Skype and Low-Cost E-learning Delivered at the Moment of Need

January 22, 2010

Delivering low- or no-cost e-learning at the moment of need seems to become easier every day through the use of Web 2.0 (online social networking) tools. Having written earlier this month about using Google Chat to deliver a dynamic, interactive, and effective online lesson to journalism students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I found myself experimenting on short notice with Skype as a live delivery tool yesterday for basic Excel and PowerPoint lessons.

The good news is that it worked; the even better news is that the immediate payoff for the learner might be a job she would very much love to have.

Our online learning experience developed after she received a call yesterday afternoon to let her know that she was being invited to interview for a position this afternoon. This appeared to be great news until the interviewer told her that the company needed someone with good Excel and PowerPoint skills. The interviewee/learner in this case had a basic familiarity with both programs, but felt less than confident that she could display proficiency during an interview. I assured her that I would be happy to meet with her face-to-face that evening to cover the basics of both programs, but scheduling conflicts and the fact that we live in different parts of the San Francisco Bay Area made that infeasible. We were at a momentary loss until a wonderful intermediary suggested that we attempt to conduct the lessons via Skype—which proved to be a godsend for both of us.

Making this work required little more than the (free) Skype connection; (inexpensive) webcams and audio-visual capabilities (built into her laptop, add-ons to my PC); a bit of creativity; and a lot of patience from both sides. It also obviously helped that we’re both comfortable with Skype and that she is an incredibly fast learner. We decided we would tackle Excel first, so established the Skype connection and kept the Skype window visible in the lower right-hand corner of our individual computers while we talked back and forth. We then each opened a blank Excel spreadsheet and created a sample budget together in the program so we could use and review the basic functions she would need to understand in her prospective workplace. Each time we completed something together, we would explicitly describe what we were seeing on our screens to be sure that we were creating identical documents. By the end of that hour-long session, we completed the rudimentary sample budget and reviewed the steps we had taken to create it, and she had a working document which she could use for further review, study, and explorations of the program.

After taking a break for a few hours, we returned later in the evening to create a sample PowerPoint presentation comprised of just a few slides with a Beyond Bullet Points approach so she again would learn by creating something useful and, at the same time, visually striking. Following the same procedures proved very effective; when she arrived for her interview this afternoon, she received compliments for having creatively crafted something which highlighted the products produced by her prospective employer.

Although many of us still remain convinced that there is a strong case to be made for face-to-face training in an onsite-online world, it’s equally clear that the term “face-to-face” is rapidly evolving as tools such as Skype create extremely effective opportunities for virtual (and virtually) face-to-face learning if trainer-teacher-learners are willing to experiment and those they help are willing to reach across the rapidly shrinking digital divide with their own equipment or through libraries and other gateways to Internet access.

E-learning, Google Chat, and Innovation

January 13, 2010

E-learning, as I wrote in an article for the eLearning Guild’s Learning Solutions Magazine, is growing rapidly both in innovativeness and through its unique contributions to the entire field of training-teaching-learning. And it is becoming easy to try even for those with the fewest possible resources and only the most limited knowledge of how Web 2.0 (online social networking) tools work.

An experiment with University of Nevada, Las Vegas Learning Technologies Specialist Michael Wilder and his “Interactive Media Design” course for aspiring journalists in October 2009 offers just one example of how we can more effectively use Web 2.0 tools which are right in front of us. I had, throughout the year, been experimenting with colleagues and interviewees to use Google Chat as a way of conducting interviews for articles and academic research papers I was writing. What was most appealing to me was that the typed chat format produced usable transcripts of the interviews—a tremendous time-saver and a wonderful way to assure that quotes were accurate. Wilder, who had been impressed by the results after completing one of those interviews with me, later contacted me about the possibility of interviewing me via Google Chat for his onsite students so they could see and incorporate the technique into their journalism toolkits.

A brief chat about the project led us to carry it one huge step forward: we decided to treat the session as a formal e-learning lesson for the university students while demonstrating the ease and efficacy of online chat in reporting and other forms of writing. With a copy of the course syllabus in hand and with access to online postings made by students and some of the other guest lecturers Wilder had attracted, I worked with him to create a brief, prepared written introduction to the topic.

