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Get in Sync with Web Conferencing: A Guide for Online Instructors

One of the greatest shortcomings of online education is the lack of direct, face-to-face contact between student and instructor. Asynchronous web-based learning environments—those not constrained by location and time—often fail to effectively facilitate the type of social interaction that is essential to the learning process. Web conferencing, a real-time meeting using a platform that facilitates synchronous communication, can provide a means to achieve greater social interaction in largely asynchronous courses.

Fortunately, advances in the last decade have made web conferencing on the Internet ubiquitous. Despite its prevalence, web conferencing applications are still plagued with minor idiosyncrasies to significant glitches. Proper preparation can help avoid many of the common headaches that can cut into the allotted meeting time, and affect the quality of the presentation. Ample planning can also increase engagement, demonstrate a high level of professionalism, and improve outcomes.

Why Web Conference?

Web conferencing provides an element to online learning that is very difficult to achieve in an asynchronous environment. According to the Community of Inquiry pedagogical framework, effective educational experiences must contain the three critical elements: social presence, cognitive presence, teaching presence (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2010). Social presence is the ability for learners to interact with each other and present themselves as a real persons. Cognitive presence is the opportunity for learners to engage with new information and construct knowledge. Teaching presence is about setting up a learning environment and directing learners in the engagement of social and cognitive processes. Web conferencing provides a means for learners to engage in all of these elements. In particular, it provides the means for social engagement, which can be the hardest of the three to achieve in an online, asynchronous format. See the chart below for a comparison of the two formats.

Synchronous Asynchronous
  • More personal
  • Community building
  • More ephemeral
  • More immediate
  • Non-verbal communication
  • Time for reflection
  • More flexible
  • No time limits
  • Persistent
  • Gives a voice to wallflowers

Getting Started

Careful planning and execution of a web conference doesn’t have to be complicated, but should adhere to a set of technical considerations and best practices. To get started, create a rough outline including the goals and objectives of the conference to identify the ideal tool for your conference. A web conference can be an opportunity to move beyond a lecture-style presentation because it is suited for dialogue and interaction. Your outline should, therefore, leave room for discussion and interactive exercises.

Some institutions, schools, or departments may have a license available (and possibly support) for one or more tools that can be used to host a web conference. This may simplify the process of selecting a tool, but there are many free tools out there so you are not necessarily limited to one option.

Selecting a Tool

There are several important factors to consider when selecting a tool for a web conference. How many participants will you have? How many simultaneous video feeds are required? Will you need to upload presentation slides? Do you need to share your screen? Work collaboratively? Do you need telephone support? Do you have a budget? These are just some of the questions that will help you establish your selection criteria and whittle down the vast array of options to the cream of the crop, and more specifically the type of tool in need.

Types of Tools

Web Meeting - These are the tools most commonly associated with web conferencing. They typically offer a wide variety of features including: multiple video feeds, presentations, screen sharing, breakout rooms, and more.

Virtual Classroom - Similar to web meeting tools, these offer additional classroom management features such as creating student accounts, posting a syllabus and/or resources, announcements, discussions, and other features common to learning management systems.

Screensharing - A subset of conferencing tools that focus more on sharing of the desktop screen. Some of these allow participants to take control of the computer screen being shared. These are great for doing tutorials, web tours, and collaborative writing or reading.

Whiteboarding - Another subset of tools that focus on annotation tools including text, shapes, free draw, highlighting, sticky notes and more. Often they allow the host to upload documents like PDFs and Word docs, or pull up a web page for the participants to collaboratively markup using the drawing and text tools.

Take a look at the chart below for a comparison of features among different types of tools.

Features Web Meeting Virtual Classroom Screensharing Whiteboarding

Adobe Connect Fuze Wiggio WizIQ Yuuguu Twiddla Idroo
Cost $55/mo Free Free $190/yr Free $99/yr Free Free
# of participants 25 25 50 Unlimited 10 30 Unlimited Unlimited
# of simultaneous video feeds 25 12 4 6 n/a n/a n/a n/a
mobile apps/mobile web Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
screen sharing Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes n/a n/a
presentations Yes Yes Yes Yes n/a n/a n/a n/a
breakout rooms Yes No No No n/a n/a n/a n/a
telephone support Yes (3rd party) Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No No
voice over IP Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No
recording Yes Yes No Yes Yes (Pro only) No No No

Preparing the Conference

Now that you’ve selected the best tool for your conference, there is still a lot of work to be done in preparation. If you’ve already determined your goals and objectives, and created an outline of the presentation, then you are off to a good start, however, preparation involves a few more steps:

  • Develop instructional materials - This includes your presentation, handouts, and additional supporting materials used in the conference. To help orient your students throughout the conference, you should employ an advance organizer, a visual or text-based map or outline of the meeting with indicators showing what elements have been completed.
  • Choose activities to engage in - To take the best advantage of the interactive nature of the medium, use activities like polling, collaborative writing, annotation, breakout groups, and whiteboarding.
  • Write a script - To maintain a professional tone and prevent yourself from stumbling, have a prepared script or outline to follow throughout the meeting.
  • Prepare the conference room - Many of the web conferencing tools allow you to customize the meeting space with various features and elements that can be moved around, resized, and replaced. Some tools allow you to create multiple layouts and to easily switch between them, such as Adobe Connect. Before you are ready to deliver your presentation, take some time to familiarize yourself with the environment and customize it for your needs.
  • Make a note of policies, expectations, and instructions to provide to your students - Web conferences typically have a number of variables, that if not carefully controlled, can waste a lot of valuable time. Providing your students with detailed instructions, expectations, and etiquette policies can help minimize interruptions in the limited time you likely have for the engagement.
  • Test equipment - Be sure that you can successfully connect to your tool, have downloaded the necessary plug-ins (if required), can access your presentation and materials, and have tested your webcam and microphone to work out any bugs before showtime.
  • Rehearse the conference - As with most things, practice makes perfect, so conducting at least one run-through, preferably with an audience, can help give you more confidence, work out kinks, and ensure a smoothly delivered conference.

Regardless of the tool that you choose, inevitably there will be some technical considerations that you should keep in mind while you are preparing.

  • Have a backup plan - Things often go wrong in a live web conference, so being prepared for worst case scenarios will help mitigate that risk. Have a second computer ready in case your main computer crashes or has some other problem. 
  • Be sure your computer is plugged in for power and to your network - Relying on battery power or a wireless network can be a risky proposition. Avoid this by plugging it in. 
  • Use a quality headset for the best audio and to avoid echoes.
  • Use a high-definition webcam if possible, and ensure that you are properly lit (when using video).
  • Close all non-essential programs on your computer. Web conferencing is a very resource-heavy application and requires as much CPU and memory resources as you can free up.

Running the Conference

You’ve selected your tool, prepared a presentation, configured the conference space, and rehearsed the whole thing. Now you’re ready to deliver the presentation, but there are still a few best practices to consider.

  • Record the session, even if it is only for yourself to review.
  • Select a room where you can minimize distractions (e.g. kids, pets) and ambient noise.
  • Reiterate the ground rules (mute audio, introduce yourself, minimize background noise, etc.).
  • Speak clearly and enunciate.
  • When sharing your screen, move the mouse slowly.
  • Use polling, chat, and discussion to engage your participants.
  • Leave time at the end for questions.
  • Use pre/post activities to engage the students further.

The key to an effective web conference is to keep your participants engaged and interested throughout the session by minimizing lecture, exploiting opportunities for interactivity, and maintaining a student-centric focus.