Saturday, November 24, 2007

Who's in charge here? WiZiQ and Elluminate

Late breaking news Dec 18 - I've heard from both Elluminate and WiZiQ by now and have finalized this piece. I'll reconcile this blog with the most current version eventually but for right now, to read the latest version of this article, please visit:
http://prosites-vstevens.homestead.com/files/efi/papers/tesl-ej/07dec/wiziq_elluminate.htm
or Tiny URL: http://tinyurl.com/23lbgo

Incidentally, if you wish to comment, please read the latest version and leave your comment below. Soon, the version here will mirror the latest version in its temporary location.

The ABOVE version should appear here within a day or two: http://tesl-ej.org/ej43/int.html


I wrote this in a hurry and posted it Nov 24 which was right before a publication deadline for TESL-EJ, as this article is intended for the On the Internet column in the December 2007 issue. But the deadline has since been extended to Dec 16 (and slightly beyond) and so there is time to get feedback from the developers at Elluminate and WiZiQ prior to the new deadline. This is being solicited, and also, WiZiQ have meanwhile announced the following enhancements to what I used to write my article:
  1. More Documents: Support for Word Documents and Excel Spreadsheets.
  2. Attendee rights: Off by default; presenter can transfer audio or video control selectively.
  3. Two-way video: You and your attendee can share each others’ live video during the session.
  4. Whiteboard Tools: The drawing and writing toolbar now includes a “Delete” button. “Undo” and “Redo” also added.
  5. New Look and Feel: Panels for chat, attendee list and audio, video settings now occupy the right side.
There is more information at WiZiQ's blog here: http://wiziq.typepad.com/wiziqcom/2007/12/vc-update---mic.html


Meanwhile, here's the article as currently submitted to the December 2007 issue of TESL-EJ

Meanwhile still, Michael Coghlan informs me that "the latest version of Elluminate (v.8) has full duplex for up to 4 speakers if you choose to enable that feature." He says he most often opts to leave it off, and this was discussed last night at Webheads, Svetlana wanting to replicate a f2f classroom online, and me pointing out that the technology wasn't up to it because of feedback when participants don't wear headphones (moderators always having to troubleshoot that one) and also DELAYS ... in a meeting the other day we had one participant appearing rude interrupting other speakers (on full duplex) when in fact he was simply experiencing delay and was responding at appropriate junctures ... we have also experienced this when attempting guitar jams online .. impossible to synch up).



A recent Women of Web 2.0 webcast http://www.edtechtalk.com/WomenofWeb2.0 (and subsequent podcast, on the Worldbridges EdTechTalk channel http://www.edtechtalk.com/) discussed the hottest Web 2.0 applications these days (obvious grist for an On the Internet column editor). Honorable mention went to NetVibes <http://www.netvibes.com/>, VoiceThread <http://voicethread.com/#home, and WiZiQ <http://www.wiziq.com/>, among others.

This article is an attempt to compare the free and open source, social networking Web 2.0 tool WiZiQ with Elluminate, one of its more successful enterprise counterparts, not just as per features of the two programs, but regarding the use of each tool that the design of each respectively forces or allows

WiZiQ currently is all the rage on Webheads and Learning with Computers, two email lists with around 1000 tech using educators interacting constantly in dozens of email messages each day (message archives viewable online or via RSS feeds from http://groups.yahoo.com/group/evonline2002_webheads/ and http://groups.yahoo.com/group/learningwithcomputers/, repectively), and it's also a popular topic in the edublogosphere. For a quick overview of WiZiQ, there's a slick promotional video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Yty0cPzlcU. What WiZiQ is and why is it so popular with tech-crunching educators is what I have been reflecting on recently, in conjunction with the critical issue in education of who exactly is in change here?.

