e-learning: Collaborate Ultra

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I’ve been teaching online classes through LCC’s MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography part time program for several years now. The part time program is taught entirely remotely, using a variety of platforms but with most sessions taking place in an online classroom environment somewhat akin to a group Skype call. As a teacher, this online environment poses quite different possibilities and challenges to a face-to-face lesson, but I have to admit I hadn’t thought that much about the effect of it for a student beyond the relative convenience it offers for people unwilling or unable to relocate to study in London. Anyway as part of my PG Cert I entered the online classroom as a student for the first time recently. Aside from the actual content of the lesson the experience of being taught online was both slightly disconcerting and rather useful, and gave me some cause for further thought on the advantages and disadvantages of this form of teaching.

For this session we were working in a virtual classroom platform called Collaborate Ultra. This was quite different from the regular Blackboard Collaborate I’m used to using, with Ultra being browser based, and rather very shiny and slick looking but also it seemed not quite so fully functioned as Blackboard. The session was crowded, with about twenty participants including speakers. While this would hardly be a large class by conventional standards it felt large in online terms. I’m used to teaching online classes of rarely more than about ten people. Having so many more can create some minor problems, for example when a question is asked the rush of answers in the text box comes so thick and fast that it’s hard to read them as they rapidly get pushed up the chat box.

Other shortcomings are ones I’m already rather aware of, the reduced possibilities for presentations and embedded media like audio and video for example are a shame, and something I hope the platform evolves to accept in future iterations. Most obvious to me though was just how easy it is to get distracted as a student participating in online sessions. Besides the multitude of locations that a student might be logging in from and all the environmental distractions that might pose there is just the ever-present temptation to check e-mails, social media and so forth during the session, and I have to admit I didn’t fully resist these temptations.

In terms of our speakers and the actual lesson content; James Swinson took us through some examples of innovative uses of the Workflow platform. Then Tim Morgan talked to us about the use of Moodle in the context of teaching an online only course and also about Padlet, a platform for e-collaboration (Google docs also works well for this I’ve found). Also worth noting was that Tim was speaking with webcam video. I never use it in my classes so it was an interesting chance to assess whether I’ve been missing something in the process. In this case I don’t think so, at least for talks that simply involve talking. It did occur to me that this might be a useful tool though when talking to students about things like books where the webcam could be used to show something physical and explain how it works, pointing out interesting details for example in a way that would be difficult in a real-world classroom.

Finally Tim Williams spoke to us further about some of the tools used for e-learning, including ways for collecting information on student usage of the platforms. With my interests in data and surveillance I found this a little alarming and it took me back to some of my thoughts about the power dynamics of teaching, when I mused that it was worth thinking about power relations also in relation to the online teaching space. Of course, this data could and should be used to refine courses and teaching to the advantage of students and teachers, but I also worry about ways it might easily be misused (it also inevitably makes me wonder to what extent similar monitoring goes on of staff usage of these platforms).  In all though it was a useful session which gave me reason to think more carefully about how I prepare online classes in future and an awareness of the need to find ways to engage students as fully as possible during my own classes.

Author: Lewis Bush

Photographer, writer, curator and lecturer. www.lewisbush.com www.disphotic.com

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