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