E-Learning for the BC Tech Industry 

An opinionated monthly column exploring the current use, future potential, and commercial value of e-learning in BCs high tech sector.


Webcasting: June 4th, 2004

By Paul Stacey

I'm a huge fan of webcasting, though I find everyone has their own mental concept of what webcasting means. So I thought I'd explore the various forms webcasting can take and the role it can play in the context of online learning.

The foundations of online learning have been built largely on enabling asynchronous learning activities. Asynchronous learning activities are initiated at a time convenient to the learner and include things like reading and interacting with online learning resources, participating in threaded discussion forums, and activity based learning using things like simulations and other learning resources.

While these asynchronous learning activities are powerful and compelling they need to be supplemented with real-time, synchronous interaction to create truly engaging learning experiences. That's where webcasts come in.

The term "webcasting" is used to describe the ability to deliver live or delayed versions of audio or video broadcasts over the web.

As we migrate to the Net our initial inclination for use is to mimic traditional forms. Teachers moving online for the first time often try to re-create a classroom experience. Similarly most people think of webcasts as essentially a television like broadcast over the web . Webcasting can be used this way but it can also be so much more.

Lets start with TV-like webcasts. Professional webcast service providing companies, like Online Broadcasting Corporation http://www.onlinebroadcasting.com locally here in Vancouver can be hired to do a webcast or TV like broadcast, including video streaming, of an important event - a convocation, a President address, an Annual General Meeting ... Communicast in Virginia is another excellent example. http://www.communicast.com These companies offer services related to recording your event, packaging it for the web, and distribution or streaming of the event out live to a general or targeted audience.

Other companies like INSINC http://www.insinc.ca are focusing on providing services related to being a carrier, webcasting feeds of things like horse racing live from the local racetrack, government legislative proceedings, and even corporate and investment banking conference webcasts.

Some webcasts are done as simulcasts where audio or video feeds from radio or television programs are simultaneously "webcast" over the net. Apple's iTunes http://www.apple.com/itunes/jukebox.html has an eclectic set of web based radio stations continuously available. And many FM radio stations have broadened their audience demographic by simultaneously webcasting their radio signal. Check out one of my favourites playing world music, The World 96.1 http://www.am1470.com/fm961/english/

One of my favourite uses of webcasts is as online coverage from a live event. These webcasts can include live on the spot reporters doing interviews, announcements, analysis, colour commentary, and other coverage of the event - just like television only better. How is it better? Well the E3 Insider site http://www.e3insider.com/floored.htm is a good example. An archive that's always available, hyperlinks, and most of all a forum where those interested but unable to attend can vote on polls and request certain kinds of coverage. What I look for in a webcast is the extent to which the web based audience can participate, contribute and influence.

Archives are an essential and key component of webcasts. The idea is simple and akin to recording your favourite TV show on videotape for watching later. Webcast applications can record an entire webcast event and save it as a digital file. The digital file includes all aspects of the webcast including audio, video (if used), graphics, participant text messaging, discussion and all interactions that took place. This archive can then be placed on the web and made available for subsequent viewing. I am particularly intrigued by the potential for these archives to be utilized as learning objects. An interesting collection of video archive snippets is available at: www.nhm.ac.uk/darwincentre/live/archive.html.

For webcasts that are more TV-like a surging area of archive adoption and use is in the form of mini webcast snippets of movies, music, videos or television. Check out Destiny Media http://www.clipstream.com to see how a collection of these mini archives can be aggregated around areas of interest. Destiny itself provides products that support playerless streaming audio or video. It is also interesting to see how certain TV shows, like Canadian Idol try to leverage and heighten interest in the show with a web site made of of these snippets. http://www.ctv.ca/idol/gen/Home.html. Some even take the form of webisodes.

Lets shift now to the use of webcasting in online learning.

Many educators initial interest in webcasting for education centres around trying to video webcast a lecture. Starting out this way is similar to initiatives that have sought to deliver education and learning through the use of videoconferencing. This form of delivery has a place but in my view is of limited educational value and lacks pedagogical richness. A one way feed of a talking head or a person standing in a room giving a lecture is marginally engaging and makes no use of the rich range of web based interactive technologies that are available for use as part of a webcast.

In fact I believe there has been an over emphasis on the use of video for webcasts. My experience is that talking head videos are great for getting a sense of the speakers' personality but beyond that are of limited value.

Video is a huge bandwidth hog, so much so that many computers have trouble streaming and synchronizing the video and audio feeds properly. It is very disconcerting when the audio you hear is out of synch with the speakers lip movements, or the orchestra conductors baton is out of synch with the music you are hearing. When that happens I tend to look away from the video and just listen to the audio.

To overcome this synchronization challenge webcast applications provide a feature for users to specify their bandwidth and archives that use Windows Player or QuickTime are often encoded at different bandwidths. Viewers can choose to watch the version optimized for their bandwidth. But even so it is often clunky. When you think of the overhead and hassle involved in sending video over the web it makes me question the value.

