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The Use of Web Conferencing in Joint and Command Staff Programme Distance Learning

by Christine Vaskovics

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Introduction

Computer-mediated communication (CMC) is defined as any communicative transaction that occurs through the use of two-or-more networked computers. It is the process by which people create, exchange, and perceive information using networked computers. 1  CMC can be divided into synchronous and asynchronous forms.2  In synchronous forms, all participants are on line at the same time, while with asynchronous forms, participants are on line at different times, and do not communicate in real time. 

For the most part, asynchronous text-based communication tools, such as email and threaded discussions, have been the most widely used form of CMC in distance education.3  However, due to recent technological developments in web conferencing technology, web conferencing is gaining in popularity as a synchronous form of CMC in distance education.

This short article explores the multiple benefits of using web conferencing, a synchronous communication tool, to improve the delivery, and subsequently, the learning experience of students enrolled in the distance learning courses of the Joint Command and Staff  Programme (JCSP)  at the Canadian Forces College (CFC).   

Context

CFC is a military educational institution that prepares senior military and civilian leaders to handle today’s complex security challenges. It educates leaders in defence and security education, research, and outreach.4  Two of the main programmes offered there are the Joint Command and Staff Programme (JCSP) and the National Security Programme (NSP). The NSP is offered only as a one year full-time residential course, and the JCSP is offered as both a one year full-time programme, and a two year part-time distance learning programme. The curriculum for both versions of JCSP emphasize operations, leadership, and national and international studies. The curriculum examines aspects of command, ethics, operational planning, and defence management.5

The courses that form the distance learning version of JCSP are delivered using DNDLearn, the Department of National Defence (DND) enterprise-wide learning management system.6 Students are able to access assignment instructions and any readings that are not mailed out to them, as well as other course relevant information, by logging into the system from their home or work locations. They complete assignments and quizzes, and are also able to exchange emails and to participate in threaded discussions.7 At the end of each academic year, students get together to complete the practical application exercises connected to the JCSP. However, while attending the individual distance learning courses,  students are separated by time and space during that period of the course. The residential version of JCSP is taught exclusively face-to-face using a variety of instructional methods, such as lectures, small group discussions, case studies, practical exercises, and individual project assignments.

DND learn

DND

DND learn

 

Problem

As mentioned, the courses that form the residential version of JCSP are taught face-to-face, and, as a consequence, there are very high levels of interaction in these courses. Students are able to communicate daily; they discuss the learning material with each other at the same time and place, they work together in small groups on projects, they participate in seminars together, and they attend lectures together.

The courses that form the distance learning version of JCSP are obviously different. Since they are separated by both time and space, these courses do not have the same high levels of interaction. They are not able to synchronously work in groups, nor attend seminars and discussions, nor are they able to benefit from lectures. Although distance learning students are able to communicate using email or by participating in threaded discussions, this asynchronous interaction is minimal.

Students of this version of JCSP do, however, get together at the end of each academic year to complete the practical application exercises connected to the program. Nonetheless, the actual courses do not include this requirement.

As stated by Distance Education specialists Michael Graham Moore and Greg Kearsley, ``Effective teaching at a distance depends largely on a deep understanding of the nature of interaction and how to facilitate interaction through technologically transmitted communications.``8 According to Educational Technology authorities A.W. Bates and Gary Poole, most theories of learning stress the necessity of interaction for learning to be effective. Although first discussed by Moore, it is generally understood by all distance education practitioners today that for learning to be truly effective in a distance education setting, three types of interaction must be present, namely, students need to interact with the instructor, interact with each other, and interact with the learning material.9

Solution

Email and threaded discussion are the technologies used for communication and learning in the distance learning courses that form the JCSP distance learning version. However, if the aim of the College is to emulate the conventional ‘best practice’ of face-to-face learning in a distance education course, the most logical solution would be to use a synchronous communication tool, such as web conferencing.

Web conferencing refers to a range of services that allow many participants to come together and ‘meet’ to share information.  Information such as audio, video and document files can be shared across geographically-dispersed locations synchronously over the Internet.10 ,11 Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) web conferencing bypasses the telephone, and it transmits audio over the Internet. Participants in a web conference can communicate with the microphones and speakers installed on their computers. Headsets can be used, and most are very affordable.

Canadian Forces College  

CFC crest



ID 14955788 www.123rf.com/Kbuntu

Distance Learning

 

The Benefits of Web Conferencing for Distance Learning Courses

There are many benefits that can be realized by introducing a synchronous tool, such as web conferencing, to a distance learning course. Because it simulates face-to-face communication, the most obvious benefits are increased opportunities for communication and interaction between students and instructors. There are, however, other less-obvious benefits.

