Thursday, November 1, 2012

Live Streaming/Broadcasting for Online Office Hours

Recently a tech savvy professor made me aware of Ustream and Livestream which are live streaming/broadcasting sites.  He was looking for a way to have office hours online, with a desktop sharing function so he could create diagrams that the students could view.

I tested the free versions of both Ustream and Livestream with him. Ustream's ads basically were a deal breaker for us. I just watched something I recorded there, and I was first subjected to an obnoxious 15 second political ad, then I got two small banner ads along the bottom of my video as it played. [Side note: the nice thing about YouTube is that you have to allow ads on your videos; YouTube can't just put them on without your permission. Then you get paid for allowing ads!] 

We observed that during Hurricane Sandy, Livestream had some outages and is still experiencing periodic issues, but Ustream worked (as far as we could tell), so it seems that Ustream is more reliable. 

The only other advantage I see to Ustream is that viewers do not have to create an account or login to view a broadcast. If they want to chat, they need an account though. To even view a broadcast, viewers need a Livestream account, unless the broadcaster pays to use Livestream. 

In regard to user-friendliness on the presenter side, I'm partial to Ustream, because you can broadcast a webcam video (no desktop sharing) through your browser without downloading anything, so you can monitor the chat. You can download the presenter program for more functionality. Livestream requires a download of Livestream presenter, which kind of threw me off, because the preview window is very small. Once I wrapped my head around the fact that I broadcasted just through the program I downloaded and didn't even have to open the site, I was fine but it was a weird concept to me. 

A difficulty with Livestream is that the chat function does not really work as a way to communicate with the presenter. Instead, this professor is having the students email him questions to answer. Otherwise, Livestream seems to be the winner out of the two options mostly because of the absence of ads - especially around election time. 

Why not a web conferencing tool, such as Blackboard Collaborate (online rooms in D2L) or Skype? Skype is only 1-1 with video (for free) and he wanted many students to be able to view the broadcast. Also, having to add all the students as contacts would be a hassle. He said he tried Collaborate, but found it cumbersome. I agree that getting into a Collaborate room seems to take forever. Unfortunately, Collaborate is experiencing problems to the point that it is not recommended right now anyway. There are free web conferencing options, but many require a download, account, have ads, or have a participant limit. No great options have jumped out at me (but please let me know if you have one). 

Maybe I should back up a little: what is the difference between web conferencing and live streaming? To me, it is the ability to communicate with the viewers (or not). Live streaming is meant mostly for pushing information, whereas web conferencing is meant more for two way communication and collaboration. I can see either being used for office hours; the choice depends on the instructor's style and the goal. This professor wanted open office hours for multiple students to attend, in which case personal questions such as grading would have to be addressed separately. 

April, what would you do for online office hours? 

Well, since you asked... I'd try having students post their questions on the D2L discussion board, then I'd respond in whichever modality was required: text if it's brief, audio if required (I'm not sure why it would be unless you're in foreign languages or music though), or video that is posted online if they need to see something and hear audio with it. I'd give them a certain time period that I'll be online responding and do so as quickly as I can within that time frame. If a student needed to communicate with me 1-1 about a personal situation, such as grading or an absence, I'd be available to communicate via Skype, phone, or email; whichever they wanted. 

Here's my rationale: 

1. I've had soooo many problems with web conferencing programs such as Adobe Connect and Blackboard Collaborate, that I avoid them if possible. Although I am a technologist, the idea of synchronous communication like this makes me nervous. I can do it, but I don't like the idea of a bunch of people waiting for me to figure out what is wrong in the moment or trying to figure out why they are having problems. I also don't feel comfortable recommending it to faculty unless they are particularly technology savvy, because it's a lot of responsibility that really rests with them since we don't have a lot of support for this.  

2. I'm an introvert and my personality is reflective. I prefer to have some time to think about my reply if I can. The idea of broadcasting myself is not something I'm particularly comfortable with, especially when online can be asynchronous. 

3. The students don't have to create another account, login, or download anything if I use D2L and they view videos online. 

4. There is a record of the questions and answers located in D2L for other students to scan through fairly quickly anytime. You can record an entire broadcast but do the students want to watch the whole thing to figure out what was asked? 

My idea is a little boring; I admit that. Live broadcasting is cool and fun, and nice for people who are able to just talk and tell stories which may be more of the personality of a typical professor. It's more of a transition from face-to-face teaching that allows for spontaneousness and adding some personality. I think my students would get the information they needed, but this professor's students may like him better than they'd like me because they'd have the option to get to know him differently. The great thing about technology and online teaching is that there are many options to fit people's individual needs and preferences.

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