Monday, October 27, 2008

How spontaneous and serendipitous can we be online?

Next year marks the start of our new midwifery program that is to be delivered in a blended mode. We will have several face-to-face 'intensive' sessions during the year with students, but the rest of the material will be delivered online.

Implications for work
This will mean that we, as lecturers, will have the ability to be more flexible about when and where we 'work'. With the cost of petrol and maintaining a car, as well as the increasing difficulties of finding a parking space, I suspect we'll find it very attractive to spend more time working at home.

Losing spontaneous and serendipitous communication
But there are concerns about how that will affect the way we work and interact. In particular, there are concerns about the loss of elements of face-to-face communication that we take so much for granted - those spontaneous and serendipitous moments that happen as we pass a colleague's desk, meet in the tea room, or a bump into a student in the toilet. For example, the other day I was concerned that I was losing control of an online discussion with students - it was heading in a direction that I didn't want it to go. This was at the back of my mind when I was talking to a colleague about a presentation she was giving at an upcoming midwifery conference. And it dawned on me that I could take the approach with my students to re-focus their thinking that she was taking with her presentation. But would that have happened if we were at separate locations, working in an online environment?

Different way of being?
I would say that we have to re-think the way we are and the way we 'work'. This will include re-thinking the way we communicate online and the tools we use. It will mean that we have to move from asynchronous communication with email and discussions boards to synchronous communication using tools such as Twitter, Gmail, MSN, and Skype. And that means keeping those communication tools open all the time we are 'working' - keeping the web cam attached to the computer and headphones alongside us.

Talking to nurses in the USA
A wonderful example of this spontaneous, online 'way of being' happened the other day. I was sitting at home, still in my pajamas mucking around on the computer and I was called by Bill Perry on Skype. One of Bill's roles is to teach health informatics to student nurses at the Wright State University College of Nursing and Health, Dayton, Ohio. He wanted to illustrate how Skype worked to his students and asked me if I could spare five minutes to talk to them with web cam about how I envisioned Skype working in my midwifery context. So that's what I did. I had fun because we ended up talking about midwifery in New Zealand, and Bill appreciated the help with giving a context to Skype which I am sure was interesting for the students. It was a spur of the moment, spontaneous event that would not have happened if I hadn't had Skype open.

Setting boundaries
I acknowledge that there has to be some boundaries around this 'availability'. When I am working in the office, there will be times when I make it quite clear I do not want to talk to anyone, colleagues or students, because I am concentrating on a particular task. And the same will apply to working online.

Nevertheless, I firmly believe that it is possible for computer-mediated communication to be as engaging as face-to-face communication, but it doesn't just happen by itself. We have to change our attitudes about how we use our computers to communicate; become familiar with the tools that support synchronous communication, and get out there and network with people who it is worth being spontaneous with.

What tools for synchronous communication do you like to use? What's your favorite online spontaneous /serendipitous moment that you can recall? If you are a person who does a lot of online teaching, what tips would you give me as I move from face-to-face classrooms to an online environment, especially around maintaining relationships with colleagues and students, and getting the most out of synchronous communication?


Bill Perry said...

The students loved the experience! We had been discussing the potential of using Internet based video/voice communication as a potential telemedicine medium. After doing the lecture piece, I said to them "Let's try a practical application of what we've been talking about. We're going to contact a New Zealand! Much more effective than simply lecture. Only one of them had ever used Skype before (a student whose parents are in Europe).

We currently use Microsoft Live Meeting at my hospital, and Wright State University uses Elluminate. Skype is perfect for personal communication, although there are several collaboration ware applications that also allow screen sharing. I've found it very useful when trying to help someone who is having a problem with a computer application. I've used Tokbox, Eyeball Chat and SightSpeed and they all very user friendly. The only problem I've found with services other than Skype is if someone is using a Linux based computer. The camera won't work becuase nobody had written drivers for them.

Many thanks!!!


Sarah Stewart said...

I enjoy Elluminate, but the problem with that is that it is not free for more than 3 users. Skype is free but best for one-to-one communication. As for the Linux problem, I wouldn't have a clue being a Windows zombie.

infomidwife said...

there just seems so many ways to communicate, that sometimes I feel overwhelmed by choice. The other issue is the time I end up spending in front of the computer communicating - it really is a brave new way!

Sarah Stewart said...

Yes, you're right. There are many ways to communicate, but I would definitely advise that Skype is your core tool. When I started investigating web 2.0 tools last year I went mad and joined every possible forum and tool known to man. Now I have cut back to a few main forums that work really well for me:

blog, wiki, Skype, gmail, gtalk, google docs & Elluminate.

