Saturday, April 9, 2011

Three Ways to Use Video with Office Communicator to Enhance Learning

Like many companies these days, my company uses an instant messaging tool to enable informal communication and impromptu virtual meetings among employees. The tool we use is Microsoft Office Communicator. Recently, our IT department has added the ability to enhance discussions through Office Communicator by using webcams. Last week, our Innovations in Learning group (a yammer-based Community of Practice group inside my company devoted to workplace learning) discussed our early experiences with the new capability and its potential uses for learning.

In early explorations with the tool, group members tried out and described three different uses:

Connecting additional participants into a classroom ILT session from a distance – while overall it was perceived as a plus to be able to bring in participants through video who otherwise would not have been able to attend, the experience as described was challenging for both the participants and the facilitator. In a course that was designed to be led by an instructor with a live group, there were elements that did not work for the people joining from a distance (no surprise there!). Also, the facilitator reported needing three laptops and cameras to make the session work (one trained on the facilitator, one on the group, and one on the materials being shown or discussed in the room). This meant that a second person needed to join the facilitator in a “producer” or “moderator” type role.

Conducting small group virtual training sessions using desktop sharing – one of the great things about Office Communicator is that you can have instant meetings by sharing your desktop. Adding webcams makes the meeting experience a little more engaging. Office Communicator is limited to only showing one person on screen at a time. The software displays the image of the person who is speaking. So while you can't see the whole group at once, you can see the facial expressions and body language of the person who is speaking.  And since it is easy to quickly set up a virtual classroom without a lot of preparation using Office Communicator, this can be practical for small group sessions, post-training follow-ups, and distance coaching.

Using Office Communicator for virtual break-out rooms - Many virtual classroom training sessions are conducted using software that was designed for meetings and do not provide break-out capabilities. Office Communicator can be used as a virtual break-out tool with or without webcams. The webcams add a little more intimacy to the small group discussions, which can help groups keep their attention on the task at hand rather than distractors they may be facing in their home office or at their workstation.

Webcams used with Office Communicator do increase the sense of "being there."   In this day and age of agile workers and virtual teams, any capability that can help shorten the distance between learners is welcome.

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