Six steps to a successful synchronous session

Posted on Posted in Collaboration

Cath Wilkins, an Open University Associate Lecturer among her other jobs, gave an interesting presentation this morning at the Teaching Mathematics with Online Tutorials conference. I’ve reported before on the Elluminate maths trials at the OU. She teaches on the OU MSc Programme which has 500 students actively studying on it and is probably the biggest online maths masters in the World.

Cath books two hour slots for online maths tutorials using Elluminate – the first half hour to get people familiarised with the system and to chat followed by an hour’s lecture during which she makes heavy use of the whiteboard to explain the maths. In the last few minutes students carry on chatting or trying out the whiteboard. Most students don’t use their microphones but find the chat very helpful. Cath describes her six steps for a successful e-tutorial:

1. Book the room and brief the students – she sends them a link to the Elluminate support page, and that seems sufficient.
2. Write the talk and save it as an overlaid pdf file – not being used to preparing powerpoint presentations this took her a lot of time. The presentations were saved as pdfs and converted into jpgs to place in Elluminate.
3. Practice in the vRoom – this is the free area Elluminate provides for people to try the product out with a maximum of three participants.
4. Do the tutorial – including using the file transfer facility at the end to send through files.
5. Get feedback from students via an online questionnaire.
6. Make the URL of the recording available for students who didn’t attend or want to experience aspects of the tutorial again.

So how did the thirty out of her sixty students who took up the offer of an online tutorial find the experience. Cath received the following comments from students:

“The OU MSc lacks any ‘communal’ element and this goes some way towards providing that.” – nearly all the students mentioned the community aspects which these etutorials help to facilitate.

“Mathematics comes alive when you hear it being spoken out loud, and the process on Elluminate is just as clear as in a face-to-face tutorial.” – Cath thought this was going a bit far but clearly here was one satisfied customer.

“Not having a microphone wasn’t a problem as I could type any questions I had.” – even those students who had microphones tended to use chat to communicate instead.

“It was nice to send little messages to each other.” – they really enjoyed this aspect, didn’t abuse it, or seem to get too distracted by it.

“The system was easy to use, although a bit cumbersome to set up.” – this comment came from someone whose version of Java was incompatible initially. No-one else out of the 30 students (divided into two sub-groups) had installation problems.

“The eTutorials focussed my studies and my mind on the important aspects of the course” – clearly another satisfied customer, and maybe a key reason for having tutorials: helping students to see the wood for the trees.

Cath concluded by listing her pros and cons of teaching using Elluminate:

1. It’s an effective way to teach
2. It’s recorded for later use
3. Very little training is needed for tutor or students
4. It’s a good solution if students are geographically spread out
5. There are few technical glitches – though she got logged out a few times
6. It’s better than nothing – there were no opportunities to interact with the students before Elluminate started being used

On the downside she finds that there is a lower level of feedback from students compared to f2f teaching, despite the use of questions, ticks, crosses and emoticons. And she had to think on her feet a lot – it was not easy to put up detailed maths at short notice. Final verdict: “Exhausting but exhilarating”.