First I should explain that WiZiQ is a free presentation software working entirely online, no download to your computer, that allows you to interact with other participants in a common virtual space. The space contains a whiteboard, which users can turn into multiple whiteboards, and upload PowerPoint slide shows to one or more of them. The slide shows are hosted more or less permanently at WiZiQ where they can be searched on by content, tags, or groupings, a feature reminiscent of Slideshare <http://www.slideshare.net/>. Users can also converse synchronously in full duplex, and if the moderator has elected to enable web cams, he or she can select one to display from participants who have theirs on. On the down side, there is no web tour, though URLs can be posted to the text chat.

All sessions are automatically recorded and are available at the URL where the session was hosted. Sessions can be hosted by anyone registered with WiZiQ and anyone registered can attend any other session to which they have been invited. The system is similar to Skypecasting, where any registered Skype user can start one, and only registered Skype users would be able to attend, which seems not out of the ordinary in the case of Skype, since you need the software on your computer and a Skype ID to skype (the verb) someone anyway.

WiZiQ takes advantage of registration in a way not exploited by Skype, however. WiZiQ has set itself up as a social networking site. Users can update their profiles with concepts they are interested in (i.e. tags) and presumably this will help link up users with common interests, though the system is new and (at time of deadline) we haven't yet found how a tag which many users share evolves into a more formal 'group'. The system does allow members to create and join groups, and to form networks of associations between users. For example, if you set up a session, you can choose to invite everyone in your group or limit the invitation to selected members in your network and they will all receive a message which not only informs them of your session, but to which they can conveniently reply. This is a feature that seems to work well with WiZiQ, though I have received messages from people I didn't realize I was networked with. WiZiQ is clearly a work in progress, under development, but with social networking sites, unless you directly probe the developer, many of the features will become apparent only after extensive usage and interaction.

One reason that WiZiQ has attracted so much attention is that educators are always on the lookout for free tools that promote synchronous interaction coupled with information dissemination within a network, especially one that lends itself to a formal venue, such as a class or a 'presentation' online. WiZiQ is the first product of its kind to emerge since the recent DimDim effort http://www.dimdim.com/, a similar, and open source, project which somehow seems to have receded from the periscope views of the instructor networks mentioned above. In that project, network members such as Moira Hunter had been working closely with the developer of DimDim. In the case of WiZiQ, the developer Harman Singh, appears to be similarly approachable, and responds personally to feedback from users.

Preferences vary, but one popular choice of an integrated set of online presentation tools has been Elluminate http://www.elluminate.com/. Although Elluminate is not free, it is often used for free by educators when they participate in sponsored or funded online conferences or sessions, or work through a community like Learning Times http://www.learningtimes.org/, which has provided free access to an Elluminate "Meeting Room" on its left sidebar for years. Learning Times has also been gracious in providing access to Elluminate meeting rooms for individuals and events which in turn provide educational services for free. For example, they have donated their services as sponsors of two WiAOC Conferences now http://wiaoc.org/. Elluminate itself has just started offering free 'rooms' to educators, but supplies each with only enough bandwidth for three participants: http://elluminate.com/vroom/.

Elluminate has proven to be a very robust platform despite being heavy on the front end at low bandwidths (it checks to see if the most recent version is on your computer and takes a few minutes to install the latest, and then it checks three proxies -- your browser, Java, and Elluminate itself -- which must all be set correctly, but which you would notice only if trying to connect from behind a firewall). Once connected, it generally works pretty well. It's cross platform and fairly intuitive to use, which is to say that in practice few complain of problems figuring out how to use it. The room will have been assigned a URL, but once this is given out, guests can enter the room with or without a moderator present. The moderator can assign other moderators to share power, and can remove those privileges as easily. The moderator can also grant individuals the right to use mics or web cams. With Elluminate, speech only works one direction at a time, but this works well since it imposes a turn taking order. The moderator can also 'take back' the mic in case a participant neglects to relinquish it (resulting in too long a silence).

