Volume 25, Number 4, 2003

A Dream Come True: Online Instructor-Led CE at Amigos and SOLINET

An interview with Laura Kimberly and Jennifer Link
by: Sara Laughlin, InterfaceEditor

Laura Kimberly is Manager, Continuing Education and Training Services at Amigos Library Services. Jennifer Link is Training and Support Librarian at SOLINET. I recently talked to them about their joint venture to bring instructor-led, Internet-based continuing education to their member libraries. Based in Dallas, Amigos serves libraries in five southwestern states: Arizona, Arkansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. SOLINET, based in Atlanta, covers Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Virginia, and West Virginia.

SL: Laura. I understand that you are the “architect” of live online learning for Amigos. Tell me how you developed this new online learning.

LK: I am actually more the cheerleader. At Amigos, we had been looking at distance learning options since 1989. In the early 90s, we had produced several satellite video conferences and experimented with two-way video. We began to realize that special video events still required most librarians to travel to a special site to participate. We knew we had to make learning more accessible at each library. Recognizing the strategic importance of distance learning, the Amigos board of trustees established a special fund to support a new initiative to do just that. In the late 90s, we created several self-paced courses—and continue to do that when it is appropriate--but our members still wanted to interact with the instructor and other students. Our research into the future of distance learning technology told us sooner or later we’d be able to deliver courses to the desktop; participants wouldn’t have to go to a special room to participate. We looked at OCLC’s use of options like Microsoft’s NetMeeting and Placeware and found it came close to what we were looking for. We read about application sharing, where one site can turn control of the application over to another site miles away, so that instructors and students can demonstrate back and forth. We began to seriously investigate all the available products we could find and outlined what we wanted.

SL: You chose Centra eMeeting software. Tell us about it.

LK: We looked at three products and were very impressed with Centra’s voice-over IP capability, which did not require a phone call. Centra had three products: Symposium, their highestlevel product, offered breakout room and classroom management capability which we would have loved, but it was very expensive. Conference, a product designed to reach large audiences, was not as interactive as we needed. We chose eMeeting, which was originally designed for meetings among offices, and adapted it for our learning applications.

JL: eMeeting offers several attractive features that we use frequently:

  • Audio chat capabilities among the instructor and participants. (Microphone, soundcard, and speakers or headset are required for audio)
  • Text chat among the instructor and participants
  • Delivery of Microsoft PowerPoint presentations
  • Co-browsing of web pages
  • Web page pushing from instructor to participants (called URL share)
  • Application sharing
  • File pushing from instructor to participants (providing a file for download)
  • Creation and presentation of surveys for participants to submit. We use the surveys for skills assessments and for mini-quizzes to check understanding
  • Ability for participants to give the instructor feedback at any time: raise hand, indicate laughter, indicate applause, green check (for yes), red X (for no), too fast, too slow, etc.
  • Addition of co-presenters at any time during the meeting
  • Streaming video among instructor and participants (camera required)
  • Session recording for future playback
  • An administrative interface that allows for meeting creation, deletion, registration, modifications (like changing the time or adding participants), and attendance reports; we also have the option of automatically e-mailing invitations to registered participants.
  • Option of letting Centra host the application.

    SL: What are the technical requirements?

    JL: Technical requirements are minimal for both participants and the instructor. All users have to allow for a small plug-in to be downloaded and installed the first time they log on to a session. Recommended operating systems are Windows 2000 or XP. Windows 98 works too, but occasionally 98 participants encounter problems. All users must have an Internet connection, and the faster the better. Depending on the features you plan to use, some of them might not work for participants who are connecting to the Internet via dial-up. Participants should also have Internet Explorer 5.x or later, or Netscape 4.5x, 4.7X or 7.x. The browser should be JavaScript enabled. Finally, pop-up blocking software should be disabled. The participants also need a sound card installed on their computer and a microphone. Amigos had established a process of sending each participant a small microphone; SOLINET also follows that process.

    SL: How have your trainers and participants responded?

    LK: When we showed eMeeting to our trainers, they said, “Yes, we can get excited about this.” We asked for volunteers to try it. The feedback from participants was also positive. Amigos serves libraries in Louisiana as well as Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Arizona, so the distances are vast. Those in the more remote areas exclaimed, “WOW! We love this!” Those in the metro areas, where we had frequently provided the face-to-face sessions they preferred, were more ho-hum.

    SL: How did you alter your training?

    LK: We spent some time in the early sessions explaining how to participate and helping everyone get used to the technology. We found that the participants were very patient and understanding. They acknowledged that there were barriers, but noted they were not “too bad.”

    We talked to other organizations that had done similar training. They recommended that we always have technical support along with the instructor. For the first ten to fifteen sessions, our technical support specialist was very busy, but he quickly figured out the common problems and how to handle them. A year and a half later, he has solved most of the problems from the technical and interpersonal standpoint. For example, when there are participants with slow Internet connections, he takes them aside—gives them a phone call--and works with them individually, without taking the time of the rest of the class participants.

    JL: We limit the eMeeting sessions to two hours. Some of our OCLC training really only needed that much time and our participants used to drive long distances for two hours of learning. We have also offered some longer sessions, which might have been all-day workshops in the past, by breaking them into two-hour chunks over several days. We can now give the participants assignments overnight, and they have time to reflect. The discussion is dramatically improved.

    SL: What topics do you offer? LK: We have focused primarily on topics related to OCLC in particular and technology in general, with subjects such as Web publishing and Internet searching strategies. We’ve offered sessions on OCLC upgrades. In the past people may have traveled for a day to get to a workshop; now they can get the information in a two-hour session without leaving their desks. For all-day topics, we have divided them into three two-hour sessions, typically on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with homework in-between. I believe the Centra technology would work well for many other topics.

    SL: Laura, I know that Amigos is sharing the Centra subscription with SOLINET. Tell me about that.

    LK: Centra offered two alternatives; you could buy time or seats. We originally subscribed to fifteen simultaneous seats available to us 24/7. As with many products, the price goes down as the volume increases so we approached other regional service providers about sharing a subscription to make it more affordable. Initially, SOLINET, based in Atlanta and two hours ahead of us, shared a small portion of the cost and used the fifteen seats during our early morning hours. That got them hooked. Their members really liked this new option and SOLINET quickly wanted more time. Now we split twenty-eight seats, so they have fourteen at any time during the day and we also have fourteen.

    SL: What’s next?

    LK: We believe we can become even more creative and effective in how we use eMeeting. In 2001, five Amigos staff attended an online course from NYU on online learning for educators, delivered once a week for ten weeks. We picked up lots of tips and tricks for getting the most out of distance learning. For example, we saw how they used pre-class activities, like listening to a pre-recorded lecture or reading a passage before the online session. That allowed them to reserve the session time for discussion. It made us think about ways we might also combine our eMeeting classes with self-paced modules.

    For more information about E-Meeting, visit the Centra Web site.

    For more information on Amigos’ courses and technical requirements, visit Amigos Library Services.

    For information on SOLINET’s technical requirements, visit the SOLINET Web site.