Let's talk about some common pitfalls when starting out using a tool like Blackboard Collaborate. There may be many other things to avoid which emerge from a closer analysis of your use case, we're just covering general ones here.
The following list is in no particular order.
- Using in-built speakers and microphone
- Asking the ‘Can you hear me’ question just over audio,
- Asking the ‘Can you hear me’ question just over audio and then going quiet
- Un-announced Silence
- Winging it :-)
Using in-built speakers and microphone
Not everyone will agree with me on this one but we can all agree, that good audio is paramount. Especially as a member of staff. Whilst students may get by with their smartphone headphones (and not all of them possess a smartphone), we need to lead the way with a good quality audio environment.
Using in-built speakers and microphone on your desktop or laptop is probably the most fundamental thing to avoid from a functional point-of-view. It’s the single most common cause of audio issues and frustration. The basic reason for this is that in-built speakers and microphones in most cases, were not designed for Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP), the system used in Blackboard Collaborate to transmit and receive audio. So relying on the in-built ones in your laptop for example, is to be strongly advised against.
I once worked with an academic member of staff who was using Collaborate to support exchange students in France and he was doing some fantastic languages work with the tool. But he admitted to being too vain to don a headset despite the fact that the nuances of language learning would be captured far better by using a high quality audio device.
Understandably, many people have an aversion to using a headset. Even as web conferencing grows in popularity, in a domestic context, we would never consider using a headset to speak to family at the weekend. It ‘gets in the way’ and ‘it makes you look like you’re working in a call centre’. In a teaching and learning context the same could be argued of course.
So does it comes down to a compromise – either you compromise your appearance or you compromise the fidelity of audio? Actually, there are portable and affordable conference mic/speaker devices which are designed for VOIP conferencing. They are not as affordable as a headset though and until they drop in price, that will be the main barrier.
Ignore this advice at your peril. Using your in-built speakers and mic raises the chance of audio echo (where someone hears their voice fed back to them), poor quality input (where the microphone is cheap and captures background noise) and poor quality output (where you may strain to hear the remote audience). And of course, projecting sound into an open space may be wholly inappropriate for some use cases where a degree of privacy is needed.
Asking the ‘Can you hear me’ question just over audio
This is a classic, I’ve seen it many times. I think I probably did it myself back in the day.
You’re about to start your session and in your notes you have dutifully written a reminder to run an audio check. That’s a good practice and you should always do a brief audio check unless you’re working with web conferencing old-timers, and there aren’t many of those. You speak up and announce, ‘If you can hear me, please click yes in the poll choices window’, you throw up the poll and wait. Presently, you see a good number of ‘yes’ responses coming in. There are a few non- respondents but no one is saying ‘No’, you’re probably safe to start.
A few seconds later it dawns on you – if people can’t hear me...they won’t be able to hear me – asking that question. There’s the moment you want to avoid. The problem is, you should have thrown up a slide with the question visible so that all your participants could respond, including those who didn’t hear the question audibly. Now you have that awkward ambiguity hanging in the air because you don’t know whether the people who haven’t responded to your poll can hear you but just don’t know how to press the ‘Yes’ button, can hear you but are too busy pouring themselves a coffee, or actually can’t hear you and haven’t the first idea what’s going on right now!
Your best recovery method for this situation, is to write the question into the chat – that’s visible rather than audible so everyone should see it apart from those people who are busy making themselves a coffee. Perhaps something like – ‘We’re just running an audio check and I see that some of you haven’t responded to the poll. Please can you let me know if you can’t hear me talking by selecting NO from the poll choices window.’ Hopefully at that point, all the non-respondents will respond to the poll appropriately.
Next time, make sure you include a slide for your audio check with the question written out and the poll choices as guidance. You could upload the slide just on its own for re-use every time you need it and because Collaborate Ultra allows you to store content in your room, it will be there now until you delete it.
Asking the ‘Can you hear me’ question and then going quiet
This is another easy one to slip-up on. You ask the question, and you might even throw up the slide with the question written out. But then you stop talking. Even those people who have heard the question may interpret the silence as meaning their audio has just-this-moment stopped working. They are likely then to respond with a no. You are then confused and probably panicked at that moment and everyone is now on edge.
Of course, when you normally poll an audience, giving them some thinking time is precisely what you want to do. But this is an exception. Instead of going quiet, once you ask the question and throw up the slide, keep talking. Talk about anything, the weather, what you had for breakfast this morning, just so long as there is a constant feed of audio for people to hear and properly respond to your question.
In a similar vein, unannounced silence at any point during your session, especially if you aren’t using video, is a thing to be avoided. People get very anxious when they can’t hear anything and weren’t expecting it to go quiet.
A typical scenario might go as follows. You’re some way through your session and you announce that you are going to share a model assignment with the class. Next you open up the Collaborate Panel and go through the steps to share your content. This does take a few seconds and it’s quite ok for people to have to wait for you. If you haven’t got the assignment up already on your computer as part of your preparation (a less than ideal practice itself), there will be a further delay whilst you find and open the document. A few moments later, a student comments in the chat that audio is not working. Other students chime in confirming that their audio is broken too. The same students start unplugging and plugging headsets and soon become distracted with audio configuration and in some scenarios would become quite anxious. Actually, there’s nothing wrong with audio at all, it’s just that there is no one speaking and failure to announce the fact that you were going to stop speaking has caused a false negative to occur in people’s understanding of what is going on. The only way this could get any worse is if it happens to coincide with a genuine connection problem so that someone actually does lose audio – then it gets really complicated to work out the false negatives from the true.
This is an easy thing to do. In a physical face-to-face scenario, people can see that we’re still there, see that we’ve stopped talking and see that we’re in the process of bringing something else up on the screen. Without video, this is less easy to perceive remotely.
To recover, you can but apologise and reassure everyone that there is no problem with audio, you had just stopped talking for a moment. In future, either continue talking whilst you are transitioning, or if you find it challenging to talk and transition at the same time, announce the fact that you just need a few seconds to transition and for some groups, you may want to explicitly announce ‘there will be a few moments of silence whilst I...’.
Another scenario where this could happen is during a segue between two moderators. It can be a pivotal moment and if the moderator who is taking over is caught off guard and has to fumble around to find the audio button it leaves that moment hanging and creates anxiety until the silence is broken with the speakers voice. Wherever possible avoid leaving people hanging like that, give your co-moderator plenty of forewarning and if they are still slow to come on the audio, reassure your participants that your colleague will be ‘with us in just a moment’.
By this I mean coming unprepared to a formal session where there are likely to be particular expectations about learning during the session.
Whilst Collaborate Ultra is easy to use, delivering in an engaging manner, transitioning smoothly from activity to activity and maintaining control of the class requires thorough preparation and practice. Good powers of oratory make for something in any web conferencing context but they are no replacement for preparation and practice. Preparation is king in this respect.
Many staff will expect that they can take the materials designed for face-to-face delivery on- campus or asynchronous delivery and repurpose them with little or no adjustment for synchronous . The reality is that in most cases, where a session is designed with specific learning objectives in mind, polls will need to be added, a few whiteboard activities wouldn’t go amiss and the teacher must think about how to nuance the face-to-face interaction for remote delivery.
We are but scratching the surface here of what best practice looks like, in the main - for the opening of your sessions. What other pitfalls have you come across as you start your session and what best practice would you advise now that you know better?
Thanks to the team at Northampton University for suggesting I put this together some ways back when supporting their technology planning implementation engagement for Blackboard Collaborate.