Whereas only one web cam can be shown at a time, as long as the moderator has allowed it, participants can self-select to broadcast whenever the cam spot is available, and a preview mode allows for preening prior to going prime time. Participants also have access to a whiteboard onto which they can superimpose text, paint graphics, or image files from their personal disk drives, and a moderator can upload PowerPoint or other prepared materials, and can drive web tours in such a way that all participants visit the same URLs. Elluminate also allows moderators to share applications, for example a browser window. This differs from a web tour because with application sharing, the moderator can scroll and all participant windows will scroll as well.

Unlike WiZiQ, recordings are not made automatically, but when activated the recording is hosted on Elluminate servers, where it can be played back by anyone with access to the URL. As with WiZiQ, if there is a way to save a copy to a personal computer, I am not aware of it. However, some users make Camtasia versions of recorded sessions which can serve as personal archives or be hosted privately <http://www.techsmith.com/camtasia.asp>, and word on the street is that TechSmith has released the only slightly outdated version 3 of Camtasia Studio as a free (as opposed to trial) download: http://www.downloadsquad.com/2007/11/22/techsmith-offers-free-camtasia-studio-download/. Camstudio, the open source version of Camtasia, should work just as well <http://camstudio.org/>.

Elluminate lends itself well to a variety of styles of presentation. It works well with informal groupings where people just want to meet and discuss while sharing collaborative resources, and it works well for people who want to make more formal presentations but open participation to more audience interaction during or after the presentation. In my experience I have never thought it necessary to restrict anyone's access to the tools while moderating a session, though I have attended sessions where moderators have preferred to lock it down and force participants to request attention before being granted access to the mic once the moderator had notified them that such requests would be attended to (when the moderator has wished to restrict access during the presentation itself). Elluminate allows participants to raise hand icons to request attention, to clap hands, present a thumbs up or down, and control various other emoticons and graphical whiteboard icons as well, again assuming these have been allowed by the moderator. Elluminate, in other words, works well for moderators who wish to encourage peer to peer collaboration throughout a session, as well as for moderators who feel the stakes are high enough for them to exercise enough control to enable them to stage-manage an event.

However, what I have been reflecting on with regard to these two applications -- WiZiQ and Elluminate -- is not so much the descriptive differences between them, but the philosophical ones, the assumptions behind what a presenter's purpose would be which must have driven design of each system. What particularly interests me is WiZiQ's approach, so different from that of Elluminate, to the role of the presenter/moderator. Two other differences have been mentioned and are not really part of my reflection, though each is an important crucial difference in its own right. These are the fact that WiZiQ is free and is being developed obviously in hopes of attracting a following, and presumably feedback such as I am providing here, and secondly its social networking features, very interesting, but not a focus of this review.

A WiZiQ session develops very differently to an Elluminate one. First of all, the moderator will schedule a session, as is the right of anyone who has registered with WiZiQ beforehand. At this stage the moderator can elect to enable the web cam feature for the upcoming session in addition to voice. The moderator can schedule any amount of time for the session up to two hours (and I believe that once in the session, the moderator can top up the session with more time if needed).

However, the role of the moderator in WiZiQ is very different from that of the moderator of an Elluminate session. Most crucially, in a WiZiQ session, the moderator must be pro-active in driving the interaction from the point of appearing on time for the session to begin with. Let's say the moderator has scheduled the session for noon, and has invited a number of participants from his or her network. Those people will receive an email saying that the session begins at noon, and no one, not even the moderator, can enter the session before then. The moderator is then in a position of having to upload materials to the whiteboard with participants present who have been informed that the session was to begin at noon. One way to avoid this would be to not invite anyone from the moderator's network, so there would be no system-generated emails, and the moderator might then invite participants through a separate network to arrive for a presentation set to begin at 12:30, or whenever the moderator expects to be ready. However, this would obviate benefits inherent in the social network features, so what is needed here is the ability of the moderator to get in beforehand and set up the session.

