Preparing your first webinar

[See here for the German original of this post]

AC classroom
Fig. 1: Adobe Connect classroom – prepared for the first webinar

This is the first of a series of “live hacks” on ways of teaching from home. In this post, I cover preparing students for the first webinar. I describe what worked well for me and what didn’t. My main tools are part of our school’s infrastructure: a learning platform (Moodle) + a webinar platform (Adobe Connect). I will also briefly discuss alternatives to Adobe Connect.

I’m looking forward to your comments, extensions and experiences!

GETTING STARTED

I don’t assume that the students have ever attened a virtual teaching event (aka webinars).

The goal: you want the students to arrive well in the virtual classroom, and to start class without too much friction.

The challenge: you want to spend as little time as possible at the start with solving avoidable technical issues, because synchronous online teaching is hard enough on all participants.

My solution: well before the event, I send a detailed email (via Moodle) to the students. I ask them to enter the virtual classroom before the first meeting to check their audio and video settings. The email also contains: (1) the link to the classroom, (2) setting the classroom up (in Adobe Connect participants get “presenter” rights upon entering the room), (3) a screenshot with instructions, (4) file with guidelines (for those who like to read along rather than try things out).

Here is an example for such an email. In the Moodle course, these instructions are repeated in a series of small assignments to be completed before the first webinar (see figure 2).

Fig. 2: Screenshot: Moodle section with instructions for students

Caveat: there will always be students who cannot hear, speak or use the video function. This is no different from students who cannot come to a (physical) class because of higher forces. When e.g. a presentation is missed because of that, the students can submit a presentation with recorded audio. If in doubt about students missing webinars, you should talk to the responsible program office or to the (tenured) professor who’s responsible for your module.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Webinars are now the standard delivery channel of all of our synchronous teaching. This leads to a large number of questions from students.

The goal: You want to answer as many questions of the students once and for all, and be able to adapt answers when necessary. You’d like to avoid having to do this all over again for each new course.

The challenge: many students ask identical questions, because many of experience similar issues (or because the initial instructions were not sufficient). You get many of these via email, which can eat up a lot of time (especially if you have hundreds of students each term like me).

My solution: I collect all student questions and my answers in a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) book in Moodle (figure 3). This book can easily be expanded and imported into new courses. I also create an FAQ forum in Moodle (using the standard forum format), and ask all students to ask all their questions there (not via email). If I don’t know an answer, I can also easily add expert posts this way.

Fig. 3: Screenshot: FAQ book entry

Caveat: Moodle forums have a pre-setting for the size of attachments – make sure it is large enough. The FAQ forum should also be set to “automatic subscription”. This means that all students are initially subscribed (i.e. they get forum posts automatically to their email) but they can unsubscribe if they like.

ALTERNATIVES TO ADOBE CONNECT

Like any other webinar platform, Adobe Connect may temporarily be overloaded. In this case you might get the error message “user limit reached” and can no longer connect to the service.

The goal: You don’t want your carefully prepared virtual teaching session in Adobe Connect (or on any other platform) to fail because of the network difficulties.

The challenge: my preferred platform is Adobe Connect (see image at the top of the article – this is how my virtual classroom looks like when the students enter it for the first time). In Germany, this platform is offered freely to academic institutions by the German Research Network (DFN). Allegedly there can be difficulties connecting to this service during certain hours (9-11 and 13-16) so that no webinar can take place there.

My solution: I inform students before the first class that we will meet in an alternative room (in case they cannot connect). I pick Jitsi Meet for that. Jitsi Meet is Open Source and is offered for free on many platforms. Here is a list with instructions: https://pads.ccc.de/jitsiliste – though instructions are hardly necessary: you simply define a room and send the link to the students. Jitsi Meet offers less than Adobe Connect but it is very simple and always ready.

Caveat: Jitsi can (allegedly) be a little shaky on Firefox and Safari and works best on Chrome or Chromium. This is also true, by the way, for Adobe Connect (unless you download the client, which I cannot, because only Windows and MacOS have one). At the HWR Berlin, a new solution will soon be available in the form of BigBlueButton directly as Moodle plugin – which means that you (and the students) can go directly from Moodle to the classroom.

MISCELLANEOUS

  • There are 1001 guidelines on how to plan and conduct your first webinar. You can wade through them until you don’t want to read anything anymore about it, ever again. Perhaps because I’ve read enough, I really enjoyed this interview with a professor of Harvard Business School (30 min): “Inspiring Minds: What I Wish I Knew Before Teaching My First Online Class“.
  • I created a lesson “How Online Meetings Work” for an MBA course. Here, I contrast different methods and introduce Adobe Connect, too: https://h5p.org/node/82069 (see figure 4 below).
  • Flipped Classroom”: depending on your topic, preparation and online teaching experience, it can be very, very taxing to teach the whole course as a webinar. Instead, one can cover the instruction part through videos, texts and offline assignments (like a Kahoot Challenge) and meet the students in real-time only for more focused Q&A sessions. This would relax the webinar – but it relies on the students’ ability to study independently and on the suitability of your material for self-study.
  • If you teach at HWR Berlin, you can look at a well-tested, moderately sized (8-10 weeks) Moodle-based MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). This course is mainly for instruction and can be supplemented by webinar sessions to become a full-fledged course equivalent to a classroom event.
  • One lecturer I know gives his mobile number to the students so that they can reach him before or during the webinars. Another lecturer runs a Skype app in parallel to the webinar – both as an alternative communication channel or to allow students to participate via audio if their connection should not work. This works surprisingly well! Yet another colleague uses Nextcloud’s Talk App (e.g. via PortKnox.net).
  • I often offer preparatory meetings in Adobe Connect for those students, who have no online meeting experience whatsoever. These mini seminars are always attended well.
  • I log on 30 minutes before the first webinar – in case someone encounters problems on the day or to upload presentations, and I communicate this to the students, too. In subsequent sessions, I am available 15 minutes before the class starts.
Fig. 4: Screenshot from H5P lesson “How Online Meetings Work”

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