Web conferencing has the ability to foster feelings of community and of belonging. Research studies have revealed that students, when using web conferencing as part of a distance learning course,12 feel that because it is a synchronous communication tool that increases interaction and communication, it increases engagement levels and feelings of community, which consequently reducing the feelings of isolation some students experience in a distance education setting.13

A common element for learning in a normal face-to-face classroom is the social and communicative exchanges that occur between students and instructors, which are commonly referred to as the ‘presence.’ This can be defined as a sense of belonging to a group, and any synchronous communication tool when used in a distance learning environment will facilitate a sense of belonging.14 

A benefit web conferencing has over other asynchronous communication tools that should not be overlooked, and one most instructors will find particularly useful, is the ability it generates to combat lurking.15  Lurking, in the context of an online discussion forum with a set time frame and learning objective, refers to the practice of reading other student contributions in a discussion forum, and either not contributing, making minimal contributions, or making contributions that are almost identical to those that others have made.16 Although some will argue lurking in a discussion forum is under-theorized and under–researched, and that there are, in fact, learning benefits associated to lurking, 17, 18 many educators equate the practice to ‘freeloading,’ or resource-stealing.19 When using a synchronous communication tool such as web conferencing, it is easier for the instructor to watch for lurking and to curtail passive participation, because all students attending a session can be given the opportunity to contribute at any time the host decides to offer it.

If it is CFC’s intent that the distance learning students of JCSP have a similar learning experience to the residential students of JCSP,  the obvious starting point would be to incorporate the pedagogical functions used in the residential courses into the distance learning courses, functions such as group work, seminar discussions, and lectures. By doing this, the distance learning students will enjoy opportunities for communication and interaction between students and instructors that do not currently exist, and as a result, students will be more engaged – they will experience a stronger sense of community.

ID 12903418 www.123rs.com/Oleksandr Rozdobudko

Our land surrounded by notebooks
World globe with webcam

ID 14936374 www.123rk.com/Luca De Polo

World globe with webcam

 

Possible Drawbacks to Using Web Conferencing in JCSP Distance Learning Courses

The main drawbacks to using web conferencing for CFC would include the costs associated with acquisition, training, and technical support. 

Since CFC is funded by DND, and does not have a funding source based upon tuition, it is increasingly faced with budget cuts, and with ‘having to do more with less,’ just as is the case with other Federal Government departments. Consequently, the introduction of any new technology will have to come with minimal cost, or it must provide a longer-term cost benefit.

The effective incorporation of a web conferencing tool into a higher education environment, such as CFC, is more than just ‘plopping a novel gadget’ into the hands of overworked faculty and staff, and expecting them to use all the best practices associated with that tool. Instructors and staff will need to learn how to properly use the web conferencing, and they will need to know both the technical aspects of operation, and how to facilitate on line learning with the tool. The addition of web conferencing will undoubtedly have to include an effective training plan, as well as ample technical support, especially at the initial stages of integration. Instructors and tutors delivering the distance learning courses will also need to be familiar with their roles and responsibilities as moderators in on line communications.

Recommendations for Web Conferencing Tools

DNDLearn Live

Quite recently, the Canadian Defence Academy (CDA) added to their available technologies a web conferencing tool they call DNDLearn Live.20 This is an Adobe Connect product, which is an enterprise web conferencing solution for online meetings, e-learning, and web-based seminars (webinars). Adobe Connect is a popular product, and it is used by leading corporations and government agencies.21 

There are no costs to any units who currently use DNDLearn and wish to use DNDLearn Live. 22 DNDLearn Live is accessible to all students, every student accessing DNDLearn is able to connect to DNDLearn Live, and there are no additional hardware or software requirements with the exception of an inexpensive microphone.  Those Canadian Forces education and training institutions who have used DNDLearn Live have responded favourably to the product. For example, they have used DNDLearn Live for web conferencing, virtual classrooms, and weekly meetings.23 

Simplified instructions on how to use DNDLearn Live can be found on the CDA website, and also when logged into DNDLearn. When using the DNDLearn Live tutorial, I found it both easy to understand and informative, and felt it provided a sound overview of the platform; I also felt confident that I could easily conduct a web conference session after completing the tutorial. All technical support needed for DNDLearn Live is provided by DNDLearn support staff.25

SABA display

Courtesy of Saba.com

SABA display

 

Saba Centra

The Canadian Defence Academy is introducing a new Learning Management Platform over the next two years which will include an enterprise web conferencing tool called Saba Centra.26 It is available only on the DND Intranet at present. However it will soon be available on the Internet. When this occurs, Saba Centra will replace DNDLearn Live.27

Both web conferencing tools will serve the JCSP distance learning courses well. Both platforms have available technical support and training for staff, faculty, and students. Saba Centra is the more current web conferencing tool, but DNDLearn Live has received many accolades from the CF training and education community.

