Providing Live Support to your Community over the Web
Email has long been established as the primary communication tool for online support between two parties. However the synchronous nature of newer tools, themselves becoming quite established, means there are now opportunities to improve web-based support incorporating digital media.
JISC Digital Media run regular online drop-in support sessions called the Online Surgery which focus on providing digital media advice to support teaching and learning. Our use of this type of online activity has meant we are asked regularly about how to go about organising each session, hence the provision of this advice document.
There are numerous potential uses for live communication via the web, listed below are some examples of the ways in which live support can be used:
- Supporting teaching. Where courses are delivered either partly or fully online then online support is recommended. The choice of tool will depend on the support context. Providing both synchronous and asynchronous tools is usual a good option.
- Interviews. For example, where the candidate for a job, or a research collaborator is very far away, possibly internationally-based.
- Live presentations. Often used at conferences where a speaker is unable to attend in person.
On the web, many tools have multiple uses and so we must narrow our focus and take a deeper look at the first highlighted example: ‘supporting teaching' and demonstrate how digital media can aid live online support.
With this type of activity, planning is crucial for success as there are a myriad of options in terms of method, scope and software. Having a defined set of goals will help you maintain focus - worry about the tools later. It is easy to get caught up in adjusting your plans purely to suit the technology which is likely to lead to a dilution of focus and an unsuccessful outcome for the person you are supporting.
Our outline plan for the Online Surgery sessions was:
"To offer a new support provision that takes advantage of being in the here and now which we hoped would complement our existing service offerings, which include email, helpdesk support, and advice documents (such as the one you are reading). By understanding that not everybody can make the sessions, we would release any material post session and also make available a transcript of the Q & A".
The live approach gives the audience the opportunity to ask questions in depth, getting immediate feedback and allowing for the discourse to be more natural.
So with our objectives in place we chose to use tools that allowed as many people to join us as possible, from anywhere around the UK, with no software installation required.
Synchronous communication (real-time)
Synchronous communication is defined as communication that happens immediately, such as a telephone conversation or face-to-face conversation. Using the web this includes audio/video conferencing and other instant communication required to support our objectives.
It is worth being aware that there is also asynchronous communication, which is defined as communication that isn't available immediately to be viewed or responded to, such as email or a paper letter (remember those?!)
Features of online support
Using the web as your medium to provide online support allows you to take advantage of the range of communication tools available and use the most appropriate tools for a session. Digital media is often key for achieving good results. For example the ability to share your screen is great for adding context to the situation. Below are some of typical features of online support:
- The ability to organise the dialogue into manageable chunks that can be stored and used as an evidence trial for both parties to aid support
- Use of video features such as screen-sharing helps to quickly identify issues/problems by providing detailed additional context
- Embedding of external content such as images, video and audio for use in discussion and support
- Use video and audio for meetings with two or more participants (conferences, technical meetings, support, pitching ideas)
- Ability to record all activity including video/audio during sessions
- Use of audio for communicating
- Use of video, either pre-recorded or live streaming where required
- Show still images and other common content such as web pages
All of the above can support your ability to run effective online support sessions whereby colleague's and learner's needs are met.
Example of using live video for support
JISC Conference 2010, London
One of JISC Digital Media's core advisory service offerings is to provide a helpdesk service, where members of the community can ask us any questions regarding the three media and their uses around e-learning. The appropriate members of our team then respond. Questions range from fairly simple such as how to pick a suitable microphone, through to complex questions about maintaining large video collections. Contact is normally first made via email.
For the JISC Conference 2010, held in London, we decided to run two live video sessions in collaboration with JANET so that helpdesk enquires could be answered on the spot with the team back in Bristol. The benefits were that we could have all of the required skill-set available for supporting all types of questions without the expense of time and travel, yet still provide a first rate service to the attendees of the sessions. Additionally, the use of video allowed both parties to see each other which personalises the experience by adding a face to the name.
Where each digital media can be used in online support
Below is a collection of suggestions for uses of digital media for web-based support.
Most online tools are able to upload and share images and uses for support include:
- Providing a focal point for discussion and debate
- Collaborating on generating new ideas and solutions to tasks
Video (moving images)
The most common use of video is to see each other during sessions. The ability to see each other is often used but not essential for most online communication if quality audio is used.
- Typically video is used when participants do not know each other. Video becomes difficult when there are more than several people in the same session, most often due to internet connection speed, so in these instances consider audio only.
- Lots of the available tools have a feature that allows participants to share their screen. This becomes very helpful in support contexts where showing the screen can aid understanding of the situation and is one of the top reasons for using such tools.
- Sometimes it is helpful to highlight problems to other participants through visual means and a screencast is one such method of doing this - it is good for those who wish to pre-record instead of sharing a screen and then making it available.
- As with each media, it often possible to embed or link to externally located video such as
- Recording of sessions, including all action shown onscreen which is useful for keeping a log of questions and the answers provided.
Audio can be nearly always be used for live support, such as:
- Used to communicate to all participants and can be used in conjunction with the other two media above
- Recording of sessions
- Pre-recorded audio may also be used as a basis for discussion
Tip: when there are many people in a session, and everybody needs to contribute it is often wise to stick with using the text-chat tool as management of everybody wishing to speak at once becomes unmanageable.
In order to maximise the opportunities of the allocated time and minimise the possibility of disruption due to technical issues, it is important to plan the session in advance. This however does not need to take up too much time.
Before the session
- Decide what you need to achieve during the session and chose appropriate tools to support such requirements
- Where possible test the connection ahead of the meeting, noting any issues that may be useful to include in house rules
- Send everybody house rules - what's expected regarding the session including setting expectations, data protection and joining instructions
- Assign roles - chairperson, minute/note taker, technical support
During the session
- Have a chairperson to manage the house rules and maintain order of who has the ‘floor'
- Re-iterate any house rules that were provided in advance
- If there was a recording or noting-taking, action what will happen to this data, ensuring you follow data protection guidelines
- Note any issues and where possible seek to improve upon each session until you have found a system that works well for you