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									             THE IMPACT OF SYNCHRONOUS ONLINE COMMUNICATION ON
                    COOPERATION/NETWORKING AND LEARNING.

         CASE STUDIES FROM RESEARCH PROJECTS AND HIGHER EDUCATION


                         Gunnar Wettergren, Stockholm University, Sweden
                          Jarkko Suhonen University of Joensuu, Finland

                       Co-authors: Clint Rogers, University of Joensuu, Finland
                          Henrik Hansson, Stockholm University, Sweden
                            Lars Glimbert, Stockholm University, Sweden



Summary

Synchronous online communication (SOC) is growing in importance as a tool in academia
and research. The aim of this paper is to study SOC and its usefulness in higher education. It
argues that SOC is very useful for international research cooperation, and online seminars,
however, the pedagogical value in a classroom can be questioned. This paper uses action
research where continuous evaluation and analysis has been applied in three different case
studies: (1) Online lectures, (2) Online PhD. Seminars, and (3) International Research
cooperation. We found that the social barrier between the student groups and the problems
in handling questions made the negative implications on the pedagogy too great to
overcome. There is also a risk for spatial confusion and hence less effective communication
when interacting with part of the audience face to face and simultaneously with an online
audience. However, the medium is very suitable for smaller settings such as seminars and
research cooperation. The implications of this technology, if used right are an increased level
of cooperation and inclusion of new groups where cultural differences play a central role. We
also found that this mode of communication need to be more structured than a face to face
interaction.



Introduction & Aim
Online communications tools are increasingly being used in many fields to support
communication, interaction, and working processes. Versatile technological solutions have
been developed to support synchronous meetings, and distance group work (Langhoff,
2006). The most common solutions include text-based tools (chats, email, instant
messaging), audio broadcasting, and video conferencing. In recent years, the features
online conferencing systems have extended to include functionalities such as (Bekeering
and Shim, 2006):
       Presentations are shared with distant participants
       Various types of data can be pushed to the meeting participants
         Recording of meetings
         Shared whiteboard with annotation possibilities to support the group work
The improved networking capabilities and software functionality have increased the
popularity of the online conferencing systems. The current trend is towards integration of the
systems into every day applications, such as Internet browsers.

Aim
The aim of this paper is to study online video communication and its usefulness in higher
education. The following three research questions are addressed:
(1) How can this type of technology be used in an educational setting?
(2) Can online video communication function as a tool for cooperation and network creation?
(3) What are positive and negative aspects of this technology out of an educational
perspective?

Previous studies
It has been argued that the upcoming century will demand those who are able to collaborate
online and who are able to integrate technology into their work (Boehm & Aniola-Jedrejek,
2006). Cagiltay, et al. (2005) have recently noted, "Unfortunately, little research has been
conducted to systematically investigate the dialectic between culture and computer-mediated
communication (CMC)." They further point out that "there is currently an insufficient
understanding of how individual learning and work, cultural features, and CMC mutually
influence one another in purposeful, virtual setting" (p. 256).

House, et al. (2004) also state that as some barriers are coming down, "cultural barriers will
most likely go up and present new challenges and opportunities…When cultures come into
contact, they may converge on some aspect, but their idiosyncrasies will likely amplify" (p. 1).
For reasons like these, Boehm and Aniola-Jedrejek (2006) state the importance of having
"real-world learning experiences, including opportunities to develop understanding of the
barriers that can complicate intercultural interactions" (p. 2). They argue that as international
collaboration experiences are offered to students and staff they are able to decrease
stereotypes and misunderstandings. Online video communication has a potential to narrow
down the cultural gaps in multicultural learning and working settings.


Advantages
Additionally, we can identify other advantages of using online video communication in higher
education (Langhoff, 2006; Bekkering and Shim, 2006; Ert et al. 2006):
        Support of distance collaborative work
        Provide instant feedback and interaction possibilities in online learning settings
        Allow distant participants versatile opportunities to participate and contribute
        Share lectures and joint learning sessions
Studies have also shows that in online meetings people are more problem-oriented and
goal-oriented that in face-to-face meetings (Anderson et al., 2007).

Problems and success factors
Despite the fact that the technology and usefulness of online video communication systems
have improved over the past year there are still problems that must be addressed and
success factors to be exploited.
      (1) Technology. The quality of audio and video is obviously an important factor (Ertl et al.
          2006). According to Bekkering and Shim (2006), video is superior to audio in social
       tasks, but in goal-oriented tasks the quality of audio has been found to be more
       important than quality of video. Grant and Cheon (2007) identify delay of broadcast
       and low quality of audio and video transmission as one of the main technical issues
       that needs to be addressed for future success.

   (2) Social/psychological/human. During an online videconferencing session participants
       are easily distracted and the lack of real interaction and implicit communication clues
       causes feelings of isolation. Anderson et al. (2007) note that communicative
       difficulties in virtual teams cause poor performance and results. According to
       Bekkering and Shim (2006), problems with eye contact - e.g. participant not directly
       looking at the camera and thus seemingly avoiding direct contact - is associated often
       to deception and leads to lack of trust in online meetings and group work (Vertegaal
       and Ding, 2002). Ertl et al. (2006) propose that especially in learning settings video
       communication activities should be supported by conceptual and socio-cognitive
       support actions. They conclude that such supportive activities have potential to
       improve collaborative work in virtual teams. Online meetings also require specific
       behavior protocols, which are different from face-to-face meetings (Anderson et al.,
       2007). Online meetings require different turn exchanges, lengthier contributions from
       the participants and more formal handovers compare to contact meetings. Anderson
       et al. (2007) also stress that it is important to pay attention on how supporting
       technologies are implemented.

   (3) Usability. Burden of learning new features and complexity of systems and poorly
       integrated collaboration tools have shown to be the most problematic (Grant and
       Cheon, 2007). The training time and learning curve of a web conferencing system.
       As with any other software application, the ratio between ease of use and usefulness
       of the system affects the user's satisfaction.


Methodology
We have approached this study out of an action research perspective. It was important to us
to mix real world testing with empirical reflection and analysis. Initially a comparison between
various tools for audio/visual online communication was conducted. Adobe Connect Pro was
selected for two case studies. The selection was based on the following criteria: (1) No
installations needed, (2) Easy to use, (3) Sound and video quality, (4) and available tools for
cooperation and learning.

The case studies were conducted in the areas of education and international research
cooperation in higher education.

   (1) Teaching. Streaming online lectures at Stockholm University, Sweden.
   (2) Virtual team work. Research project involving international partners.
   (3) Online presentations. PhD. seminars at the University of Joensuu, Finland.

The         following         issues          were          especially         in        focus:

      Adaptations needed for each context
      Perceived usefulness
      Impact on the learning experience
Empirical case studies

Case 1 - Classroom setting
Adobe connect was used during a course given at Stockholm university, fall 2008. During
this course we used the video streaming capabilities. 40 students attended the course and
out of these 14 students used the online possibility at some point during the course. These
14 students were asked to answer a small survey about their experiences.
Table 1 Part of the student responses about “going” to class online.

To what degree did Adobe Connect limit your learning experience?
 Not at all      A little      Some               A lot          Very much
 38%             38%           15%                0%             8%

To what extent did the lack of a physical teacher influence your learning ability?
 Not at all       A little         Some               A lot           Very much
 46%              15%              38%                0%              0%


Reflections on experiences
   (1) The most surprising result from this survey was that the technology limited the
       learning experience to a much smaller degree than we thought it would. This could be
       seen as an indication that the technology behind Adobe connect and other similar
       tools has reached a level of maturity where we can use it as a viable substitute to
       going to class and taking part in a lecture in person.

   (2) The lack of a physical teacher still posts a viable obstacle to effective online learning.
       The largest issues that students brought up was that it was hard to ask questions,
       follow in-class discussions, and quick follow-up questions were almost impossible to
       integrate into the lecture in a good way.

   (3) From a teacher point of view the use of the web for broadcasting lectures is an
       interesting and in our opinion useful technology, with some limitations. Overall the
       technology worked very well with few interruptions over the eight two hour lectures.
       The main limiting factors were in our opinion the lack of tools for handling questions,
       interacting with the students and as a teacher it was impossible to get the feeling of
       “one class”, rather, the student group was clearly divided.

Table 2 Summary of experiences for case 1
Positive aspects                         Negative aspects
    Students thought the technology         The social barrier between the
       worked well                             people attending online and in
                                               the class room was very high
    Available functionality well suited
       for online presentations live         System not built for online
                                               lectures.
    The recording feature
                                             The interface for asking questions
    Place and to some extent time             was limited to text chat
       independent



Case 2 - Online courses - multi-cultural virtual team working
In 2008 we utilized a virtual research team experience to examine the cultural variables in
international online collaboration. The research group consisted of five students (4 PhD, 1
Masters) and one faculty member, each coming from a different country (Ethiopia, Spain,
Ecuador, Sweden, France, U.S.A.) and diverse backgrounds and participating through online
technologies. Our goal in this virtual research team was to explore the success variables in
overcoming some of the cross-cultural and logistic concerns that face virtual teams.