As for time, its funny - we don't begrudge spending an hour in front of a face-to-face class, but there's a sense that spending an hour at the computer is a 'waste of time'. That's the attitude that we have to change if we're going to be successful teachers online - it's not a waste of time, but rather a different way of being a teacher (and learner).

Angela said...

Hi Sarah - as you may remember we have just started our MSc which is totally online and so we are going through the process of what works and what doesn't.

We too are finding skype a useful platform for individual tutorials with students and conference calls. However we are using a virtual classroom ( sessions, discussions etc which are then recorded for those not able to attend. We are going to look more closely at wiziQ too as a virtual classroom.
We are finding that social networking through blogs, wikis and Facebook are essential in providing an identity to individuals and to the cohort. Being able to share both learning and personal moments is proving valuable. We have set up a virtual coffee shop within our blackboard platform where students can drop in and leave random messages for each other (favourite seem to be discussions on xfactor and Strictly Come Dancing!).
Most of our team have begun to acknowledge the benefits of the web 2.0 applications and no longer appear to see Sarah(Bodell) and I as either geeks or "playing" on the internet.
As with most things I find if you spend the time doing and getting results - people are much more open to change than if you spend ages discussing the potential with nothing to show.
Good luck with your new venture - I'm sure you have done everything possible to ensure its success.

Linda Robertson said...

Hi Sarah. I agree with Angela that the social networking aspects are so important. I find that my students (Post grad) are very reluctant to use anything but the basics so I would be interested it knwo how peolpe are enticed to use Blogs or facebook .. or even a chat room. Every year I have great intentions to use ice-breakers more diligently but the technology invariably is less than perfect in the 1st week of a course - it seems to know that I'm very dependent on it functioning well and delights in messing me around.
The students are often the best resources. If you make it clear that questions on the topic are expected and discussion encouraged then often the most able students really get into gear. I have learnt not to comment too often and to keep it brief and 'critical' so that students respond to the challenge.
There's always more to learn!

Maru said...

Hi Sara!
Thanks for your comment on my blog. I really appreciate it. Today I created a new post to address your questions along with some ideas.
See you around. Maru :X

Sarah Stewart said...

@Maru Great to see you

@Linda & Angela As Del Boy would say "I'm a plonker"! I had 'surreptitious' plastered all over my post but what I meant was 'serendipitous'.

Carolyn said...

As you know Sarah I have been spending a great deal of time working at home on the new curiculum development. This is good use of my time, avoids a great deal of travel, and allows me to just get on with it. I do feel increasing isolated in this environment. I love that you an I are connected through Skype and I am often able to spontaneously ask a question on text or have a voice chat online. I have also had the opportunity occasionally to ask other colleagues for help and advice in this way. I wish more of us were on Skype, or Gtalk. I too think these are important tools for students if they are going to be sitting at computers at home working on their course material. The really incongruous thing is the absolute importance in midwifery of the relationship between the woman and midwife and the importance of communication to this relationship. I value the ability to work at home but I have a much greater appreciation of the importance of communication and the need to provide students with opportunities to talk to each other.
I agree with Pauline (infomidwife) that the range of resources can be overwhelming and the risk is that students lose interest and do not engage because of this. I agree with free choice but wonder if we, who have a little knowledge of these resources, need to be somewhat directive about these. This would mean we expect them to use Skype or Gtalk and make sure that they all have contacts with each other through these resources.
I also really want the student to blog about their learning experiences and would love to establish a blogging network. As a lecturer however I can see that this could significantly add to my work load. Keeping track of blog postings considering how to respond and then making appropriate responses. You have developed a really nice easy blogging style, I still struggle and postings seem to be taking me longer and longer to make as I struggle to get the language right.
Also making sure that students do not breach confidentiality of women with whom they are working and are not making inappropriate comments about individual midwives practices. It is this aspect, workload, that makes me reluctant to pursue this too vigorously.
would love your thoughts on this.

Sarah Stewart said...

It has taken me quite a while to answer this because I have been thinking. With the last course I ran, I decided to introduce technology in very small stages, & maybe that's what we need to do so that we don't frighten the students, and don't overload ourselves. I'm thinking about one closed blog, so maybe a closed Ning or even Facebook account where you can monitor what is said. Once this has been running a while, then you want to open it up. How has your class blog gone this year? As for time, that has to be factored into our teaching load as it is 'teaching'.