ONLINE CONFERENCING:ENCHANCING COMMUNICATION
Barbara Nubile, Chemeketa Community College <email@example.com>
Online discussion remains one of the key concerns in developing an online community, whether an online class, professional committee work, or forum for open sharing of information. One of the continuing areas of concern for sharing information online is the use of a conferencing system that is able to meet these differing needs.
ISSUES RELATED TO ONLINE CONFERENCING
Some basic questions to ask about software capabilities are:
How much tracking of participation is needed? Can the facilitator find out how many times each participant has accessed the conference, as well as identifying the messages that have been posted?
Identify the price constraints. Some conferencing software is free for educational use, but may not meet your needs. One free site for discussion is the Milken Educator Virtual Workspace (MEVW), http://www.mevw.org/ , The Milken Educator Virtual Workspace (MEVW) allows people to use the Web to create and participate in collaborative on-line learning communities. The MEVW is free to those who submit educational project proposals and attain the Milken Family Foundation's approval. An example of free synchronous conferencing is ICQ ("I Seek You"). http://www.mirabilis.com/. ICQ notifies you who's online and enables you to initiate contact with those people. Among the functions available are: chat, message, e-mail, URL and file transfer. Whatever conferencing software is used, the facilitator must understand and be able to use the system.
Many web-based conferencing systems are available, each with their own strengths. A good comparison of these programs is at: http://www.zdnet.com/pcmag/features/discussion/features.htm (Web-based discussion software: Summary of features, 1998).
FACILITATING ONLINE DISCUSSION
The facilitator must provide an introduction on how participants can effectively and appropriately discuss topics, as well as functioning as a role model for appropriate sharing of information. Setting a friendly, safe forum for discussion is a key function of the facilitator. When participants first access the discussion area, they should receive a message welcoming them to the discussion, then the purpose and organization of the online conference needs to be restated. The "next step" needs to be clearly identified.
Facilitators must also initiate and guide the discussion. People are often hesitant to be "the first one" to type in a question or statement. The facilitator needs to use techniques that will get the discussion started and then keep the discussion on track. Participation in the discussion needs to be encouraged in a variety of ways. The facilitator will need to ask questions and encourage participants to be thoughtful about their responses. Consider the motivation of the participants and include incentives to increase participation whenever possible. The facilitator for an online class frequently must require active participation to prevent "lurkers" and to achieve the greatest sharing of ideas and information. Remember that with online conferences, participants will be online at different times and will address the topics at different times. An online conference is not in the same chronological order as a face-to-face class. Acceptable time frames for participation need to be explicit.
An additional area facilitators need to examine is the amount of group cohesion is desired. Is the purpose of the conversation group work or individual learning? If the focus is on group work, the facilitator will need to use techniques to encourage group rapport and activities. Be aware that each group of participants are different people so will require different approaches to get the desired results.
Expectations for participation must be very clear. The participants need to know what the facilitator expects from them and what they can expect from the facilitator. How much time online is expected? How frequently? What is the process for discussion? Who will create the topics for discussion? When will the facilitator be responding to messages? Expectations need to be given at the beginning of the conference and then periodically during the discussion process.
Online class: conference areas enabling threading of messages, management of a large volume of messages, automatic archiving or deletion of messages, identification of users and tracking individual use, e-mail capability, option of private conferences, and potential for synchronous chat.
Faculty webpage: ability to post web pages, providing links to resources, and ability to add or archive conferences very easily.
Nursing organization: automatic notice of posted messages and easy management of conferences. WebBoard is much easier to manage than a ListServ type of communication system.
To explore each of these areas, I have developed a WebBoard tutorial site (WebTutor) that conference participants are invited to use.
Sign on as a new user by typing in your name and a password. If you check the box "Remember my password", you will not have to sign on the next time you access the board unless you log off, which I will review in the tutorial.
The address for WebTutor is: http://sirius.chemek.cc.or.us/webboard/$webb.exe/~webtutor
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TCC Online Conferences