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Do it yourself
it's not which technology you choose, but what you choose to do with it

By Lisa Neal / May 2003

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When I started teaching online, I was a heavy user of synchronous technologies because I liked that they offered real-time interaction with my students. Starting with the beta version of Microsoft NetMeeting and using, at various points, Centra, WebEx, PlaceWare, and most of their competitors, I have found myself fairly ambidextrous in the sense that I can use any tool and take advantage of its features—or compensate for its shortcomings. Centra has always provided one of the best feature sets, and I was delighted to have a chance to check out how their users are deploying it at Centra's 4th annual user conference. The conference, which took place May 13-15 in Boston, brought together 550 Centra users. I went to the conference to give a talk on Best Practices in Leading a Web Seminar and to look for innovations—not just in e-learning technology, but in what people are doing with the technology.

One of the best stories I heard at the conference came from Steve Olson, who told me how Chevron has used Centra to provide a virtual classroom to teach "extra mile service" to employees at Chevron's minimarket/gas stations. There, a backroom computer is used for training entry level employees in customer service, not exactly the typical corporate training setting or student. The more interactive environment provided by the virtual classroom allows participants to practice and demonstrate their new behaviors. This class replaces regional classrooms, so hours of work time are no longer lost in transit. This pilot, which started in March 2003, has received an enthusiastic response by employees, who feel special as participants in something new and different, and by managers, who lose far less employee time while gaining better employees. The class is designed to allow for frequent refreshers and boosters. In addition to helping improve customer service, it may increase employee retention by making the students feel supported and giving them the tools to be successful—often lacking in entry-level and high-turnover positions. And why did I talk to Steve? Because he complimented me on my session, the best way to get my attention.

Another story was relayed by Sharon Dratch, from Centra, about how Australia's "School of the Air" is using Centra to replace a 50-year old radio-based education program for children living in remote areas of the Australian Outback, which is 50% larger than the state of Texas. Not only do the children receive a better and much more interactive education, but they get to talk to each other and to teachers using VoIP and get to have remote friends too, even using webcams to show off their pets. After all, share time is a pretty universal concept for children, just harder to do over a distance.

I attended a press dinner, and had the pleasure of sitting with Leon Navickas, Centra's CEO, and Elliott Masie, a keynote presenter at the conference. Leon stated the next generation of e-learning needs to incorporate a "great user experience." Elliott's most interesting insight was that the reason e-learning fails is that while we, as designers and developers, see e-learning as education and training, students see it as just another web site. How can you feel commitment to a web site? Why would you show up on time? And why would you prepare? I will also note that Elliott carries fun toys, such as a video camera/voice recorder that is smaller than my cell phone. Hmm, I wonder where that picture of me will end up?

In my own talk on Best Practices in Leading a Web Seminar, I focused on planning, executing, and what happens following a webinar. I spent most of the time talking about planning, in particular, how to coach a first-time online presenter, how to prepare materials, and how to select and orchestrate tools to make the seminar effective for the audience and purpose. When I coach presenters, I often tell them stories about what other presenters have done well and poorly, and with what effect on the audience. While technology failures are what we all dread, there are many other types of failures. This became painfully clear when a well-known person—whose name I won't mention—started off his seminar by saying, "This is so weird, I can't see anyone out there." I bet a lot of his attendees dropped out right then. I always advise presenters not to say this, even when they feel it strongly. So, getting back to Leon's point, a "great user experience" comes not just from the right technology, but how it is used.


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    Lisa Neal
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