Note: This was originally posted in my OU Course Blog on 6th May 2010
The technology I have selected is Wimba Classroom which is a very similar product to Elluminate. It enables synchronous communication between staff and students (or between students and students) so that online tutorials can be run in real time. My university is currently trialing Wimba and has integrated it within our VLE (Blackboard). Thus it is possible to set up Wimba for use within a module's existing Blackboard site. Students therefore do not need to download specialist software in order to use Wimba.
The interface is not dissimilar to Elluminate. There is a 'whiteboard' area in the middle of the screen which can be used to display slides or can be used for sketching. There is a 'chat' area and an area listing all the participants.
We experimented with Wimba on our postgraduate courses because the students on these courses are all part time (evening only) students who have demanding jobs and other commitments. We felt that offering online tutorials would provide an attractive alternative to having to come into the University for a tutorial. Much to our surprise there was an initial negative reaction to the use of Wimba. Some students clearly felt they were being short-changed, and they indicated that they would prefer a traditional face-to-face class. After much discussion with the students a compromise agreement was reached whereby a class would be delivered in a combined mode, so that those students who wanted to attend in person could do so, but the delivery in the classroom would be via Wimba, so that students could also access the session remotely. Although this may seem like a rather messy approach, it actually worked rather well. The tutor leads the classroom discussion and presents any material (such as PowerPoint slides) to the students via the Wimba interface which is projected on to a screen in the room. A microphone is connected to the computer at the front of the room, so students who choose not to attend can hear the proceedings via Wimba. If non-attending students want to ask a question, they can use the 'chat' facility in Wimba. The 'archive' facility in Wimba means that the whole session can be recorded (audio and slides) and is accessible to all students (whether they attended or not) immediately after the tutorial.
Despite what seems like a somewhat clumsy arrangement, this has actually proved quite popular with students. Even those students who were initially quite negative about Wimba have now recognized the value of it, and indeed they have even set up their own Wimba sessions to communicate with one another.
It must be stressed that this approach has not been adopted by all staff on the course, and indeed some members of the team have expressed deep reservations about it. They tend to voice their objections in terms which relate to the quality of the learning experience, but I suspect in some cases their concerns may be simply a manifestation of their discomfort with the technology.
Overall, I think students will come to realize that the use of tools such as Wimba need not mean a diminution in the quality of the experience. I think that once they appreciate the way in which Wimba can provide a flexible means of engaging with the course and with fellow students, they will value it more. It is very early days in our experiment with Wimba but I have quite positive feelings about how its use will develop, particularly for part time students.