Virtual Classroom vs Skype / VoIP only – Round #1

Almost 10 months ago I hosted the first E-Teachers Conference and in case you are wondering what happened to it, I am working on the launch of the new and revised version ;).

Anyway, the topic of the event was “Lesson Slides and Virtual Classrooms – do we really need them?”. I would love to share the recording with you but due to some “hick ups” that led to the total crash and burn of the meeting there is none available. Also the second part of the evening that was backed up by eduFire did not record the event properly.

Two take aways from this evening: I am known as Skype fan girl and Heike Philp’s legendary 20 reasons why to prefer a virtual classroom to Skype only in language teaching. This blog post has recently been republished by Stefan Booy on the Myngle blog. I was thinking of writing a quick response to this but the more I thought about it the more it became clear that it can’t be done in just one post.

Hence I decided to give my two cents on every single point in a series of, yes, you guessed it, twenty blog posts starting today with reason number one:

1) Annotations help visualization
Images are great teaching aids and annotating them in real-time on a whiteboard can really drive the learning experience. (Comment by Harman of WizIQ)

Good point but what else would you expect. Harman and his team at WiZiQ built one of the best virtual classrooms available today.

I agree, making annotations especially the student him/herself is a great way to learn something and to bring it into the longterm memory. Alternatives using Skype are of course pen and paper or the chat protocol. The advantage of a virtual classroom here is that most of them are capable of recording the lesson for later review and therefore the student has the picture and the annotations in one place.

But from my personal experience as online language teacher I can say that most of my students still print out the material I send them for the lessons in advance and then annotate on the paper directly. For most people this is still a more natural way than typing something on the keyboard. Those sheets of paper also work detached from the internet and are portable, I know that my students take their material with them on holidays to learn with it.

This is a gap a tablet device might fill and hence change. Those devices will also be portable, the students will store their ebooks, songs and movies on them and hence carry them around in the house or on the road naturally. Also the touch screen will be closer to writing something with a pen and devices like the entourage eDGe already allow different kinds of annotations and intuitive uses.

Said that, although a good point and already a proven offline method I don’t think that this reason would really lead students and teachers jumping on a virtual classroom. There is one important thing you have to keep in mind. Quoting Clay Shirky

Nothing becomes mainstream unless it gets technically boring.

Virtual Classrooms are not technically boring. You have to jump through a lot of loops before you can actually enter it. You might have to set up an account on a platform or the Virtual Classroom host, you might need to download a client on your computer, you might need to install a new Flash or Java plugin, you might need to change your firewall settings etc all to use this device for one or two language lessons per week.

Skype is technically boring. Most people that are potential online students, hence people who use the internet for various reasons from shopping to banking, from social networks to research will have Skype installed already and use it privately. It is something they know because they use it to stay in contact with friends and family or for work. It’s an every day tool so the idea to use it to get in contact with a language teacher is a no brainer.

ETCon 1 Review | Heike Philp’s 20 Reasons | Myngle blog | entourage eDGe

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  • Louis George Machlan

    There is some interesting new thoughts that I am currently reading. In a nutshell, it posits that “The Medium Is The Message”. Sorry to drop right into the middle of my thoughts but, if one can begin to grasp that concept, one would see that the limits of a given medium would then limit the message.

    Have I got you totally confused yet? As a minimalist at heart, I agree with your conclusions. But (you knew there would be the but ;-), while a simple platform will certainly allow many to quickly jump on board, how sustainable is it? I am fighting this but a shallow platform may tend to promulgate a shallow class dynamic. (Present company excepted.)

    Hopefully I can get my ideas better organized for a future posting. I am particularly concerned about my penchant for run-on sentences. Thank goodness I am a spoken English coach, not a grammarian!

    PS your comment widget says I have accumulated 1 points. So where can I redeem them and how can I get into the bonus round?

    • KirstenWinkler

      Yes, the medium is the computer, not the classroom. The computer limits the message as the learning process will be interrupted as soon as I log off and shut down the device. A sheet of paper is still “on” and portable, I can take it on the couch or the bed stand.

      A tablet device might change this.

      The point just says that you are now more trustworthy in the Disqus community :) This is a whole different but also interesting topic.