WiZiQ allows for fully duplex voice chat, as you get with Skypecasts, which start similarly to a WiZiQ session. WiZiQ at least deals with one problem with Skypecasts - in WiZiQ participants arrive muted until granted permission to speak. This is both bane and boon, boon to the moderator who is the sole participant who is able to speak until he or she decides to start granting others the mic, and bane in case the moderator is not there for whatever reason. In that case participants must text chat, as there would be no one available to allow them to talk. With Elluminate, it should be recalled that participants who gather at a working Elluminate room will be fully voice empowered unless a moderator arrives who wishes to switch them off.

Because of its simplex, one-person-speaks-at-a time functionality, Elluminate users do not encounter the problems faced by users of Skype and WiZiQ when everyone is able to talk at once -- these issues being background noise and feedback. With Elluminate, it might also be recalled that users in general need little or no training in order to participate, but with Skype and WiZiQ considerable time and effort often has to be expended on mic etiquette. Users of duplex synchronous voice chat tools need to wear headsets so that their mics don't pick up what others are saying from the speakers and feed it back into the voice stream with delay, giving an echo effect that can disrupt speech in the person trying to speak. In worst cases, this can cause high-volume whine until the offending user self-mutes or is muted. Similarly when participants are in an area with loud background noise, they need to mute their mics when not speaking so that the noise doesn't distort the conversation being played to everyone else.

If the moderator has to deal with sound issues while trying to present, this increases task load, so a course of least resistance for moderators is to simply leave the default settings in place, so that everyone but the moderator is muted. The moderator then opens up one mic at a time in response to a hand raised, the icon provided for participants to get attention. Similarly, if the moderator has activated web cams for the session, then the moderator's web cam will appear from the moment it is switched on, but for others to have the cam, the moderator must select that person and pass web cam control on. If the moderator is on the ball, this might be a good way to ensure that anyone who is speaking is pictured while speaking, but then the moderator would be taking on a role of director or puppeteer, constantly switching between speakers and web cams by granting the appropriate privileges at just the right juncture in the presentation.

Another odd thing happens in WiZiQ when the moderator grants voice permission, and that is that permission to use a microphone brings with it permission to have moderator control over whiteboards, including the option to create new ones and toggle from one to another. It's hard to second guess the developers of the product on this one, but the ramifications are several-fold. In particular, the moderator cannot grant many participants microphone privilege without a corresponding increasing in chance of chaos occurring with whatever presentation materials are on the screen. If the moderator stopped on a particular slide for example and invited comment and then threw the floor open to all participants, all participants might start seeing the slides and whiteboard changing without anyone knowing who was making the changes, and when the moderator regained control there might be a few whiteboards more than when the chaos started.

So it must have been assumed in designing this system that the moderator would not think to do this. In our experiments with this system we have found that the moderator would be in any event unwise to un-mute all mics due to the sound issues mentioned earlier, so the system seems to have been designed with less flexible view of how a moderator might want to conduct a session than that allowed by Elluminate.

What then must a moderator do in order to make an effective presentation in WiZiQ, and what would a group do in order to hold an effective brainstorming session in WiZiQ? These are important questions to raise at this time, while WiZiQ and perhaps other similar products are under development, and while the developers are still in a position to respond to feedback from the educational community.

In its present rendition, WiZiQ is designed for a moderator who wishes to have control. In practice, that moderator is kept a bit busy to be both moderator and presenter. There are a lot of balls to juggle, trying to sort out the duplex audio issues, manage the web cams, plus toggle the whiteboards, in addition to making a presentation which entails conversation with participants. Even in Elluminate, where moderation is not quite so hands on, moderators find it convenient to work in tandem, one person presenting and another handling the back channels. This is possible in Elluminate because one moderator can appoint another (but is not yet an option in WiZiQ). It might be wise for WiZiQ to go the same route, and provide this option to the main moderator. Also, it would help to allow moderators finer control over privileges, instead of bundling such a wide set of privileges with anyone who is able to use a microphone.

