Reflections on Supporting a Postgraduate Virtual Open Week (Durham Blackboard Conference 2012)

Part of a series of posts reporting back on the Durham Blackboard Users’ Conference 2012.

  • Parallel session: Postgraduate Virtual Open Week at the University of Edinburgh
  • Presenter: Josephine Kinsley, University of Edinburgh

In this post I wish to focus mainly on the way Kinsley managed the training approach, but first here is an outline of Edinburgh’s virtual open day project.

Brief outline of the project

The University of Edinburgh used Wimba Classroom, aka Blackboard Collaborate, to host a virtual (i.e. wholly online) open day for postgraduate applicants. The tool allows for presentations, video and/or audio conversation and text-based chat. For ease of management of sessions, there was a cap of 15 participants, with one lead presenter and one technical assistant for each session. Participants were required to sign up in advance of the session. The presentation could also be recorded.

Rationale for a virtual open day

  • For students unable to attend campus open day (primarily focused on international students, however a large proportion of participants were UK base too – likely due to convenience saving time and money of travelling).
  • Opportunity for applicants to engage with staff through synchronous dialogue.
  • Learn about specific programmes, e.g. through subject talks.
  • Learn about services, e.g. accommodation, finance.
  • Present ‘life at the University’ in a dynamic way, rather than simply textually.

Points to distinguish the open day

  • Not designed to replace a campus-based open day, but to complement the offering.
  • Is run as a whole-institutional event with multiple sessions across multiple days, in a short space of time. Hence, it is a very coordinated effort with a strong University identity.
  • All schools were to be represented by at least one session. There were also central services sessions to offer space for standard University living questions, much like at a campus-based open day.
  • Specifically initiated project to appeal to the North America market, where US Universities use virtual open days regularly.

Student responses to the virtual open day

Of note was that approximately half the students who signed up did not attend the actual session. Common reasons for not attending included forgetting (!) and the session be scheduled at an inappropriate time.

50% of students said that the virtual open day encouraged them to choose the University more definitely, 30% said they were likely to choose, with 15% saying the virtual open day had an indifferent effect. However, students recommended the virtual open day as an experience.

Lessons learnt for running the open day

  • Must prepare, to be able to break the ice and engage attendees.
  • Timing the open day to maximum potential for admissions deadlines across the institution (including, presumably, scholarship deadlines too).
  • Good communication and planning is needed, along with adequate preparation and marketing time.

Suggestions to engage those signed up

  • Send reminder emails
  • Detail how the session would run
  • Provide a schedule of what specific programmes were being talked about
  • Say what timezone the time provided on notifications/schedules is in

Approach to training

Outline

170 virtual open day sessions were scheduled over a ten day period in mid-February. In the fortnight before, 135 academic/service manager staff were trained to become hosts/moderators of the online sessions (trained by inhouse staff). 38 staff were trained to act as technical support (trained by Wimba).

Training of the moderators was done in medium sized groups (12/16?), in a 2.5 hour session. In order to host a session, the staff had to attend the training. As all Departments and key central services were represented, there was (as to be expected) a little resistance at first to the duration of the training session. However, as it was important to take part in this institutional event, staff made time to attend. 88% of staff also rated the training as ‘very useful’ or ‘useful’.

Part 1: Getting the student perspective as a webinar participant

Staff were asked to use the tool in small groups to have conversations. Without visual cues common in face-to-face synchronous conversation, staff had to learn how purely audio and text chat worked in a group situation. The first part was run without a moderator and discussions tended to break off on a tangent. The aim of this first part was to get them to realise that there is a need for a moderator role to focus and drive the webinar. This initial part also acted as an ice-breaker, which was important in the next part.

Part 2: Getting used to presenting to yourself

Staff were asked to actually do a presentation, to give them the experience of talking to themselves. In small groups, one person acted as presenter, another as a moderator (for the text chat presumably) with the others role-playing students. Staff were provided with PowerPoint slides as part of the activity incase they did not have any of their own to hand and to ensure they had the experience of presenting. Presenters were also encouraged to use the inbuilt annotation tools where appropriate.

As this part is the most ‘exposing’, staff were given scripts for the basic introduction. For example to welcome the students and show them around the interaction tools available. This also made the staff less self conscious as they could ease into the presentation without worrying about what to say and how to say it.

Part 3: Preparing for the unexpected

As the remaining participants in the group were acting in role as students, they could interrupt the presentation and pose questions at the end. This part of the activity drew attention to the way that those presenting may be asked questions about their subject (as expected), but also other elements of University study such as accommodation, fees, possibly even visas. The session itself could also change from a presentation to a question and answer session very quickly.

Therefore, the activity was key in ensuring staff at the front line of the virtual open day were prepared to deal with the unexpected questions. Staff didn’t necessarily need to know the answer, but they did need to know where to direct the student for the information.

Thoughts on the training approach

The institutional-wide adoption of the virtual open day was clearly a driver for departments to get on board. This I think went someway to getting over the hurdle of the time/effort commitment, as departments wouldn’t want to be the one not at the open day!

Providing staff with the experience from the student point of view is essential from my point of view, so it’s pleasing to see this adopted as the primary delivery of training. Understanding the way that an ‘outsider’ would look at the system gives them the opportunity to advise and support students using the technology from first-hand experience themselves. Similarly, staff would have experienced over-lapping conversations, trouble keeping track of the chat-box whilst having an audio conversation, and trying to include all participants in the discussion (all common problems in webinar sessions). Their practice within the webinar as a moderator would have then been more appreciative of the experience other participants were having remotely, sometimes on the other side of the world.

Other key points about the approach which seemed to work well:

  • Running in groups rather than individually (necessary to provide the role-playing opportunity).
  • Scheduling the training sessions very close to the actual virtual open day so that staff remained confident in the use of the webinar tool.
  • Providing mock presentations for the role play scenario.
  • Provision of scripts for the first minutes of the virtual open day sessions.

Conclusion

Kinsley and the Edinburgh team have done an excellent job of rolling out an institutional, technology-supported way of engaging with new students. The use of role-play within the training appeared successful and more engaging than traditional technical walk-throughs, particularly as staff learnt experientially. As mentioned by Kinsley, the roll-out offers more opportunities for sychnronous collaboration not just for recruitment (e.g. PhD interviews) but also in teaching and learning as well.

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