Much of my time in the last three days have been spent in synchronous virtual learning experiences including a webinar and two day long virtual conferences. These events took advantage of two different platforms: Adobe Connect and Avaya Live Engage. Adobe Connect is a high end video conferencing tool while Avaya is a 3D virtual environment. Both events were put on by experienced users of the platforms who had taken care to train presenters and do the necessary audio and video testing. There were still a few glitches. I lost audio during my presentation using Engage, probably because I had to move the laptop during the session in order to plug in. Warning: Engage EATS your battery seemingly to the tune of 1% per minute, and about half way through I had more minutes left than battery life. It was easy enough to log out and back in but there were a few frustrating minutes where they couldn’t hear me and I couldn’t hear them. Similar things happened during the virtual conference in Adobe. We got off the script in one session and sharing a YouTube video dealt a death blow to the presenter’s audio. Having a presenter back channel helps to get messages to the presenter when things are going wrong. But, the presenter has to be aware of that back channel and be checking it.
For presenters, the interfaces can be challenging. In a face to face environment, you use audience cues for questions or interaction. A hand waving in the air is a little more attention getting than a hand icon beside a name in a presenter list. Keeping track of both audience text chat and back challenge chat adds to the stress.
Engage more closely replicated a live, face to face session. Our avatars were together and, if I was more experienced with the interface, I could have punctuated remarks with hand gestures. Audience members could raise their hands to ask questions or make comments. Even though I knew we were all sitting behind screens, I had a much better sense of presence than with Adobe Connect. Certainly presenters in Adobe Connect can turn their webcams on but that just heightens the sense of being in different places and I find myself wondering about the environments behind them: are they in their offices? their homes? What books are on the shelf? Avatars offer the sense of being in the same “physical” space.
I don’t think I have a preference for either system. I am much more familiar and comfortable with Adobe Connect having served as a host for many webinars. I like the interface that allows for multiple windows so I can be following the text chat along with the presentation. Because the text chat in Engage was more buried, it wasn’t used as much. But, the audio was fairly simple to use, and the room was set up with audience mics so everyone could easily hear the conversation between the presenter and attendees.
The same was true for Adobe as well. Having been with the platform for a long time, I’ve seen audio evolve to the point where almost anyone can easily grab the microphone and talk once they’ve been given the appropriate rights. No more tin cans or ugly feedback.
Maybe computer mics are just generally easier to use as well. In the Adobe sessions, we could easily hold conversations as part of the networking sessions. Some people were still more comfortable just typing and that was OK, too. Multiple ways to communicate open up the learning for audience participation. The presenters who had the most success with chat were those who invited the participants to type something specific in the chat room, such as where they were from or their experiences with a particular technology.
That last thought starts getting at my next blog entry: tips for making virtual sessions more engaging. The sessions in both environments tended to be typical lecture-style presentations with attention focused on the presenter. There are ways to include interactivity that can help pull the audience into the subject matter more effectively so they aren’t, as I was in some cases, simply listening while multitasking in another window.