So to answer the first question above, to make an effective presentation in WiZiQ, the moderator needs to keep control of it, and this is best done by withholding control from others, or by being careful and abstemious in how that control is parceled out. In my experience with similar tools, and due to my idiosyncratic personal learning and presentation style, I do not take as great pleasure in participating in discussions where participants are not free to interject as in those where they have this right. Here preference of style would be a matter of personality, but with Elluminate one has the choice of adopting the approach one prefers. With WiZiQ that choice is made of necessity.

As to the next question, how best to run a brainstorming session with more relaxed participants, WiZiQ would be a good choice for this because it is free, and would likely be adopted by members of a community, who might also wish to take advantage of its social networking aspects. In such a community, where members would interact over time, they would likely get to know one another and would educate each other in proper use of the tools (how to mute mics and wear headsets for example). WiZiQ appears to me to have its strengths in situations which would benefit from access to social networking tools, and connectivist philosophy.

So if one were to make the choice right now which client one were to choose, it would depend perhaps on how much money one had (WiZiQ is free), how high the stakes were within one's community (Elluminate is more stable and robust, and more flexible with regard to role of moderator), and whether or not the social networking possibilities with WiZiQ were worth exploring. WiZiQ is developing an enthusiastic following, and as part of a community of users that includes its developers, the possibility at this juncture of influencing the course of development is additionally encouraging.

Perhaps this article can contribute to the development effort. In order to encourage feedback I have blogged it at http://advanceducation.blogspot.com/2007/11/whos-in-charge-here-wiziq-and.html. If you feel you have anything to contribute to this discussion, please visit the blog and add your two cents, and/or leave comments at the 'official' WiZiQ blog at http://wiziq.typepad.com/. You can also subscribe to Elluminate blog reviews at http://www.elluminate.com/rss/blogs.xml.

3 comments:

RitaZ said...

Hi, Vance,

Thank you very much for this detailed analysis of WIZIQ, plus its comparison with Elluminate and Dimdim. It is most enlightening, mainly to Elluminate users, who, like myself, got used to its features and can now see similarities and differences clearly before making up their minds as to which one to use, when and why.
I have used Elluminate lots of times, and have tried WIZIQ only twice, so more practice would render more experience to be able to choose appropriately when needs be.

The only trouble I found the second time I participated in a WIZIQ session --it was a session you moderated-- was sound quality, but it may well have been due to an Internet congestion at the time, since during the first session voice had been best quality.

If asked, I'd say I like many of WIZIQ features:
* its being free
* its social aspect allowing for interaction and active participation
* the use of tagging for searching content and users
* no download needed
* easy ppt slideshow uploading and saving
* webcam enabling

I also agree with you in that it's important for the mod/presenter not only to get some good practice before the first session to get used to "multitasking" all the time --which leads to the need of allowing for two mods/presenters at a time, as you've pointed out--, but also to instruct all participants to mute mics and wear headsets, basically.

I do like the fact that all participants get into the room at once, as it gives the mod the chance to get there before and get ready..., same as in some f2f conferences, when attendees are allowed to enter the auditorium once everything has been set.

Anyway, it´s a great new option we educators have, in our never-ending quest for userfriendly, comprehensive online tools to enrich our professional experience by providing us and our students with more and better chances to share learning.

Most gratefully and warmly,

Rita

Ignatia eLearns through the web said...

Thank you for this great analyses!
I linked your review to a post of mine.

josh said...

Those are very good tools, however, in many cases those platforms are used just to allow the team to review the same document together in real-time and "be on the same page".
The recently launched free site http://www.showdocument.com does exactly that, quickly show documents to friends and colleagues.
It allows Free Web meeting and co-browsing on any document, user uploads a document and invites friends to view it with him live
All the participants in the session see each others' drawing, highlights, etc.

Josh