If video was used in a more cinematic way to support learning then I think there is some wonderful potential. So if you plan to use video in your webcasts give some thought to what constitutes interesting camera work. If someone is demonstrating consider showing their hands not their head. Think about how camera work in film and television adds drama, context and meaning. If you go for video, factor in the resources you need to make it successful - hire a director and camera person. You may even want to pre-shoot some segments and intercut them with your live webcast.

Webcasting's role in online learning can be quite powerful. I like to think of it as having a three tier model. In all three tiers the webcast is conducted in a virtual environment where participants from around the world, meet "live" and communicate via a combination of text chat, audio, and/or video often supported with electronic white board, slides, brainstorming, polling and other online tools. The use of these complementary tools is absolutely key to creating an engaging webcast, in my view making the webcast better than TV by making it an active rather than passive experience.

Tier one webcasting is what I call the informal "drop-in session". A topic is set, the virtual webcasting environment scheduled for a certain date and time and a moderator for the session assigned. On the given date and time those who are interested drop in to the session and engage in discussion, question & answer, show and tell and other activities as they explore the drop-in session topic. Drop-in sessions can work for everything from office hours, to advising, to study groups, meetings, informal training sessions and special interest groups. Tier one webcasting requires minimal preparation and production effort and typically lasts for anything from a few minutes to an hour.

Tier two webcasting is the classic "featured speaker". These sessions are usually scheduled and marketed in advance and feature a teacher, guest expert or even a panel discussing, debating and exploring a set topic. Frequently these sessions are organized and produced by a facilitator who may interview the featured speaker, moderate the panel/debate and ensure questions from live audience participants online are handled. This can create a kind of "talk show" format which I think works especially well. The more the facilitator can work with the featured speaker, in advance, to script in to their presentation planned interactions with the live online participants the more effective the webcast will be. The application sharing features of some webcasting environments can be utilized in a particularly powerful way to literally show how an application works or as a way of providing a guided walk through a series of web sites. Tier two webcasts require more planning, marketing and support. A duration of one hour is typical though some webinars and workshops try to go a bit longer.

Tier three webcasting is what I like to call the "showcase event". Tier three webcasts have the highest production values, require the most planning and typically are the most expensive. I'd be more inclined to think about using video in tier three webcasts. A showcase event could in fact last for several days like an online conference.

From a instructional design perspective its helpful to plan and schedule the use of tier one, two, and three webcasts at strategic points in your course or program.

If you're starting to think you'd like to experience webcasting and investigate some webcasting applications a good place to start is by checking out webcast products Macromedia Breeze http://www.macromedia.com/software/breeze and Elluminate's VClass http://www.elluminate.com. You can sign up and register for scheduled webcasts from these sites or alternatively archive examples of educational webcasts produced using these products can be found at:

http://macromedia.marketing.pr.breezecentral

http://www.elluminate.com/site/external/event/

You're not going to be webcasting every day so a key strategy is to carefully plan for effective placement of webcasting events in the flow of your online course or program to achieve maximal effect. I like to think of the design and development of online learning as akin to writing a musical score. Music has moments of quiet pianissimo, emergent melody, harmony and loud forte moments of drama created with brass and percussion. I believe online learning should be crafted to also have a rhythm, a flow, moments of reflection and thinking followed by times of activity and application, solo periods of individual study followed by structured group work. As a teacher developing an online course one of my jobs is to pace the flow of the course to create an overall orchestral like arrangement. Live webcasting events pique interest and motivation and can be strategically placed in the overall schedule of a course or program to sustain and build interest, bridge units, trigger projects or bring everyone back together.

Here in Vancouver if you're looking for a couple of firms to help you organize and host online learning webcasts consider Bridge LTI who supports live webcasts using VClass and/or TM New Media who does the same using LearnLinc.

There are some online learning organizations using regularly scheduled listings of webcasts to build up a following and regular audience. The eLearning Guild has a regularly schedule set of webcasts they call the Online Forum Series at http://www.elearningguild.com.   

The folks at LearningTimes http://www.learningtimes.net are in my view a best of breed provider of webcasting for education. A unique aspect of LearningTimes webcasts is the way they are used and archived within an online community. Much of my own first-hand experience with webcasting has been done in collaboration with LearningTimes and I am grateful for the support they have provided in helping me host and produce webcasts on an ongoing basis.

An aspect of webcasting I'm keenly interested in pursuing in the webcast work I do is the possibility of syndicating webcast feeds. Just as television networks like CBC, ABC, CBS and others syndicate feeds of television programs out to regional and local television stations, so too can webcasts be syndicated across multiple courses, programs, schools and online communities. I anticipate a dramatic growth of webcasting over the coming years and expect webcast networks to develop in a similar fashion to television networks.


Paul Stacey, is Director of Development for BCcampus, a collaboration of post-secondary institutions in British Columbia providing a central portal for online access to post-secondary online learning courses, programs and resources. Paul also helps host & produce LearningTimes an online community for education professionals. Contact: Paul Stacey


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E-Learning: An opinionated monthly column exploring the current use, future potential, and commercial value of e-learning in BCs high tech sector.

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