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Preparing for a Good Web Conferencing Experience

There has been a lot of development in web conferencing platforms in the last few years, making some of the distinctions made in the past (and featured in readings here) less relevant. The notes that follow are based on my experience with web conferencing which includes two platform selection competitions and use of almost all platforms over the last 15 years.

Since I started working in post secondary online learning in 2004, preparing to have a successful web conferencing session has been a major issue, and it is almost as hard today as it was back then. Web conferencing is still the most difficult task most people will ask of their computer and internet connection. You are recording with a web camera and microphone, and uploading this feed in real-time. At the same time you are downloading video and audio from several participants to display instantly on your screen.

Here are some key challenges and strategies to meet them.

Key Issues

Bandwidth

Most web conferencing systems will work best with at least 10 to 15 mbs download speed and 1 to 1.5 mbs upload speed. You can test the download and upload speed of your internet service at Speedtest.net (https://www.speedtest.net/). If you have sufficient speed with your internet connection you might not be home-free yet. Are there others sharing your internet connection? A partner also on a web conferencing call? Kids on Netflix or XBox? Or is the cat watching YouTube? Any of these can limit the bandwidth available for your web conference session. Plan ahead and book the bulk of your internet connection for important web conference sessions. If others in your household are reading or shopping online, this won’t impact your session.

The way you connect to the internet in your house may also impact the quality of your web conferencing session. In the past connecting to the internet with a wired (ethernet) connection provided a more consistent connection than wifi. In many places, perhaps including your home, wifi today is just as dependable as a wired connection. If your issues with web conferencing seem to indicate interruptions to your internet connection are an issue then you should try to be connected with a wired connection.

Computer Configuration

Web conferencing platforms that you will work with typically work through your internet browser or provide a small application that you download onto your computer. You will hear about web conferencing systems that connect established rooms with permanently installed hardware. These systems, often connected via satellite, are very expensive and have almost disappeared except for unique circumstances.

You will need a web camera, speakers or headphones and microphone on your computer to fully participate in a web conferencing session. If you use a laptop, it probably has a camera and microphone already installed. The camera is probably fine but laptop microphones can vary widely in quality. This is a point where you may want to consider upgrading your equipment.

Camera: Laptop cameras are often fine for a ‘head and shoulders’ shot. If you need a camera that can display other scenes, or if your computer doesn’t have a camera, you will need an external web camera which will typically connect via a USB cable.

Microphone & speakers: The best option for web conferencing is a headset (headphones + wrap-around microphone) or earbuds with cord microphone (like those used with smartphones). This configuration helps reduce feedback (sound from speakers looping back into the microphone) and offers better quality voice transmission. If you don’t have a headset or earbuds with microphone, using headphones along with your built in microphone will prevent feedback.

Once you have the hardware you will use for web conferencing, you will need to configure your system to use this gear when participating in a web conference. In most systems (whether browser-based or with a specific application, you will be given options to choose a camera, microphone and speakers/headphones at the start of your first session. You will probably also be asked to give permission for the browser or application to access these tools. You may also have the ability to adjust settings for your hardware: speaker/headphone volume, microphone gain level, virtual background for your camera. Once you have done this, your settings will probably be remembered in your browser or withing the application.

If you have difficulty selecting your choice for these hardware, your first recourse is to look for icons or menu options within the web conferencing platform that allow you to manage settings. This might be a microphone icon that opens a widget that allows you to choose a microphone and set the gain level, or a menu item called ‘webcam’ that lets you select from cameras attached to the computer and to set a virtual background. These options may also be found within a generic ‘settings’ icon or menu item on your web conferencing platform.

When solutions to hardware issues cannot be resolved within your web conferencing program they may be addressed within the settings component of your operating system. This may be the point where you need to reach out for help or advice for this. Putting together a good question for a Google search can also be a good way of getting help when you need to configure hardware in your operating system.

Physical space

Once you have your computer hardware and network connection sorted out, you can improve your appearance within the web conferencing space with a properly positioned web camera and appropriate lighting. Simply stated, your web camera should be at eye level. It should be positioned to capture a head and shoulder shot, or slightly further back to capture your upper body and head. You should work with the lights you have available to ensure that you are well lit from behind the camera so that your face is visible and clear, but not washed out.

Mobile devices

You can participate in a web conference with your phone or tablet almost as easily as with your laptop. A small tripod with phone adaptor will help you position your camera and keep your phone stable. Remember you will be touching your phone to operate your web conferencing platform. Bluetooth connected headphones with integrated microphone will also help.

Moose – Interactive Text

The Moose is responsible for more deaths in North America than any other animal.

View the video in full size.

A COVID-19 EdMedia Story


Jinhua Polytechnic. Jinhua China.

I thought I would share with you an educational media project that, while at the extreme edge of what most educators take on, illustrates several lessons or best practices.

