Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Webcast/Webconference/e-Work Tools

I was fortunate to have been exposed to e-learning relatively early on the corporate side of things. One of my first e-learning experiences was becoming an online facilitator during CDI's early trials with online learning sessions. In this post I'll talk about some of the tools I've used for these purposes as well as my experiences.

Placeware - This was the very first tool we used for online learning "webcasting" at CDI (sorry, I refuse to call it a "webinar".) Its best market is for conferencing and remote work or collaboration. While at the time it didn't have a good audio/video integration, it was awesome if you wanted to have "breakout" sessions with the online participants. The look and feel was like that of a conference, complete with virtual rooms and virtual "seats". It also offers whiteboards, shared applications, etc. etc. The overall facilitator could even move between "rooms" as needed. Placeware is now owned by Microsoft and is branded as "LiveMeeting."

Centra - We moved to Centra early on in our online learning experiments because it had better audio/video integration. I admit, I really liked the Centra environment. It had the ability to get participant feedback through chat, or other emoticons. The facilitator even has the ability to generate surveys and questions on the fly and incorporate them in the presentation. Our particular installation also let us upload and store presentations converted to HTML, or in their native format (in our case, PowerPoint) so that a participant could always access a presentation even if the Live session was over. We could record and save our content as well. The "on demand" feature was a real bonus for us. Centra offers both hosted and turn-key solutions. They've made a real effort to position themselves as a good online learning platform in addition to being a solid e-work and e-conferencing tool.

At the time we weren't doing a lot of tracking of learner-specific stats, but we did know that participants liked having access to the content whenever they wanted to access it. We weren't doing a lot of Learning Object authoring at the time, so I can't speak for how effective Centra is at handling such things. However, I wouldn't put it past them.

WebEx - I used WebEx at my last employer. While it is a good conferencing support tool, I didn't find it as effective for e-learning. The interface was pretty basic. There was no integrated video service, and (more often than not), I had to use an external Teleconference provider to have any supporting audio, as opposed to something more integrated. The whiteboards, surveys and shared applications worked fine, but after my experience with Centra I was, frankly, disappointed. My biggest complaint about WebEx is that I couldn't provide content "on demand." Even recording and saving content needed a proprietary tool. I could only store recorded content in this proprietary format. Perhaps that was a limitation of a hosted solution, I'm not sure. Basically, if I wanted to have an event running, I needed to actually be there to start a saved version and then monitor it.

What I did like, however, was that I could save a presentation, burn it to CD, include the WebEx player, and then distribute it. For some of our customers who couldn't seem to attend scheduled sessions, this was a great solution. I wouldn't, however, describe WebEx as an e-learning platform. It does conferencing and webcasts, but that's about where it ends.

Again, there's no shortage of Webcasting and online broadcast or e-work tools out there. Again, a Google search on this topic yields big results.

Message Boards

I should talk for a moment about message boards. I like these kinds of tools for offline, threaded discussions. The nice thing is, most of these kinds of tools are free and simply require a web server for access. I see them as a way for online learning to mimic real-world environments with messages, discussion and interaction. Most of these tools are Freeware, as opposed to OpenSource, or there is a very minimal cost associated with licensing. Tools like Ceilidh, WebWiz, vBulletin, phpBB can add another dimension to a real online environment. You're welcome to brand it as an e-community if you wish.

No comments: