BigBlueButton is an open source tool that provides:
- Text chat
- Webcam support
- Audio discussion
- Shared desktop
- Shared presentation
You don’t need to install anything to check it out, there’s a working demo available:
I did find what seems to be a small bug using Firefox (Mac OS): the placement of minimised tools is not quite right, the thumbnail is pushed too far to the left of the screen and is hard to find. Other than that, it seems to work really well, and it seems to have lots of potential.
What I really like about BigBlueButton:
- It’s very simple – the interface is much more straightforward than (say) Wimba Classroom. Admittedly it appears to have fewer features but it has enough to be a very effective tool for synchronous learning and teaching.
- There’s a Moodle integration available – that’s a big plus that should ensure its uptake.
- The moderator and presenter roles are clearly defined. My first impression was that ‘viewers’ had not enough control and were limited to passive learning, but it seems easy to share control of the various tools and enable active learning modes.
- There are clear tutorials and help files available.
- Did I mention it’s open source? And the authors seem to be doing everything right with the project: there’s a published API and open issue tracking and version control.
Given its simplicity of use, I think learners will have fewer problems in using it than they currently do with some of the proprietary systems. Overall, this seems a great tool and one I’ll be following closely.
In my work with educators who are new to planning and facilitating online learning community events, I often see activities which disappoint participants because of simple problems with the technology. Some community members are positive and accepting, others are not so forgiving and lose interest if the facilitator doesn’t seem well prepared.
Make sure the technology will work
In my experience, most of the technical problems that new facilitators encounter are avoidable. Many can be avoided if you:
- Check and check again that the technology works before a synchronous event. First, before you publish the activity details so you know that what you have planned is feasible. And again just before the event – with enough time to repair or work around any fault that occurs.
- Before the event, tell participants clearly what they need to have and do to be ready. eg will they need a headset with microphone? And advise them to check beforehand it’s all working. Establish a fallback position – eg if their webcam doesn’t work, can they just use audio?
- Do a test drive to make sure that participants can access the event – but be aware that what you can see and do with a ‘teacher’ account is not always the same as what ‘student’ or guest account can. Log in using a dummy student or guest account and check that what you planned is possible.
Have a contingency plan
No matter how well you are prepared, technology can still cause problems, especially with synchronous activities. So you need to be prepared:
- Have a plan B on what you will do if the technology goes wrong. How will you facilitate the event if the chosen technology fails?
- Have a plan B for participants who can’t take part. If it’s an asynchronous forum they can access it later, but if it’s a synchronous activity you should create an archive for those who missed the synchronous event. eg in Wimba, click on the archive button as soon as the discussion gets underway. In a Skype chat, you can save the transcript as an HTML file and upload it to a web page.
Effective online facilitators:
- Avoid many technology problems by making sure it works beforehand
- Have a plan on how to continue when unavoidable problems do arise
Image source: Wikimedia Foundation