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