by Deborah Healey
Conferencing--teachers talking with students about their work, students talking with each other-- is a regular part of teaching. Conferencing online as opposed to face-to-face has, like everything, its pluses and minuses.
On the positive side, online conferencing can offer:
Negatives can include:
Conferencing can be individual or group, real-time ("synchronous" -- as I type, you read what I'm saying and can reply immediately) or delayed ("asynchronous," like e-mail where I write now and you read and reply later). It can be as cheap as a free site on the Web or e-mail or in the form of a high-priced network package. One key point to remember is that it's only as effective as student and teacher access to the network: if you or your students have little access, there's little benefit.
This list is not exhaustive, but gives you a few ideas and places to go from here.
Since many teachers already use e-mail, this is just an expansion of what you may be doing already. You'll need to set up a list of student names in your address book so that you can type just the name of your class, and the program will send the message to everyone. This feature is sometimes called a distribution list, nickname, or shortcut. You'll also need to set up a folder where you can put the responses and keep them organized. See my Eudora-based information about address books and folders at http://osu.orst.edu/~healeyd/pci/eudora_help.html for help with both of these.
The advantages of using e-mail are that it is familiar and that it is ready when you are; you can read and send messages anytime. It's also password-protected, so privacy is assured. With some mail programs, you can get a "receipt" that says when the recipient has read the message. On the down side, the messages are chronological and you generally can't sort your e-mail by topic. It's hard to see which message is replying to what other one, so an ongoing discussion is difficult.
Newsgroups and many and varied, on every topic imaginable. Newsgroups predated the web, and are a form of electronic bulletin board. You can use Netscape Navigator or Collabra to get to newsgroups, but it's really not the World Wide Web at all. The messages on newsgroups are "threaded," which means that they are organized by topic and you can see which message replied to what other one. The main drawbacks are that teachers rarely have network permission to set up a newsgroup and that messages, once sent, cannot be deleted or edited. Newsgroups are rarely private, though a news server can be set up so that only users on its immediate network have access. This is the case with the newsgroup I was using with my class at Oregon State University. It was more private, but I couldn't get to it when I was away from home.
Chat is a real-time format, so you can get a sense of spontaneity and immediacy. If there are a number of people online simultaneously, it can become very hectic and seem quite disorganized, since replies are posted chronologically rather than in any topical order. In addition, those who come in late miss what happened before they arrived-- this is truly a "Be Here Now" technology. For people who need to interact directly but who are physically separated, it's a great conferencing tool. A public channel is as it says -- open to all comers. Most chat sites offer the option of a private channel, which the teacher can set up and effectively hide from those not in the class. See more information about Chat in the April, 1997 Tech Tip at http://osu.orst.edu/Dept/eli/april1997.html.
A MOO (Multi-user Object Oriented Dimension) is a lot like Chat in that it is real-time and that group discussions can get pretty crazy. The best-known MOO for English language learning, SchMOOze University, has a location within it called Neteach Nook where participants can be grouped for smaller discussions, allowing each group to follow its own discussion path. The teacher can move from group to group, but can only follow one group at a time. See more information about SchMOOze in particular in the December, 1997 Tech Tip at http://osu.orst.edu/Dept/eli/dec1997.html.
There are both freeware and commercial versions of CU-SeeMe available. This is Chat with audio and video. It requires at least a microphone and speakers; for video, a digitizing camera like the QuickCam is necessary. Video and audio on the net require high-speed connections; as it stands now, the affordable versions of this technology are cute (I love talking heads three inches square where the audio and video don't match), but I haven't found them useful enough to be worth the effort. For more information, see the White Pine site at http://www.wpine.com.
Those with a Windows NT server can try Microsoft Netmeeting with audio and video, available for download at http://www.microsoft.com/netmeeting/. Those with Macintoshes can use the commercial Timbuktu to link to Netmeeting. Watch for other, similar products to emerge as business gets more and more involved in web-based conferencing.
This is a free site that offers a web-based conferencing tool. I've been using it lately for my classes and am very pleased with it. It offers e-mail, conferencing, and web linking. The site is generally fast enough for a discussion in class that seems real-time, even though the site is, like e-mail, storing and displaying messages as it receives them. Take a look at http://www.nicenet.org for more information.
In many ways, paying more gives you more. Two of the best-known programs designed for teaching on local-area networks are CommonSpace from Sixth Floor Media (see them at http://www.sixthfloor.com/) and Daedalus Interactive Writing Exchange (at http://www.daedalus.com/). These are neither web-based nor cheap, but they offer all sorts of features designed for effective use in a classroom. They are often found in the US in university English departments because of their orientation toward writing instruction.
Several web-based programs exist that integrate conferencing, individual e-mail, gradebooks, and online testing. Two that I've seen personally are QuestWriter and CourseInfo. QuestWriter was developed at Oregon State University, and you can get more information at http://iq.orst.edu/. You can request a beta copy by filling out the form at http://iq.orst.edu/meta/qwbeta.html and sending it in. It's not as slick a program as CourseInfo, but it's a whole lot cheaper. These both have password protection built in, which makes paid distance instruction over the web feasible. Take a look at www.courseinfo.com for more information about CourseInfo.
Feasibility: Will it work with your level and type of access? How easy is it for students to get online? Can you afford not only the initial cost, but also any maintenance and upgrades? How much technical support does it require?
Flexibility: Does it let you customize the settings to fit your class needs?
Fit: Does it mesh with your pedagogy? Your curriculum? Can you make it work with what you're trying to accomplish?
If all of these look do-able, you're ready to go! Consider starting with a free method, and then expanding to one that will do more as you find you need more.
Feel free to email me with questions and comments -- especially about the things you've used for conferencing
If you have questions, comments, or for more information, contact Deborah Healey, dhealey AT uoregon DOT edu
Last updated 26 June, 2009