Broadcast Learning - The Power of Networked Learning

by Miguel Guhlin

What if you could broadcast learning at will via the Internet to a world of learners? How would that change your conception of learning? What if you could interact with people, not only face to face in your workshop, but also halfway around the world? What if your workshop participants could participate in a conversation with those virtual participants, all of them discussing the broadcast learning going on? Pretty exciting, no?
I still remember my first exposure to broadcast learning technologies now available via the Internet. The power of pro-sumers, individuals who create as well as consume…but instead we might call them “prolearners,” as Vicki Davis suggests — learners who not only are docile consumers of knowledge, but also active creators of it.
external image dimdim.jpg
DimDim Screenshot
My adventure began quite simply one day at work. On October 11, 2007, I had the opportunity to “sit-in” on Vicki Davis’ UStream session on Wikis. The session was announced via Twitter, an instant messaging tool that allows you to follow what hundreds of others — in my case, educators — are doing. Someone shared the link and I was off to see this new broadcast learning technology. It was a lot of fun listening in on that workshop. I got a real sense of being there, even though the only person I could see was Vicki. Sometimes she was on screen, sometimes she wasn’t. I also had fun tracking the backchannel conversation going on; the backchannel was a conversation about Vicki’s presentation available via Twitter.
My second experience came the next day when I attended a workshop. Attending a workshop for Texas educational technology coordinators in Fall 2007, I decided to flip my computer around, aiming the built-in video camera directly at the speaker, the State Educational Technology Director for Texas. I announced the availability of the presentation on the e-mail list for the technology coordinators group, and immediately, participants from hundreds of miles jumped in to listen and chat about what was going on.
My next experience enabled me to broadcast a spotlight speaking presentation with a colleague (Wes Fryer, SpeedofCreativity.org). Though we had a packed room of educators, we had a worldwide audience waiting to not only receive, but to give back — to share their knowledge on the topic.
This is the world our children have at their fingertips…this article presents a few solutions you can use at little or no cost in your school district. Others have recently proven the value of broadcast learning at local conferences that took on an international flavor, such as EduCon 2.0 and the Colorado Learning 2.0 Conference. Another notable example includes thousands of students from around the world listening to Pulitzer Prize winning author sharing about George Washington, the United States’ first President and Commander-in-Chief.

TECHNOLOGY SOLUTIONS FOR EDUCATION

Broadcast learning sounds so one-way, so uni-directional. Yet, the truth is that the learning IS interactive and multi-directional. There are a variety of tools available for use, most of them involving access to a computer that has built-in video camera and a microphone. In minutes, you can be broadcasting, even via wireless connection, to a worldwide audience. Two types of tools exist; those hosted by third party providers and those that you host yourself on your own server. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on solutions that are available at no cost. There are expensive solutions, yet these are often eschewed in the educational community because of their expense.
Free hosted solutions include the following, of which UStream.tv is the clear winner. I’m not going to discuss all the options because only the first two are appropriate for K-16 education (although educators are encouraged to carefully consider the use of those technologies, previewing them prior to use to ensure avoidance of adult topics with youngsters).
  1. UStream.tv - This is the top pick of free hosted solutions because the creators are making an intentional effort to capture the attention of educators and encouraging educator uses. Often hosted solutions — because of their broad appeal — allow anyone to put content online. Often the content can be inappropriate. UStream.tv also allows downloading of recorded video in popular video formats, such as FLV, WMV, MP4 and MOV. Concerned about others viewing the video? You can restrict your viewers to only those you invite, essentially creating your own live interactive video broadcasting platform.
  2. E2BN FlashMeeting - FlashMeeting is based on Adobe Flash and requires pre-booking. It works quite well, as I once had the opportunity to observe a presentation from Teachmeet in Scotland. One person speaks (e.g. broadcasts) at a time, while others contribute using text chat, a whiteboard while waiting for their turns to speak. It is less spontaneous than UStream.tv because events must be scheduled, but might be an option for those for whom UStream.tv is unavailable.
Other less education-friendly interactive video platforms include Blip.tv, Kyte.tv, and Operator11.
Of course, you can always opt for a commercial solution such as Wimba.com, Elluminate.com, Persony.com , and Yugma.com. (Check out this handy comparison chart from NERCOMP sent to me via Twitter.com/cmduke for some commercial solutions). However, educators often lack the funding for those types of solutions.
If free and/or commercial, web-based hosted solutions like those mentioned above are not an option in your district — for whatever the reason (such as the desire to create a walled garden approach) — you also can set up your own solution using free, open source solutions. As mentioned in a previous article, you will want to set up a server that can handle Moodle course management software. Once you have your Moodle server set up, you will want to use DimDim. It bills itself as a browser-based web 2.0 service that allows anybody to share their desktop, show slides, as well as talk, listen, chat, and broadcast via webcam.

TALES FROM THE FIELD: LARGE URBAN SCHOOL DISTRICT

Working in a public school district where school closings due to budget shortfalls are now a reality, while at the same time trying to avoid embarrassing situations, I encouraged my team of education technologists to consider three different solutions for use on our network. Those solutions included 1) FlashMeeting; 2) UStream.tv; and 3) Moodle with DimDim installed. FlashMeeting, although it worked for us, turned out to be cumbersome due to the lack of spontaneity of learning. UStream.tv was still too wild a technology that could be used inappropriately by students and others, even though we had excellent examples of how it was being used. I still recommend UStream.tv’s use at conferences and workshops as an easy way to broadcast and engage learners. However, the solution might encounter some obstacles in K-12 environment. Moodle with DimDim was one solution that actually worked on our network, allowing us control over the content. We were able to hold meetings online with a chat component, not unlike UStream.tv.
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FlashMeeting screenshot with Paul Harrington in the foreground.

CLOSING POINTS

Broadcast learning has quickly become a reality. Simple lectures easily can be converted to powerful opportunities for engaging learners. Carefully consider integrating these technologies into professional learning approaches in use in your school. Some quick tips on implementation include the following:
1) Encourage the workshop facilitator/speaker to actively use built-in chat technologies or Twitter as a way of keeping in touch with the audience. This “backchannel” conversation can yield important insights into the speaker’s content, and allow learners to move from “sit-n-get” to prolearners (professional learners who create as well as consume learning);
2) Assign a moderator who will serve as the liaison from the audience at-large to the presenter/speaker. Like a National Public Radio Press Club meeting, questions and contributions are collected by key staff and shared with the speaker. That minimizes the distractions the speaker will have to endure.

CONCLUSION

Learning at a distance can be powerful. As technology directors, our goal is to facilitate learning that goes beyond passive consumption of content to active engagement, the development of creative, collaborative learning that connects learning opportunities with creative contributions by learners. Interactive video platforms like UStream.tv and other technologies that allow us to connect with one another can help us tap into the power of networked learning.

About the Author

As director of instructional technology for a large urban district in Texas, past president of the state-wide Technology Education Coordinators group in one of the largest U.S. technology educator organizations (TCEA), Miguel Guhlin continues to model the use of emerging technologies in schools. You can read his published writing or engage him in conversation via his blog at Around the Corner.