also was quickly able to grasp the interface and all the main functionality for running sessions. He was also very happy with how the sessions themselves went, with good levels of enthusiasm and engagement from students.
A number of students did not have headsets but still managed to engage well with the session using the text box. Those students who did have headsets mostly managed to set-up their audio and talk in the session without many problems. The student feedback about the sessions themselves was very positive; they appreciated the opportunity to engage in real-time with both their tutor and with fellow students.
The Collaborate sessions were a significant commitment in terms of time; overall, six sessions were facilitated, and although the sessions were scheduled to be an hour each the time commitment for each was closer to two hours, taking into account accessing early to help and welcome students and also running overtime due to late starts (or catching up with students who accessed late). It would have been possible to run fewer sessions but this would have affected levels of participation and, if resulting in larger numbers in each session, may have had an impact on the quality of engagement from students.
There was also a significant amount of time commitment from the project eLearning Officer, though this was overall less than the academic (dependant on scale of student access problems) and largely focused at the start of and prior to each session. This support requirement is crucial when starting to use Collaborate, and having more than one moderator is good practice within a session, particularly at the start. It is hoped that this support requirement may diminish somewhat as a cohort of students become more familiar with Collaborate.
Summary of lessons learned
- The vast majority of students did manage to successfully access Collaborate at some stage. A significant number of students accessed first time without any problems.
- There were a significant number of access problems, of varying severity. There were very few problems once students were inside the Collaborate session (e.g. connection issues, or audio problems).
- It is extremely important for students to check their set-up beforehand, particularly when accessing from a work setting. Ideally this should use a permanent Learning Central room rather than using the general collaborate configuration room.
- Students should be advised that they will need help of their local IT support team if accessing from work PCs or laptops.
- Students should be advised that they should attempt to access Collaborate in plenty of time – at least 15 minutes before the session starts, and for the first time they are using Collaborate half an hour is recommended.
- Students should contact the eLearning Team (and the academic) as soon as possible when having problems accessing Collaborate. For this purpose a ‘Collaborate Access and Troubleshooting’ discussion board should be created within the appropriate Learning Central module, which should be closely monitored prior to a session.
- ‘Overflow’ sessions for students who fail to engage or access should be taken into account when scheduling sessions.
Collaborate will be used in two further modules over the coming months; one of these will contain the same cohort of students as the above example, while one will be from a different programme. It will be useful to contrast the experiences between the two cohorts and also the experiences of the cohort who will have used Collaborate twice, to observe whether the second time around presents less issues.
Looking ahead to the next academic year (2015/16) we will look to use Collaborate across the CPEL Programmes, and during training sessions with CPEL Alliance academics there appears to be a good deal of enthusiasm for this idea.
There is still uncertainty about access to a Collaborate licence for next year, and other options may need to be explored. However, Collaborate is a powerful and flexible tool for delivering an online classroom, and is currently the preferred choice for the CPEL Programmes; this is likely to be even more true when the promised HTML5 (Java-free) version of Collaborate is launched, which should remove many of the current drawbacks around access.