Having just completed three online Interactive synchronous classes with eight of my teaching colleagues on the subject of Web 2.0 technology I thought it was time to review the environment from a technical point of view. The online communication tools I.E whiteboard text and drawing tools, innovative pointer tool, text chat and feedback icons have been easily adopted by the participants for use in the session. Video conferencing has not been used, but there is a facility to view 6 webcams at once if desired.
Quality of Audio
The key technical issue is the quality of the audio. Using VOIP the system overall seems to have worked very well. The system limits speaking to seven people at one time, which seems to be better than most competitors. The microphone is passed around to those not in possession of a free microphone who wish to speak. This is achieved easily by the facilitator. The facilitator also has the ability to mute participants which is useful. Participants also have the ability to mute themselves as long as they select their own name first on the participant panel. With regard to muting of participants it was obvious that a lot of background noise could be heard at various times and a much stricter outlining of ground rules to highlight no distractions or using the mute if you are aware of the potential of background noise to interfere with the lesson.
It would seem that everyone could hear me clearly, which was obviously very important especially for those participants that were in the unfortunate position of not being able to be heard. It seems that all those that could not be heard were basically suffering from a problem related to how they initially setup, using the webex audio setup wizard. We will address steps that can be taken to minimise problems in this area later in this article. We seem to be able to get through the sessions ok, if only 1 or 2 had a problem as the participants could still follow the conversation and contribute and communicate via text chat. So most participants once sorted out had no problem with hearing or being heard. Occasionally though people could not hear me for patchy moments of 5-10 seconds or so, maybe longer in some cases. I experienced this myself as a participant in a subsequent session. This would appear to be as a result of the use of VOIP and the way data is transferred over the internet leading to occasional delays in voice data being transmitted across the data networks even though webex use their own private network and most others in this industry use public networks (question for self - is that the Internet only?). So overall it seems that webex does provide an effective application for communicating via audio in using VOIP in a web conferencing environment.
VOIP and Teleconferencing
The actual product that I have been working in is 'training center'. This does come at an extra cost. VOIP usage is charged per person per minute for participation in a session. Teleconferencing linked to the session is also available and I know from having participated in many webex sessions conducted using teleconferencing audio that this is a much more reliable and effective method of audio communication. There is a charge again for this and it is higher than VOIP. Currently I have perceived the use of VOIP as the chosen mode of audio communication because with other companies that use VOIP there are no extra costs involved for students or the institutions and ALSO with a microphone and headset attached to the PC it should be less hassle. As I understand it there are no extra charges for companies that use VOIP over public networks. Although participants will be given a toll-free number to use for teleconferencing my understanding is that most if not all will be charging the institutions for this service. From a participants point of view I think the audio will be clearer and they will need a hands free phone so that they can complete whiteboard and text chat tasks easily. So I don't think teleconferencing option should be dismissed out of hand, but it will be a more expensive option for the institution.
Minimizing Technical Problems
To minimize technical problems related to audio for individual students and to minimize disruptions to classes the following measures will help:
1. An online induction session should be arranged for all students to make sure audio setup works ok. They should not be allowed onto a session until audio setup issues are resolved. If the facilitator cannot help, then the individual student should be directed to webex support (who seem to respond quickly to any queries) to clarify the problem.
2. A document or perhaps a webex recording should be available explaining the step by step process of completing the audio setup wizard, highlighting key points such as
* When indicating the audio equipment to be used make sure you select the correct equipment from the list presented. (Note that if you have 3 or 4 audio devices attached to your machine they may not show up automatically and you need to scroll to find them.
* Headset with microphone is the preferred option for audio quality and if you use them participants need to make sure that during the audio setup wizard process that the option for speaker setup is set to ‘headphones’ and not ‘desktop or laptop speakers’. As a temporary measure in a class – if students have set this up incorrectly the CONTROL key on the keyboard when pressed down can toggle to and from headphones as the preferred choice.
3. Also from the START menu of your machine go to >SETTINGS> CONTROL PANEL>SOUNDS AND AUDIO DEVICES>AUDIO TAB to make sure sound playback and recording are set to the correct devices.
4. Finally if a participant experiences patchy audio during a session they could try leaving the session and then coming back in again to get a better connection.