Recently the GippsTAFE Innovation Department delivered a training program to introduce the virtual classroom, Blackboard Collaborate, to a group of new online facilitators. The emphasis of the training was to develop skills based on a collaborative approach to learning so that these new facilitators would be able to conduct virtual classroom sessions that actively engaged the participants. The online facilitators involved in the training are acting in a peer support role so they did not come to the training with a great deal of experience in facilitating a learning group.
The training was a mix of face to face and online. The introductory session was face to face and explored the notion of online learning and how important it is for students to actively engage in the online space to maximise their learning. This session also included information on the various tools available in Blackboard Collaborate and discussion on how these tools can be used to engage the group.
In preparation for the online component of the training participants were given the opportunity to login to Blackboard Collaborate so that any technical problems could be identified and resolved prior to the actual session.
The facilitators were aged in their 20s. They approached the new technology with confidence expecting that the technology would work and that they would instinctively know how to use it. While they may not have previously used a virtual classroom they were experienced online communicators having previously used instant messaging and VoIP services, such as Skype. This attitude contrasts to older users who may require more encouragement and support when they first use new technology such as a virtual classroom.
The second session was conducted in the virtual classroom, Blackboard Collaborate. The participants first engaged in some learning activities which allowed them to see how some of the tools worked and provided a basis for discussion about how these tools could be used to engage their learner groups. During the second part of the session each person had the opportunity to act the part of facilitator and conduct a short online activity with the rest of the group acting as their students. This gave them the opportunity to see the interface from the perspectives of both a learner and a facilitator.
The emphasis of this session was not how to make the virtual classroom work but how to use it to engage their learner group and promote participation and collaborative learning. It was interesting to see how readily the group adapted to the virtual classroom needing little or no instruction about how to use the interface.
The new online facilitators were quick to put their new learning into practice and commenced their weekly peer support sessions without delay. Initial feedback indicated that the facilitators adopted practices that they felt comfortable with and thought most suitable for their learner group. One facilitator opted to use multiple microphones so that all participants could speak whenever they wanted to as this group preferred speaking to writing on the white board.
This same facilitator was impatient with the time it took for her to download Blackboard Collaborate comparing it to Skype which was already installed on her computer so opened instantly. She initially expressed a degree of frustration and questioned the value of using the more sophisticated platform for her sessions. It will be interesting to follow up on this to see how she feels as the program progresses.
As a follow up the GippsTAFE trainers sat in on a session for each of the new facilitators. It was noted that although each facilitator adopted their own style when it came to managing their sessions they all incorporated a range of activities that encouraged engagement and participation. They had adapted some of the sample activities from their training sessions and made them relevant to their group and the subject matter of their unit and used more than one mode of communication within the virtual classroom.
The GippsTAFE Innovation Department prides itself on supporting GippsTAFE teachers and students in the use of new technologies. A range of online learning help guides have been created to assist Blackboard Collaborate users and the new facilitators and their learners were encouraged to use these when necessary. These guides can be found at: