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Virtual Classroom for Lunch
Blended learning for lunch at the University of Surrey
by Nicola Avery


Video Recording of the Workshop
Watch the recording on bliptv

We were delighted to welcome Nellie Deutsch to lead a session on navigating the live virtual environment last week. At Surrey we have an internal network of academic and non-academic practitioners who are interested in exploring different technologies in their learning, teaching and research. We also had fantastic guest presenters - Gladys Gahona, Ludmila Smirnova, Gita Mathur, Sui Fai John Mak, Mark Cruthers - our Surrey network found the session really inspiring and carried on talking for ages afterward.

We hold bi-monthly lunchtime sessions (free lunch being the added incentive!) which provide an opportunity for staff to chat informally with each other, meet others and share experiences from both internal and external presenters. We have recently had growing interest in exploring technologies that allow students to connect with each other remotely and with their tutors in a shared space, especially many students who are on international or UK based placements. In healthcare placements the students are often in care homes where they may have limited or no access to computers because they are owned by the healthcare facilities management, although they may be able to use mobile devices. It was wonderful to see Nellie smiling at us - it really felt like she was in the room with us physically. The majority of attendees had neither seen a virtual classroom or heard of one before. It generated huge interest and everyone wanted to go away and explore further

"...what sold it for me was the way they kept handing the microphone across the world from one country to another, that was incredible..."

We are launching a pilot soon with one faculty but we had all faculties, some central services and also an associated academy of music represented in the session and they have all gone away discussing lots of ideas including shared language sessions, music instrumental tutorials, placement interviews and sharing international research as part of an online program.

Setting up and running the session

This was probably one of the most interactive ones we have tried. Our average attendance now are around 25 - some regulars but generally we get different people each time - usually a mix of academic and non-academic staff and interested others. They are usually held in a room which has facility to present 3 projections simultaneously.

We set up 8 laptops on 4 tables - with chairs grouped around, at the front of the room and also projected one screen of Nellie inside the virtual classroom on the main wall at the front. Wiziq requires individual registration - so you can't set up a class of logins - and because I left this too late, didn't have time to speak with our internal IT services to see if could set up 8 internal accounts (the only way they could probably have done it was setting up visitor accounts so it wouldn't have been ideal anyway), so ended up setting up 8 yahoo accounts and registered each one. Wiziq did offer to register them once we had the addresses. We did a test with Nellie the day before and it worked ok with 2 laptops so on the day, Each account was pre-invited to the Wiziq session so just had to launch it on each laptop at 12.30pm which was painless. Each laptop was connected via wifi, with the exception of my laptop on the front (it had been fine on wifi with the test but I decided to set up a wired connection on the day just to be safe).

In terms of other technologies in the room, we had a webcam on a tripod (actually held together by 2 elastic bands - we could have used gaffer tape, but the bands did the job) which was focused from the front of the room looking back which was USB connected to my laptop so that was the view that Nellie and others could see of us. On the day we also set up a larger camcorder at the back of the room facing to the front to record the video of the room. The camcorder had a microphone attached to it and on the day I was also hooked up to a radio mic. We used a speakerphone which had echo-canceling, for the overall room audio that everyone in the virtual classroom could hear.

Thoughts for future sessions

We were very fortunate with Nellie because we didn't actually get seated until they were at least 20 minutes into the session and Nellie had done a fantastic job of interacting with all the virtual classroom participants (some other presenters might find it challenging to keep sessions going when it is uncertain when the rest of the attendees are going to join). Everyone arriving into our physical room could see the session going ahead as soon as they walked into the room which immediately grabbed their attention. The virtual participants could see our room but the picture wasn't too clear for everyone. In the future we would use a smaller videocamera or a webcam with better camera. Or possibly a webcam with a longer cable so we could have walked around the room with it a little - as a virtual teacher it would have been nicer for Nellie if she could have seen their faces and reactions from time to time too.

Also it would probably be better in the future to have our lunch/networking bit completed ahead of the virtual classroom session so that virtual participants do not spend unnecessary time waiting. Some of our attendees did not want to sit down at laptops with 'sticky hands' so they waited until they had finished eating. We had decided that our speakerphone would be good enough (chat150) to risk turning back on the sound on the laptops (had originally muted all of them) on the back two tables but the second Nellie had handed over to us we had nice echos so had to re-mute them immediately. Most of our physical attendees could hear each of the virtual classroom presenters from our speakerphone ok although there were differences between each presenter, some were slightly clearer than others. I think if we had another set of tables further back in the room (i.e. 25+ attendees) then they might have struggled so we would have had to use different microphones and speakerphones.

We could also have explained a bit more in advance (such as pre-session information) about how a typical session works so when our attendees sat down they had a clearer idea of what to expect. Would probably also have done some re-introductions around the virtual classroom or asked a question in the text chat about where everyone was from so that our attendees could engage more quickly with the virtual attendees.

All the presenters were fantastic, some of our attendees experimented with the text chat by popping in the odd question, Nellie also provided opportunities for them to play with the tools on a whiteboard so they became more confident very quickly. Having a mouse with each laptop would have made it easier for some participants. The virtual classroom projected at the front was nice to see and easy to demonstrate things but there is a possibility that some of our attendees became more passive and started looking at that which made it less likely that they would engage with what they were seeing on the laptop in front of them - i.e. more likely just to sit and less likely to join in the text chat.

It worked over lunch where our attendees were relaxed and they were continually chatting to each other and pointing to things on the laptops throughout the session when we were un-mic'd, but this could be recreated in a non-lunch session too. We could definitely repeat this kind of session - possibly as a virtual classroom session in our pilot where some of the staff are not very comfortable using different technologies and it might be nice to bring them into a safe environment to play - although we are fortunate in the UK on the whole, with connectivity so if they just joined a virtual classroom session they could probably join in quite happily without training too.

It was great that Nellie had uploaded the session so quickly - we had quite a few apologies from staff who wanted to attend but couldn't because of the huge piles of marking they need to complete for exam boards. Those who couldn't attend could then pick it up straightaway. In the past we have made DVDs of our sessions and released them but we have recently launched a new media system so going to be moving towards releasing them online and more quickly than before. To create the DVDs - we just have the camcorder connected to a Mac which uploads it overnight then just reinsert as many DVDs as we need to. In this case, we are making a separate edited version so had to upload overnight twice. We will probably use either iMovie or FinalCut to edit but it would have been possible to do on a pc and use free software to edit it, such as Moviemaker or Eyespot - but it probably would take longer and possibly slightly less options. However, you could get a decent version out to everyone relatively quickly.

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