  • China_Mike

    One of the big problems I have with nos. 1 and I suspect with a few more of these is the nature in which they are written. This statement contains two compound nouns and a rather lifeless verb.

    I wonder if it would be possible to fill in the blanks a bit better….. Annotating (what) (how) helps (whom) visualize (what) (when) (where). I have seen studies that suggest that annotating text with extra text helps students better understand the text. I have seen studies that suggest that adding pictures to a text (a form of annotation) can confuse the reader.

    It is hard to prove or falsify a sentence such as the above, and as it stands it really isn't much help to a curriculum designer.

    I guess the real question as I follow this list (with interest) is— how can it help and guide us as teachers and curriculum developers?

    • KirstenWinkler

      If I remember right this sentence was about annotating pictures on a virtual whiteboard. But of course annotating text would have the same effect. For me it's more about the medium, like George said. But the medium in this case is the device, the computer, not the software.

      Those 20 thoughts I will publish will lead to my conclusion, of course. And it might come out a bit different than some might think ;).

    • jasonoutthere

      Research into elearning is increasingly focusing on the pedagogy not the technology, which I personally think is the way to go.

      Creating courses that work on and with multiple platforms means you have to design curricula for the human brain, not for the human built device.

      Here's some interesting reading on the subject:

      • KirstenWinkler

        It's from a German university so it must be good :).

        I think both have to go hand in hand. Design follows function.

  • Heike Philp

    Hi Kirsten,

    Great initiative indeed and thank you for going back to the 20, well actually 21 reasons to be precise for using virtual classroom technology.

    This is a good opportunity to demonstrate what we had in mind with each of these individual items.

    I am happy to outline why we believe that using virtual classroom technology has added value for teacher and students and that whilst it is more difficult to master we believe that teacher who learn to master these tools show themselves to be professional live online teachers.

    I am not saying that those who only use Skype are not professionals, please do not interpret this this way, but I am saying that in the early days of live online language teaching it is rather difficult to distinguish a professional from a non-professional because initially the market is flooded with many who see a chance to make some money.

    This was the same during the early days of webdesign. Webdesigners who were able to create simple html pages flooded the market and at that time it was difficult for the customers to distinguish between a hobby-webdesigner and a professional.

    Only time could tell and of course determination to progress professionally and to learn more than html.

    This may me a simple comparison but it apply describes the times we live in right now in the early days of live online language teaching.

    Hence, allow me to take you up on this challenge and I am happy somebody has started this conversation.

    This is an honest statement.

    I am not sure how quickly I can post a blog in reply to yours but I try my level best to defend our stand that virtual classroom technology and subsequently training in how to use it is needed to professionalize live online teaching, to establish this as a recognized trade and to lift this to a level where we can start asking for more money for this added qualification.

    I am looking forward to a fair exchange of thoughts because I highly respect you as a professional in this field.

    Rgds Heike

    • KirstenWinkler

      Hello Heike,

      exactly what I aimed for to start :). Glad that you accepted the challenge.

      Looking forward to your thoughts on the topic. I think this will be a very resourceful talk.

  • DexwayRon

    I'll challenge your statement about virtual classrooms. I have a virtual classroom that is “technically boring” by your standards. You won't have to do anything other than click on a link, and you won't have to read any help files or documentation. (It also has remote application sharing enabled.)

    Put it this way, it's easier to set up than Skype. FWIW though, I think “technically boring” is a bit inaccurate in an attempt to sound clever. I still use “intuitive.”


    • KirstenWinkler

      Hey Ron. Thanks for stopping by. Things don't need to be intuitive to be technically boring. Clay Shirky refers to cellphones for example and most of them were and still are far from being intuitive, especially the old Sagem that I am using at the moment :).

      But cellphones became a commodity. I can still remember my parents asking “Why do I need a cellphone? I don't need to be reachable all the time.” Now every family member has one, they are technically boring, not exciting, nothing you think twice about and therefore you can reach a critical mass when you build something based on that platform.

      Skype is on the way to become another thing that is technically boring. This weekend I heard the word “skypen” – German verb version of to skype – in a mainstream comedy show. If most people in the audience are getting that joke, Skype is technically boring, maybe not as intuitive as your classroom but I don't need to explain it to my potential customers / students.