Conclusion

Today’s web conferencing platforms have the potential to transform distance education courses. Pedagogical approaches common in face-to-face classes, such as lectures and seminar discussions, can now be facilitated in a distance education setting using a web conferencing tool.  There are many benefits not achievable when using only asynchronous communication tools in a distance education course, benefits such as increased opportunities for communication and interaction, which invariably will result in increased levels of engagement among students and a stronger sense of community and belonging. The incorporation of a web conferencing tool such as DNDLearn Live or Saba Centra in the delivery of any one of the distance learning courses of JCSP will undoubtedly result in a better learning experience for students, or said another way, a better distance learning course. 

Christine Vaskovics served in the Canadian Forces from 2001 to 2007, when she was posted to the Canadian Forces College. She subsequently served  as a civilian as the EA to the Director of Academics, then with Human Resources Skills Development Canada as a Payment Services Officer and an Administrative Officer in the Innovation, Information, and Technology Branch. Recently re-enrolled in the CF, she is currently serving at ASU Toronto. She holds a BA in Human Relations, a post-baccalaureate diploma in Distance Education Technology, and is currently completing an MA in Distance Education at Athabasca University.

NOTES

  1. A. Romiszowski and R. Mason,  “Computer-mediated Communication,” in D. Johnassen (Ed.), Handbook of Research for Educational Communications and Technology (New York: Macmillan, 1996), pp. 438-456. Accessed 31 October 2011 at http://www.aect.org/edtech/15.pdf.

  2. Ibid., 2ndEdition (New York: Macmillan, 2004), pp. 397-431. Accessed 31 October 2011 at http://www.aect.org/edtech/15.pdf.

  3. Ibid., (!st Edition), (New York: Macmillan, 1996), pp. 438-456. Accessed 31 October 2011.

  4. Canadian Forces College, Vision and Mission of the Canadian Forces College. (2011). Accessed  9 November 2011 at  http://www.cfc.forces.gc.ca/263-eng.html.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Ibid.

  7. DNDLearn Website, (2011) Accessed 15 November 2011 at http://www.dndlearn.forces.gc.ca .

  8. A.W. Bates and G. Poole, Effective Teaching with Technology in Higher Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass , 2003), pp. 98-101.

  9. Ibid.

  10. A.W. Bates, Selecting and Using Technologies in Distance Education Technology. E-Learning and Distance Education, (2ndEdition), (London and New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2005), pp. 41-66.

  11. M. Steed and A. Vigrass,  “Assessment of Web Conferencing in Teacher Preparation Field Experiences,” in M. Koehler & P. Mishra (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2011, (Chesapeake, VA: AACE, 2011), pp. 2736 - 2743.

  12. S. Cornelius, “Convenience and Community? An Exploratory Investigation into Learners' Experiences of Web Conferencing,” in T. Bastiaens & M. Ebner (Eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2011 (Chesapeake, VA: AACE, 2011), pp. 2696-2704. Accessed 18 November 2011 at  http://0-www.editlib.org.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/p/38240

  13. Ibid.

  14. A. Romiszowski and R. Mason, in  Johnassen (Ed.), (2ndEdition), pp. 397-431.

  15. S. Gulati, Constructivism and Emerging Online Learning Pedagogy: A Discussion for Formal to Acknowledge and Promote the Informal. Annual Conference of the Universities Association for Continuing Education - Regional Futures: Formal and Informal Learning Perspectives, Centre for Lifelong Learning  (University of Glamorgan, 5-7 April 2004). Accessed 20 November 2011 at http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/00003562.htm.

  16. Ibid.

  17. A. Romiszowski and  R. Mason, in Johnassen,  (2ndEdition), pp. 397-431.

  18. S. Gulati, Accessed 20 November 2011 at: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/00003562.htm

  19. Ibid.

  20. Ross MacLachlan, DNDLearn Administrator, Canadian Defence Academy, personal email dated 3 November 2011.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Ibid.

  24. DNDLearn Website, (2011). Accessed 15 November 2011 at http://www.dndlearn.forces.gc.ca

  25. Ross MacLachlan, personal email dated 3 November 2011.

  26. Ibid.

  27. Ibid.