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In search of simplicity

By Lisa Neal / February 2005

TYPE: OPINION
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What do online seminars and iPods have in common? Not much, and that’s the problem. Compared to the iPod and its seamless and context-appropriate methods for delivering one type of rich-media content, online seminar technology seems stuck in a kind of digital stone age. Setting up an online seminar only rubs in your face how every participant has a unique computer configuration with its own constraints: Platforms. Firewalls. Restricted sites. Undocumented restrictions. Bouncing email. Old equipment. New equipment. I could go on and on in excruciating detail.

One of my current projects exemplifies the problem. I am setting up a free online seminar sponsored by the U.S. Office of Naval Research. Presented by David Kieras, a professor at University of Michigan, and Bonnie John, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, the seminar’s topic is Cognitive Modeling for User Interface Design. It will primarily consist of lecture, so at minimum we need one-way audio and presentation capabilities. There should also be a mechanism for interaction so people can ask questions and seek clarification.

Because of the sponsorship, military installations are one of the primary audiences—but also one of the most restricted in terms of access. Many military computers are blocked from downloading and installing new software, preventing people from using the wealth of synchronous technologies—Elluminate, Centra, WebEx, etc.—that support online presentations. To accommodate these restrictions, we are using the phone, to which everyone has access, and downloadable slides that attendees can follow. This forces the presenters to say "Next slide" and requires attendees to move things along for themselves, but that’s not too great a burden.

Ideally, however, online seminars should be truly interactive. In this instance, questions can be sent by email to the moderator (me) and, for slightly more real-time interaction, attendees can use text chat on the seminar web site, at Yahoo Groups. The chat doesn't require downloads so should work even within military installations.

This all sounds like a great solution, doesn't it? Well, not exactly. First, there are the attendees for whom Yahoo is blocked by their companies. Then there are the attendees outside of the U.S. and Canada who can't use the toll-free number. Then there are the people in China who don't want to wake up in the middle of the night. There are solutions to everything: archive the seminar for replay, email the materials to people who can't access Yahoo, and so on. But this solution must be patched together to work for almost everyone. And even though it is offered without a registration fee, attendees want optimal solutions.

Why is an optimal solution to these problems so difficult to achieve? Must we wait until Apple gets around to real-time video podcasting? Perhaps some enterprising individual or company could develop a single, user-centered technology that would help bring online seminars—and online learning—into the twenty-first century. If the field is to continue to flourish, we must find better ways to deliver rich content to those who need it—or live with the consequences.



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ADDITIONAL READING

    Lisa Neal
  1. eLearning and fun
  2. Everything in moderation
  3. The basics of e-learning
  4. Is it live or is it Memorex?
  5. The Value of Voice
  6. Predictions for 2006
  7. Five Questions...for Christopher Dede
  8. Five Questions... for John Seely Brown
  9. Five questions...for Shigeru Miyagawi
  10. "Deep" thoughts
  11. 5 questions... for Richard E. Mayer
  12. Designing usable, self-paced e-learning courses
  13. Want better courses?
  14. Just "DO IT"
  15. Five questions...
  16. Formative evaluation
  17. Senior service
  18. Blogging to learn and learning to blog
  19. My life as a Wikipedian
  20. Five questions...for Elliott Masie
  21. The stripper and the bogus online degree
  22. Five questions...for Lynn Johnston
  23. Five questions...for Tom Carey
  24. Not all the world's a stage
  25. Five questions...for Karl M. Kapp
  26. Five questions...for Larry Prusack
  27. Five questions...for Seb Schmoller
  28. Do distance and location matter in e-learning?
  29. Why do our K-12 schools remain technology-free?
  30. Music lessons
  31. Learn to apologize for fun and profit
  32. Of web hits and Britney Spears
  33. Advertising or education?
  34. Five questions…for Matt DuPlessie
  35. "Spot Learning"
  36. Q&A with Saul Carliner
  37. When will e-learning reach a tipping point?
  38. Online learning and fun
  39. Degrees by mail
  40. Predictions for 2004
  41. Back to the future
  42. Serious games for serious topics
  43. Five (or six) questions...for Irene McAra-McWilliam
  44. Learner on the Orient Express
  45. Predictions For 2003
  46. Talk to me
  47. Q&A with Diana Laurillard
  48. Do it yourself
  49. How to get students to show up and learn
  50. Q&A
  51. Blended conferences
  52. Predictions for 2002
  53. Learning from e-learning
  54. Storytelling at a distance
  55. Q&A with Don Norman