Guest blog post from Steve Gillott.

LyncWebAppSplash

Over the Christmas holiday, I used Lync 2013 to deliver some revision sessions to my AS Level Chemistry students. They have their first exam next Thursday, and I felt it was important to keep up the momentum for their revision by keeping some teacher contact. This was the first time I’d used our recently installed Lync 2013 server to deliver an on-line revision session, but it wasn’t the first time I’d run an on-line revision session for our students.

A few years back, we were a pilot school for the SSAT’s national e-Mentoring scheme. Our research at the time showed that internet use at home amongst our pupils was very high for homework help, with instant messaging (IM) and social networking sites increasing in popularity. We initially chose a target group of 20 Year 9 pupils identified as being on the L4/L5 borderline and offered them e-mentoring sessions based on English, Maths and Science to help them secure level 5.

As our students increasingly prefer to use IM and social networking tools for communication, rather than email, we decided to launch an e-mentoring scheme based on IM. We discounted email because we wanted these sessions to be ‘real-time’. We decided against a public IM service such as Windows Live Messenger, as we wanted to retain control over the sessions, and only wanted those pupils who we had targeted to take part. (Pupils could easily have invited their friends into a public IM conversation, and the session could therefore have been hijacked and taken off-topic.)

Community Server

We decided to use a product called Cute Chat, because it integrated into Community Server, which we were using at that time for discussion forums for our subjects. Each subject could then have a chat room, accessible by clicking on an icon. To make things simpler for our targeted pupils, we wrote some additions to the front page of our school website which automatically redirected them to the correct e-mentoring chat room at the time the sessions were on.

CuteChat

This is how it looked when it was running – and I saved this screenshot as it has a great quote from one of the pupils using it.

However, it wasn’t long before we realised there were some problems with this approach.

CuteChat2
IM alone was hard – for example, in this screenshot the pupil was trying to draw a graph. It took him a good 5 minutes, and even then wasn’t quite right. Trying to display equations in maths or science was difficult. It was almost like you had to invent a new convention to show subscripts, superscripts and symbols in the limitations of a text message – which would be completely different to what pupils would be expected to write in lessons, or an exam.

It also doesn’t take into account the different learning styles that pupils have. So, whilst we were thrilled at the start, it became obvious that we needed a richer environment.

We looked at what was available on the market that could afford us that richer experience. Microsoft had just released their Office Communication Server 2007, and we asked Microsoft Gold Partner Eurodata, to provide us with an OCS2007 solution to meet our needs. You can read the case study here.

LiveMeeting

Using Microsoft LiveMeeting 2007, we utilised webcams and microphones to have two-way conversations between teacher and pupils; and whiteboards and annotation tools for collaboration. Pupils could still ask questions, so the interactive element was retained; and privately as well - crucial for those who might not feel they want to ask a question in front of everyone. We used polls to provide instant feedback to the teacher, who could then adapt the session to better meet the needs of the learners. Finally, we used videos and flash animations to provide rich media presentations. It seemed like a win; however, students still needed to download the Microsoft LiveMeeting client, and to run a successful revision session you really needed to have two teachers – one to present and one to “manage” the technology to make sure it ran like clockwork.

LyncWebApp1

Thanks to our partner, ClarityIT, we now have Lync 2013, which has the Lync Web App: gone is the need for specific software such as LiveMeeting or Lync Attendee. For these Chemistry revision sessions we used the Lync Web App exclusively, as browser based web applications have become much more sophisticated recently. Students were able to join the session using a range of browsers and operating systems.

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All the rich feature set we had with LiveMeeting is still available to us – I ran through a revision PowerPoint presentation easily and could use the thumbnails view to remind me what was coming up …

presentationtools

I used the new polls in order to gain instant feedback of students’ understanding of the topic…

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I managed the presentable content easily without breaking the flow of presenting…

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If needed, I could use my webcam to have a videoconference…

video

…all from within the browser.

The result was two very successful revision sessions, which engaged the students and enabled me to keep the revision momentum going. The feedback from students was that they found the sessions useful and the technology ‘just worked’. This enabled them to concentrate on the content, and me to concentrate on presenting without having to worry about having to “manage” the presentation. I’m looking forward to using it again for the summer exams!