This is the summary and my reflections of the discussion of Otago Polytechnic bioscience educators using the online conferencing tool Elluminate, for the purpose of exploring strategies that encourage social interactions in online learning courses. Although only 3 out of the 7 invited members came to the meeting, we had a really valuable discussion.

Summary of session

Introduction activities
Pull up a chair and get to know each other and the features of Elluminate. Here we are sitting around the table (looking much skinnier than usual!).

What do we mean by social interactions and how does it benefit students in online learning courses?

The video of geese and slide below that summarized my understanding of social interaction were used to prompt discussion about participants thoughts about social interaction. Participants brought up learner isolation, the potential for misinterpretation without body language and voice, the benefits for students of working together, and their experiences of students supporting each other.

What are the strategies participants use to encourage interactions and the difficulties or concerns they have about them?
Strategies were listed on the whiteboard as they were described and discussed. There was also discussion about how to cope with non-participating students as well as dominating students, and how to handle inappropriate or annoying behaviour eg doodling / drawings / words appearing on the whiteboard.

After using Elluminate and looking at a wiki what did they think about using these for getting students working together?
A group brainstorming activity and overview of a wiki project stimulated discussion about the ways they could use these with their own students.

Concluding discussion
Participants felt they needed to pay attention to social interaction in their online courses. They commented that this session had been a useful way to experience and learn about these technologies, and they were very interested in having follow-up discussions. And I even managed to get in a big plug for the Facilitating eLearning Communities course.

Observations and reflections

What went well?

Despite both the technology and topic being relatively new to most of the group, I felt the meeting was very successful, and that participants had a positive experience in using Elluminate and participating in the activities and discussion.

Joining the Elluminate meeting was relatively problem-free. The participants took the opportunity to join the meeting from an on-campus computer suite with a support person available to help them set up (thanks once again Bronwyn for your help with this). The computer suites aren’t automatically configured for Elluminate, nor do staff have headsets, which Bronwyn kindly provided.
I’m sure that knowing each other well helped participants feel more comfortable but the introduction and ice-breaker activities along with the small size of the group aided the process of interacting online. During the meeting, the questions, images and activities worked well to prompt discussion around participants’ experiences and reflections from their own teaching.

- Providing adequate support as people take their first steps is really important. I would check they have the right equipment, and organise on-campus introduction sessions if possible, or use telephone / email support for off-campus students.
- Exploring and playing with Elluminate at the start was a useful strategy for providing some fun and an opportunity for participants to start engaging with the technology and interacting with each other.
- It took more thought and time to plan this online meeting (wiki, resources, powerpoint presentation, activities) than I had expected. I’m not sure whether this is usual for this type of online learning experience or because it was my first time facilitating an Elluminate meeting.
- Having meetings with colleagues online is a really good way to practice and gain confidence facilitating and using Elluminate (learn-by-doing).

What didn’t go so well?

It was a little discouraging that less than half the invited participants made it to the session, but timing appeared to be an issue here (Friday afternoon and busy with end-of-year work).
I also asked the participants to review some resources prior to the meeting; this included a video, article and wiki page, which would have taken about 15 minutes of their time. Only one participant accessed all the resources, one didn’t view the video as their dial-up download was so slow and another (with broadband access) didn’t review any of the resources at all.
During the first part of the session I found it particularly difficult to follow the text messages while listening, talking, and watching the whiteboard, and consequently missed some questions and comments from participants.

- From my experience of online learning I would want all my students to use Broadband but there are areas that still can’t access it and it may also be financially restrictive. Elluminate works well on dial-up but you need to be aware that access to some resources may be limited if students don’t have Broadband.
- Not looking at the resources at all is somewhat disappointing as I believe you ultimately gain more from a discussion when you are prepared, but this also happens in f2f classrooms as well. Apart from being very clear about expectations it comes down to participants being motivated enough to do the preparation.
- I would think that following all the channels of communication gets easier as you become more proficient with using Elluminate. I noticed however with missing some of the text chat, it provided an opportunity for other participants to respond or bring it into the audio discussion. If it was a larger group it would definitely be beneficial to have another person assisting with the session.

Facilitation strategies

Engaging participants, questioning, and modeling were reasonably effective facilitation strategies I used.

Engaging the participants:
- Providing a few easy-to-digest resources on a wiki to get their attention and motivate them to join in. These didn’t get everyone’s attention but timing of the meeting might have been an issue here with end-of-year marking etc
- Providing support and assistance to get set-up and during the session.
- Creating a comfortable learning environment (informal and relaxed) with guidance to use the tools.
- Using simple activities that encourage them to join in.

Effective questioning:
- This was used to prompt and maintain discussion.
- Asking open-ended questions encouraged participants to give an explanation rather than yes/no.
- Directing questions to participants drew them into the discussion.
- Providing space after a participant had contributed allowed others to respond.
- Useful for clarifying meaning when needed

Modeling behaviour and activities that promote social interaction and are useful for teaching bioscience.

These strategies are supported by De Schutter et al (2004) who reviewed the roles of facilitators in synchronous audio-conferences, in relation to participant access and motivation, online socialization, information exchange, and knowledge construction. These are the first four stages of Salmon’s (2002) 5-stage model of teaching and learning online. They described facilitating in a synchronous context as a “daunting task” with “little time for reflection and deliberation” during the meeting as compared to asynchronous discussions. It requires the moderator to “support both process and content, guide interaction through meaningful feedback and deft questioning strategies, and provide additional cues and information as needed.” Although I didn’t find it daunting, I definitely agree that you have to be tuned into the discussion and closely following proceedings to know when to contribute your perspective, ask questions, seek clarification, keep quiet or move on to the next topic. Clearly, effective facilitation requires planning and practice.

I feel rather pleased with how our discussion went having achieved a high degree of interactivity and participation to reach stage 3 /4 of Salmon’s (2002) model, that of information exchange and knowledge construction, although I wonder how much more challenging it would have been with an unfamiliar group. If you are considering using Elluminate then it may be worthwhile reading the paper by Murphy and Ciszewska-Carr (2007) as it provides handy insights into the experiences of teachers who have just started using it.

De Schutter, A. Fahrni, P. & Rudolph, J. (2004).
Best Practices in Online Conference Moderation. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 5 (1).
Available at:

Murphy, E. and Ciszewska-Carr, J. (2007). Instructors' experiences of web based synchronous communication using two way audio and direct messaging. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 23(1), 68-86.
Available at:

Salmon, G. (2002). Five-step model of teaching and learning online.
Available at:


  1. David McQuillan said...

    Sounds like a really great session. Love the table & chairs idea. :-)

    Don't know if you've heard, but we're looking for a Bioscience lecturer (Karole's decided to pursue her PhD & will subsequently not be teaching for us). Linda Kinniburgh has put forward your name as someone who may be available for the role. It's an online teaching role (0.16 FTE). How does that sound?

    P.S. I'm not really keeping up with my feeds at the moment, so it might be better emailing me at OP.

    David McQuillan

  2. Debbie said...

    Quite an achievement, Veronique. I could identify with many of the points you raised as I had similar ones. I wonder if some of the issues might have been because we were not in a 'real' course situation with our own students, and the one-off factor, and as you say, time of year when everyone is busy. Nevertheless, I think having a go like this alerts us to some of the issues we will be dealing with, and that itself makes it a worthwhile exercise.

    Debbie Corder

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.| Header image by southenz using Wordle | Blogger Templates by GeckoandFly modified and converted to Blogger Beta by Blogcrowds.