August 22, 2012

Distance Learning with Zoho SHOW and Google Hangout

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Distance learning is a concept whose importance is growing by leaps and bounds everyday. We all know that there is nothing that can beat the physical presence of a teacher in the class but the exigencies of delivering educational services at an affordable price point is forcing everyone -- both students and teachers -- to accept the reality of this technology.

In fact it boils down to the ROI, the return on investment : we all know that it would have been far better to have been at London and watch opening ceremony of the Olympics but the cost of the travel and tickets forced all of us to watch it on TV and I am sure that the Organising Committee earned more from TV rights than what they could have got through ticket sales. So it was a win-win for all to have the show broadcast in a virtual medium even though the experience was sort of degraded by the small screen. So is the case with distance learning.

Most distance learning platforms use a combination of streaming video -- to carry voice and video -- and a way to show slides ( of the Powerpoint variety ) by sharing the screen. I have in the past experimented with Anymeeting and other webinar software to teach my MBA class but the results are very uneven. The Java based software is rather unstable especially if bandwidths are low but what really hurts is the way the screen share is often blocked by campus or corporate firewalls. Moreover when in screen share mode, the presenter -- or teacher -- cannot see the video of the classroom and this makes it very difficult to speak "blindly" into a slide. Believe me, having done this a number of times, I am yet to get used to this and it really cramps your style and having to toggle between the video mode and the screenshare mode is very irritating for the audience.

Which made me look for alternatives and I have discovered that the combination of Google Hangouts + Zoho Show is a wonderful combination.

Let me explain how it works.

We have a class of 60 students and in the front of the class is a computer that is connected to the internet and also to an overhead projector. The teacher creates a Hangout and invites a student to join the same from the computer that is connected to the overhead projector. So the video of the teacher comes on the screen and his voice is heard through speakers. If this computer has a camera then the teacher gets to see the students in the class. [ If you want a better view, a second computer with a camera can also join the Hangout -- you can go upto 10 machines ]

Now it is possible to share a screen from the teachers laptop through the Hangout but this is messy -- the text on the screen becomes small so does the video. So we do not do this.

Instead, the teacher has a second laptop and he uses Zoho Show to run a presentation in broadcast mode. Now each student in the class has a laptop ( all students carry laptops these days, particularly MBA students ) and they fire up a browser and go to a URL of the presentation that the teacher is running. This means that they see the same presentation and -- this is the clincher -- they are always on the same page, or slide where the teacher is ! In fact, when the teacher changes slides, all the students get their slides changed automatically.

So the students watch the teacher talking on video on the common classroom screen on the wall AND they see the slides that the teacher is talking about, on their personal laptops -- closely simulating the situation in a physical class ! And the icing on the cake is that when viewing the Zoho Show broadcast, the students have ready chat screen with them in which to type in questions.

When the teacher sees a student raising his or her hand he looks at the chat screen, reads out the question and then answers it verbally for the benefit of all the students in the class.

The single biggest advantage of this hybrid approach is that because the video is delinked from the presentation the chance of a breakdown / freeze up is far lower. The standard webinar software like Anymeeting, by clubbing the two functions together, introduce a lot of instability that causes frequent breakdowns that degrades the pedagogical experience.

It is not that Hangout does not freeze, but when it does, the teacher can exit the Hangout and rejoin again and the class continues without much difficulty. In fact having two parallel and independent channels across the two locations gives a lot of flexibility to all concerned.

Zoho Show is an excellent cloud based presentation tool where you can either create smart slides or it will happily import existing Powerpoint or OpenOffice/Libre Office presentations. So creating a deck of slides in Zoho is quite easy. But what  makes Zoho Show really useful is the broadcast mode that allows a whole class of students to view the the slide deck synchronously with the teacher and the other students. Google Docs, the other cloud based presentation tool, does NOT have this feature at the moment.

Net-net, after using the Google Hangout + Zoho Show combination for nearly 75 minutes today, both the students and me ( the teacher ) were very happy with the outcome. Let us see how far we can push this technology.

12 comments:

Anonymous 6:16 pm  

www.coursera.org is providing online classes in similar manner, though not sure about the platforms it's using.

Beth 9:49 pm  

"We all know that there is nothing that can beat the physical presence of a teacher in the class..."

I disagree. Physical presence does not make an effective class. And while every teacher thinks they're a god who can only impart their wisdom to the masses by their charming and electric personality in person, they're wrong. Face to face courses can be fabulous, and they can also be horrible. The same is true of online courses.

We need to get away from the "which is better" argument (which was put to bed over a decade ago) and focus on how to be most effective, regardless of format.

Prithwis Mukerjee 5:26 am  

That is a very nice point Beth. Thank your for your observations

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