Etherpad + small groups in Skype, a new way of doing P2PU meetings

May 23, 2011, [MD]


P2PU courses typically consist of an asynchronous and a synchronous part. The asynchronous part is all the work that is done throughout the week, reading articles, posting blog posts, or comments on the site, collaborating on a wiki article, etc. The synchronous part is usually the "mass-meeting", where all the participants who are able to make it, "meet" at a common time. I wrote a short paper for a course last year about the different elements of synchronous communications, and I tried to extract the most relevant ideas on a wiki page.

There I listed the following "uses" of synchronous meetings at P2PU:

In a recent P2PU course that I took at OISE, I definitively felt the lack of any weekly meeting (this course was purely asynchronous, you were expected to log into a discussion forum several times per week, read what had been written, and post new notes). Not only did I never have a chance to hear the voices or talk directly with the others in the class (except for the teacher, who posted brief weekly video summaries), but it also made it harder to "keep up" with the course. That is what I meant by "pace-setter" above... If you are a busy student, with a number of courses and other projects, you often live by your calendar, and when a lecture is coming up, you know that you need to do the readings and prepare. But it is easy for a course that doesn't appear in the calendar at all to be forgotten or ignored.

Technology and pedagogy

Given the use of synchronous meetings though, there are two key questions to be answered -- Not only what tools you will use, but also how you will organize the meeting to be most useful to whatever purpose you prioritize. There are quite a lot of writings on how to conduct effective classroom lectures, tools for energizing the students, etc., but I have not seen anything on how to conduct a useful discussion group in Elluminate, for example. (I'd love to hear about it, if it exists).

As for the technology to use during this "mass-meeting", previous course organizers have tried a number of approaches, from Skype group calls, to Tokbox, conference calls, etc. And we not only use these tools for course meetings, there are also many organizational meetings at P2PU, whether the weekly community call or smaller group meetings. Personally I find large group calls on Skype or conference call quite tiresome. The audio quality is never great (on conference call, it's uniformly poor, on Skype, there will always be one person with problems), Skype keeps kicking people out, everyone either starts talking at once, or are all silent, etc. You leave such a meeting feeling exhaustion, rather than the exhilaration that can come from a great conversation.

I was excited about P2PU getting access to Big Blue Button, because I have had a few work meetings with Elluminate, which worked quite well, given that we could more easily see who was talking, share screens etc. However, the first attempts of using BBB with our #CSCLintro course was not a great success. BBB has much poorer echo-cancellation than Skype and other commercial tools, and if not every single group member uses headphones, there will be constant disruption. (And somehow, there will never be a group where everyone manages to remember headphones :)). It is possible to mute and unmute members, but in the end, this was so tiresome, that we ended up migrating naturally to Etherpad.

Etherpad has a chat window, together with a large collaborative editing window. This is a nice combination - you can discuss in the chat, while you work out things together in the editing window. Since the editing window is synchronous, and everyone gets a different color, sometimes the chat migrates directly into the document. We used that for two group meetings which I was unable to participate in, and reading the transcripts (Etherpad also let's you "play back" the creation of the document, but unfortunately, not synchronized with the chat messages), it was a very lively meeting.

Sometimes people are concerned with things getting out of hand, and two many conversation threads going on at the same time, as well as typing being slower than thinking (although with a lot of people, you can get more said with text than with voice, because only one can talk at the same time, and we read far faster than we listen), but overall it was quite nice.

Another benefit of text chat is that it is much easier to review later, and even analyze. Nate Otto did a great visualization of how different topics weaved in and out of our conversation.

Idea: Etherpad + Skype

However, I didn't want to give up on voice conversation. I had a few Skype calls with my co-organizer Monica this spring, which have been amazingly productive - really entering a "state of flow", building on each other's ideas, to the extent that I began recording them, to not loose any of it. I wanted to share that intellectual excitement with the participants in the course, and also the personal connection which comes from that more direct communication. I realized that I really like one-on-one conversations, and also that I had almost never had any problems getting Skype to work for calls with only one other person - it's with group-calls that things get difficult.

So we had the idea of combining these aspects. We had everyone join the Etherpad at the allotted time, and asked them to write down in the pad their Skype names, and also which of the two articles of the week they had read (ideally everyone would have read both, but reality is not perfect). We then randomly paired people up with each other, who had read the same article, and gave them ten (extended to 15) minutes to discuss the articles. They were free to discuss any issues that they had come up with, but were also referred to the guiding questions that Monica had prepared.

How did it go?

In a word, great. One interesting aspect of this, is that course organizers do not get to hear what happens in all the other conversations, so we just have to ask people how they went. I had a very interesting conversation with Joe Corneli and got some great new ideas, and from what I heard, the other members really liked it too. We asked people to take notes in the Etherpad, and provided a simple structure (1 realization, 1 unresolved question and 1 idea) for what we wanted to hear.

Unfortunately, the meeting got quite truncated because of some confusion about when we were starting, and people having to leave early, so we didn't have a lot of time to discuss in the group what had been shared in the pairs. In the future, it would be interesting to think of other designs, for example I'd love to first talk to one person for 10 minutes, and then another one for 10 minutes. That way you get to talk to more people, and you can bring ideas from the first conversation into the second one. We could also have people who have read different articles talk, so that they can share what they have read with each other, etc.

Of course, there is nothing stopping people from making appointments to calling each other up at any time during the week, and some courses have tried to make this a regular feature, like the first course on creative non-fiction, where people where supposed to team up during the week to critique each other's writings. However, this is very difficult to schedule, and you lack the flexibility of being able to switch between different people, bring it back to the big group, etc.

Would love to hear from others who try this, refine the concept, or have other great ways of conducting synchronous online meetings or study groups!

Stian Håklev May 23, 2011 Shanxi, China
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