Reflections on experiences
   (1) Our experience has confirmed and expanded our understanding of the challenges
       and opportunities of cross-cultural virtual teams, expanding the nuances in our own
       approach to multi-national collaborations. Some of the overall themes that emerged in
       our collaboration included: cultural perspectives toward technological concerns, trust,
       group dynamics, preferences toward and reactions to ambiguity, task structure,
       authority versus autonomy, feelings of isolation versus connection with others, other
       logistical and contextual factors.

   (2) We also explored potential solutions, many of which were confirmed in the literature.
       These included: mitigating virtual team members' feelings of isolation through voice
       and video (Connaughton, & Daly, 2004), an increased need for team building
       (Cramton, 1997), producing higher levels and richer types of feedback necessary for
       achieving mutual goals in very different contexts (Cramton, 1997), continually building
       and maintaining trust (Connaughton, & Daly, 2004), and focus on avoiding
       miscommunications due to a lack of sharing vital important information about each
       members own context and constraints (Cramton, 1997).

Case 3 - PhD days
The tradition of organizing monthly PhD days at the University of Joensuu started in year
2004, in order to share ideas, present the current PhD progress, and discuss about the
possible problems. The first online presentations were given in 2007. And has since then
grown to included participants from Africa, Australia, USA, and from various European
countries. Adobe Connect Pro has been used in the PhD days regularly from fall 2008.

Reflections on experiences
   (1) Despite the positive experience with the Adobe Connect Pro, there are still challenges
       with regards to sound and video.

   (2) When there is not exact plan for the discussion, it can be rather difficult from distance
       to follow who is speaking and when to intervene and contribute.

   (3) The PhD days have a predefined agenda, but sometimes lively discussions locally
       and late changes to the time tables can be confusing and problematic for distance
       participants.

Table 3 Positive and negative aspects of using Adobe connect pro in online seminars.

Positive aspects                             Negative aspects
       The meeting has been relatively            Proprietary software
        easy to set up
                                                   Requires plug-ins
       Versatile features to support both
        presentations     and    meetings          All participants are sharing the
                                                    same interface, no individualization
       Interface can be easily modified            features and confusion on who is in
        depending on session needs of               control.
       Works with low bandwidth                  Some problems with sound


Discussion and conclusions
(1) How can this type of technology be used in an educational setting?

This paper presents a number of educational usage areas for online video communication in
higher education. Two of the case studies (Streaming lectures and online seminars)
introduce different ways to use the technology. The question at hand is if it is feasible and
beneficial to students to use this type of technology in the various contexts presented? In the
context of the classroom (streaming lectures) we feel that it is feasible out of an
economical/resource perspective but not out of a pedagogical. The problems we faced were
the lack of interaction with the students and the barrier to communication the technology
presented (further discussed in question 3 below). This impacts the pedagogical value of the
lecture in such a negative way that we propose not to use these types of tools for streaming
lectures until they are more mature and include tools for handling questions and
communication in a more fluent and transparent way. Examining the online seminars the
results are more favorable. The group of participants is more contained and the scope of the
seminar is much smaller than in a classroom setting, making interaction and communication
easier.

(2) Can it function as a tool for cooperation and network creation?

One of the cases in this paper deals with a research project that contains parties from many
different countries. Based on that case and some of our own experiences using Adobe
Connect for meetings and networking the answer is yes. There are problems associated with
fusing various cultures and different ways of working and communicating but those can in our
opinion be overcome. Our experience from working with these types of tools is that a mixture
of face-to-face meetings to build relationships can lay the platform for good online
communication.

(3) What are positive and negative aspects of this technology out of an educational
    perspective?

Obvious positive aspects with this technology are the added flexibility for students and
teachers. The fact that this technology enables place independence includes a larger group
of students. This is not a new aspect. However, the web based approach makes technology
less of a barrier. This was apparent in our case studies were we saw that the initial lack of
computer literacy was easily overcome by hands-on help and tutorials. The main problem
areas were related to sound, video, and operating system issues. The ability to record
lectures made the students time independent as well as giving students the opportunity to go
back and retake some of the lectures in exam preparation.

We have identified a number of negative aspects that warrant some discussion and future
considerations. There is a risk for spatial confusion and hence less effective communication
when interacting with part of the audience face to face and simultaneously with an online
audience. We reached the conclusion that any interaction through an electronic media like
this must be structured. Another issue that arose was that the lecturer or moderator is forced
to handle multiple feedback channels, audio, video, and text which can distract from the
topic; depending on the situation it might be useful to have an assisting person collect and
handle the communication channels.
Critical reflections
This paper is in many aspects based on the experiences and opinions of individual teachers
and students. Criticism can be raised in saying that the evaluated people are already “fans”
of the technology presented in this paper. However, we believe that the action research
approach used limits this influence and allows us draw conclusions based on experiences
and small populations since they are a part of an iterative process.



References
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