At Royal Roads University I’ve been an instructional designer for 4 years (11 years as an instructional designer and educational technologist at UVic before that). Last year I became an associate director supervising learning technologies and media support for both on and off campus learning (RRU is about 70% online).

You have all been dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 virus over the last few weeks but China has been facing this since late December. Royal Roads has a number of online and blended programs for Chinese students, it also has several programs delivered face-to-face at universities in China. As mandatory quarantines spread across several regions of China, these were impacted. A series of courses offered at Jinhua Polytechnic (pictured above) by RRU in tourism and hospitality management had to be converted to online learning.

As a result we’ve been converting a face-to-face, translator-supported program into asynchronous online learning. Starting with less than a week’s notice the instructors and translators have met in Blackboard Collaborate (our web conferencing platform) to record narrated PowerPoint videos with English narration translated to Chinese every sentence or two. This isn’t the optimal educational media we would develop given a few months to prepare, but it was something we could design and produce in short order, and on the scale needed. We’ve developed around 100 videos for this project now and will likely produce a similar number before this semester is done.

There were a number of media principles and best practices that came into play for this project.

  1. We kept the videos short. They originated with on-campus lectures that would have been 45 to 60 minutes long. With some modification we were able to change this to 6 to 8 minute videos, each addressing a key topic.
  2. We kept the slides simple. The students had the instructor narative (translated) and the textbook for detail. The slides were for maintaining focus, important graphics and key text. Many students had just a smartphone in quarantine and would not benefit from complex slides.
  3. We kept video size down. Internet bandwidth in most regions of China is quite good, and the Royal Roads University Moodle systems are accessible from China, but media files can appear to be throttled when accessed from China. By keeping the videos small (under 10MB in most cases), it was easier to access them from our site and easier for students to share them via WeChat.

These steps helped us create effective content for four courses running concurrently. Of course all of this wouldn’t be possible without instructors who were able to rise to the unique occasion, dedicating a lot of hours in the week before we went live and evenings and weekends ever since. We were also lucky at Royal Roads to have on staff a translator and a bilingual learning technologist. Our bilingual Moodle instance was also useful for hosting the content. The instructors were also ready to use Chinese platforms (like WeChat) to facilitate most of the learning activities.

My take-away from this experience has been that having internalised many principles around educational media I was able to make rapid decisions about the best choices available (though I often called them ‘best-bad choices’) in our short time with limited resources, though certainly we had more resources than many institutions might have for this sort of situation.

Anyway this is still a work in progress. As we ramp up to move the on-campus portion of RRU programs online (just as most BC post-secondary institutions are doing), there’s lots of work to continue for Jinhua.

Create a Simple Graphic

Hey there,

Here’s a simple graphic that I created in the process of doing a screencast on creating a graphic using Google Drawing.

The learning outcome this graphic would support is:

Describe 3 elements of a successful educational graphic

Venn diagram showing the interconnection of pedagogy, technology and aesthetics.

Here’s the video on how to make a graphic in Google Drawing.

Welcome

This is site is meant to provide a running start for building your ePortfolio in WordPress. If this is your first time using WordPress take a look at the How-To Guide to get started.

Once you feel comfortable, you can customize this site in many ways: adding images, changing themes, settings, etc…

All the additional example posts on this site can be deleted or changed to a draft (not visible on the main page) once you get rolling with your ePortfolio.

WordPress How-to Guide

We are here to help you create your ePortfolio, so do not hesitate to ask for technical support. To get started on creating your ePortfolio we suggest the following steps:

The first steps:

  1. Log in if you have not already logged in; get familiar with the WordPress dashboard and administration interface. You can also watch this short video for more information.
  2. Remember: When you are in the site administration area of your ePortfolio, you can get tips on what you are doing by clicking the “Help” menu on the top-right corner.
  3. Review your settings, start by changing your Site Title under Settings>General. You need to hit the “Save” button to save your changes. Learn more about the WordPress General Settings area.
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  5. We have created your ePortfolio with four main pages and a blogging area. You can add more pages, or you can delete what is there. Maybe start by changing your About Me page by introducing yourself and sharing a little about yourself.
  6. You are welcome to change the images and upload your own. Before you get started you may want to watch this short video about using images from Google.
  7. Check out Creative Commons Search, the Wikimedia Commons, and Unsplash for copyright-friendly images. Be sure to to use the appropriate Creative Commons license and attribution for any images you use.
  8. Probably the most common question from students is how to customize the menus on the navigation bar.  You can manage or update your navigation menu from the Appearance>Menus section on the left-hand sidebar. Check out the WordPress Menu User Guide and review this video if you would like more information about customizing your site menu.

How-to section:

Getting more help and information

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If you have any additional questions or feedback please feel free to contact Thomas Sandhoff in Open Learning at tsandhoff@tru.ca.

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