The focus of this short piece is an evaluation of the new Blackboard Collaborate 11 platform as a full conference tool. In particular the virtual classroom part of Collaborate that will be familiar to most readers as Elluminate Live!. (The full Collaborate 11 suite also includes an instant messaging tool and what was Wimba Voice – these were not used.) I was responsible for managing the conference technology and dealt directly with our sponsors Blackboard, and was ably supported throughout by the company’s UK representatives, Sheetal and Penny.
But first, some background about our recent conference.
Follow the Sun 2012 (FTS12) was an online conference held between 27-30 March 2012. It was co-hosted by Beyond Distance Research Alliance (BDRA), Australian Digital Futures Institute (ADFI) and Athabasca University in Canada, and ran for 48 hours non-stop, with partners hosting consecutive shifts within their respective time zones.
The theme was ’Futures for Knowledge’ across disciplines. Twelve subject experts were asked to highlight what for them were teaching and learning priorities and challenges for their disciplines, with these serving as the jump-off point for further discussion and exploration in follow-on sessions.
FTS12 attracted 761 delegates from 37 countries, who engaged with more 60 individual keynotes, papers, round tables and learning technology demonstrations. As well as representatives from learning technology, delegates included lecturers, librarians, researchers, curriculum managers and teachers, among many others. Room attendance topped at an average of 38 delegates, with an average of 80 delegates passing through individual sessions.
Figure 1: Professor John Fothergill delivering his keynote ‘Teaching Engineering – Now and in the Future’ from Three Gorges University, China.
Terry Anderson and George Siemens were driving the Athabasca leg, so it’s not surprising that very early on in the planning a decision was made to make FTS12 free for all delegates. Because this removed the necessity of taking payment – a big logistical hurdle in previous conferences – I had in mind using a fairly loose collection of open conference rooms where the individual sessions could take place. This would involve nothing more that placing links to these rooms on the programme pages of the conference website.
Then our planning committee took the further decision several weeks before the start of the conference to treat it as an opportunity for a research project, with the Australian partners able to commit the resources to this. And this is where the strength of Collaborate as a teaching management system really came to the fore. (Although we used the platform for a conference, our ‘sessions’ can really be thought of as ‘classes’.)
Because it was now a research project, we had to gather quantitative and qualitative data, and to do this I had to register all 761 delegates and ensure that they had access to all sessions in order that we could run analytics during and after the conference. Very quickly, it was necessary to become familiar with the Collaborate’s Session Administration System (SAS). SAS is the back office for Collaborate, while the front end can be thought of as the familiar room environment.
Figure 2: Collaborate’s Session Administration System (SAS) utilities console, the cornerstone of the platform.
Collaborate offers three possible uses for its rooms – Meetings, Courses and Drop-ins. The main differences between the three are those of scheduling control and objective. You might choose a Meeting for a one-off session, a Drop-in for office hours that occur at the same time every Tuesday afternoon, and a Course for a series of online lectures.
Because FTS12 was divided into 12 distinct discipline mini-shifts each lasting 4 hours, it made sense to work on the basis of 12 rooms rather than the 60-odd for each individual keynote, etc. This also had ramifications for recording the sessions and ultimately releasing them as open education resources (a work in progress).
I treated each of the 12 conference mini-shifts as a separate Course (e.g. the Engineering theme), with each Course having only one Instance or lecture (the 4 hours that included the keynote, papers, etc.). I timed each room to open 1 hour early and set recording to automatic. By doing this, I was able to give each delegate access to a dashboard that clearly listed all 12 disciplines through which he or she could enter one of the mini-shift rooms, assuming it was already open. A ‘Join’ link appeared on the dashboard when the room was open and available.
Initially, I had set up a Google Form on the conference website to register delegates, so it was a simple matter to download the results as a spreadsheet, manipulate the fields (e.g. adding a unique username for each delegate using Excel Formulas) and uploading it to SAS as a CSV file. Once added, the delegates were put into a single cohort under a single FTS12 supervisor and enrolled on the 12 courses. Once this was done and tested, each delegate was emailed a unique username and generic password, allowing them to log into SAS and see the dashboard.
Figure 3: The user control panel. Delegates land on this page when they log into SAS, with the conference dashboard (sessions) listed below.
So how did this back office functionality perform before and during the conference? Well, in a word, flawlessly. There was not a single reported glitch or problem with delegates accessing the dashboard and ultimately the rooms, all of which opened on time and recorded successfully. (As always, there were one or two front end issues to do with Java and web browsers.) SAS is very powerful and had we been better prepared, we would even have been able to preload content – slides, quizzes, etc. – weeks before.
There are two very useful additional tools that strengthen Collaborate as a conference platform.
‘Plan’ allows you to prepare slideshows in advance, which can then be uploaded into the conference room in a second. This saves embarrassing 3-minute conversions done on the fly while delegates twiddle their virtual thumbs.
‘Publish’ allows you to download a series of files from the original screen cast recordings, including a MP4 of the slide window with audio (but not the webcam), a MP3 and a RTF document containing the text chat. I downloaded 60 hours of recordings in real time with no glitches.
As a seasoned organiser of online conferences who’s pretty comfortable with these virtual platforms, I was impressed by how Collaborate’s SAS back office functionality translated into a smoothly delivered conference experience. The technology is very stable, and it performed flawlessly, which really is all a learning technologist cares about.
And as a teaching tool, its strength lies in using SAS to easily create multiple rooms to space-starved bricks-and-mortar universities. Synchronous online classrooms can significantly enhance the student experience by adding more tutor contact time and opportunities for learning, and SAS allows you to manage this at an institutional level. But not for the first time, the technology is way ahead of the pedagogy, at least in the UK, and embedding this sort of technology at an institutional level for mainstream teaching – rather than simply for meetings and webinars – appears to be some way off.
Senior Learning Technologist
Beyond Distance Research Alliance