On the day of the class, I sat at my desk in San Francisco and arrived, via chat, in the Las Vegas campus classroom a few minutes before the session began. Wilder let me know when he had finished his face-to-face introduction, and that’s when I began transferring the prepared text, paragraph by paragraph, into the live chat window and sending it in a way that gave students a chance to read the words, piece by piece, on a screen in their classroom. That part of the process took less than five minutes, and we then opened it up to a live question-and-answer session during which Wilder typed in the students’ questions and they saw my responses as quickly as I could type and send them back. What was meant to be a 20-minute experiment lasted nearly an hour.

What followed was even better: Wilder posted the transcript of the chat and encouraged the students to post reactions on the class blog. Our online synchronous learning session continued asynchronously for several days, and one of the most encouraging responses came from a student who said she had already used what she had learned to complete an online interview via Skype.

It’s clear that we are moving far beyond the days when e-learning was comprised of little more than the posting of face-to-face lessons and learning resources onto a static website. With a little creativity and a lot of planning, we can easily use resources including online typed chat, Skype’s conferencing (and typed chat) capabilities, and even a LinkedIn discussion group created especially as an asynchronous online meeting place for learners in a particular course or workshop—an idea explored by my colleague Pat Wagner—to deliver learning that is creative, engaging, effective, and memorable.

Presenting, and Presenting Ourselves, With Web-Conferencing Tools

January 1, 2010

As web conferencing increasingly becomes a part of our communication toolbox through a variety of free and paid services, we are growing increasingly aware of how easy it is to join and participate in communities of learning for meetings and training opportunities. And it doesn’t take lots of time or money to bring ourselves up to speed: we can quickly gain an understanding of how much we benefit with a minimal amount of effort.

We are, at the same time, becoming increasingly aware that how we present ourselves—and present, ourselves—in online settings has a tremendous impact on how effective we are as trainer-teacher-learners and meeting facilitators. Three notable books, written for trainers and educators but full of information helpful to anyone conducting online meetings for any purpose, can help us through that process.

Bonnie Elbaum, Cynthia McIntyre, and Alese Smith, in Essential Elements: Prepare, Design, and Teach Your Online Course, offer what they consider to be the seventeen essential steps of preparing online learning sessions which will keep instructors and learners equally engaged. The book opens with a section on how to build a course outline. A second section moves into elements of designing a course which helps students (and others) maintain their focus and develop effective collaborations to foster learning. An extensive checklist summarizes the contents of the entire book for anyone involved in developing and delivering online learning opportunities.

Jennifer Hofmann, an e-learning consultant and president of InSync Training, LLC, combines summaries, tips, and examples to familiarize trainers and others conducting online meetings with the challenges of creating and conducting successful online sessions in The Synchronous Trainer’s Survival Guide: Facilitating Successful Live and Online Courses, Meetings, and Events. The second chapter, “Facilitating in the Synchronous Classroom,” is a wonderful primer. It outlines facilitators’ roles in directing learning while helping participants communicate and collaborate online; reminds presenters and facilitators that flexibility and an ability to work well in stressful situations are key components to success in online presentations; and discusses key resources—including the use of a producer or assistant—for those engaged in online presentations.

Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt, in Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom, address online communication in an academic setting and offer plenty of guidance adaptable to general web-conferencing practices. The “Learning Community in Cyberspace” section includes tips on defining and redefining community and managing the technology, and the “Building an Electronic Learning Community” section walks readers through the process of building foundations for effective online learning interactions and ways of promoting collaborative learning.

Those interested in adapting effective online presentation skills into web-conferencing will find plenty of ideas by combining what they know with what they find in print and online; through the use of strong imagery with limited amounts of text on PowerPoint slides; and through explorations of what makes ideas memorable rather than ephemeral.

With these tools and resources in hand, we are well prepared to join and further develop our web-conferencing skills in ways which strengthen the communities we so desperately seek and so deeply cherish.

For help with improving online presentation skills, please view the online training resources at Paul Signorelli & Associates or contact us at If you would like to share your own recommendations on web-conferencing and presentation-skills resources, please join the conversation by posting a comment here.

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