Edublogs webinar – Extraordinary Literacy Learning


This recorded session was a FineFocus session about how we delivered a pilot (funded by the Australian National Vocational E-Learning Strategy initiative – Partnerships for Participation) adult literacy course entirely online using virtual classroom, blogs and other e-tools.

The session

Due to time constraints the focus of the session was very much on the delivery model and strategies used rather than on the student cohort/reasons for adopting the approach. I began the session with a very brief scene setting and then moved on to discuss the delivery model. Initially this was from an overall perspective followed by a more in depth look at how the different aspects fitted together.

Blogs formed the core of the student work and we had an online audience poll on blogs which indicated that (unsurprisingly) everyone had some knowledge of blogs. Then we moved on using examples from the “Course Blog” and individual “Student Blogs to illustrate how we used the blogs in the literacy context to enable students to access “How to” information, write for an authentic audience and receive feedback on their work. Although blogs were the main core of student activities we also used a course website (built in the Institute LMS) and virtual class recordings to provide supplementary resources. Links for activities were provided via Symbaloo. The structure of the course helped us to “walk the fine line” between too much control of student activities and potential anarchy and the issues arising from this.!

We moved on to look briefly at the project outcomes including some student feedback via

This was followed by a “Roaming Challenge” – an opportunity for session participants to access a series of whiteboards individually add their own ideas on how they might use some of the tools and strategies for specifc activities with a particular student cohort. We shared and discussed the ideas briefly and I also shared the outcomes of the same activity from a face-to-face presentation that I did for my own organisation as part of an innovation workshop.

We finished up with a second online poll to gather feedback on the session and a “best takeways” board for any other comments.


I so much enjoyed doing this session. The project was so exciting to do and because (in my opinion) it was very successful I love to share how we did it. The only sad thing is that my Institute has now stopped all delivery of Certs in General Education both face-to-face and online because of increasing funding constraints brought about by the requirements for public vocational education to be competitive with the private sector.

If you have something  you would like to present a webinar on please let us know (add a comment to this post, or Tweet us – @JoHart or @philhart).  Then join us to facilitate a session about your e-edu passion! If you are not familiar with BlackboardCollaborate we can help you plan how best to do your session so it works for you. Our sessions are small and friendly – the ideal setting for your first webinar.

Our Next Webinar

Our next webinar will be an Edublogs “Serendipity” session on Thursday January 31st at 23:00 GMT/UTC (Afternoon/Evening USA) or Friday February 1st at 7am West Aus, mid morning Eastern States Aus depending on your timezone (check yours here) – in the usual BlackboardCollaborate room. This is one of our fortnightly unconference sessions where we invite you to bring along your “hot topics” and “burning issues” for our poll on the topic

Hurdl-e the barriers to online learning!


Since I read Britt Gow’s post on her online class a while ago I have been trying to find time to write a post myself because I have been teaching using a fully online blend for some time and I have many thoughts on what works and what doesn’t work for me and my students. I am also continually “tweaking” and changing both to deal with issues that arise and to try and make it all work better. I am an adult literacy/numeracy lecturer working in the public vocational education and traning sector in the Wheatbelt of Western Australia. My classroom is 115,000 square kilometres of sparsely populated country with a scattering of small towns and even smaller communities so going online was a logical step to increase the accessiblity of our adult literacy/numeracy courses

Most of my online teaching has included a large Elluminate (virtual classroom) component. My other main thread for various reasons – these deserve a post of their own – is a course website in our organisation’s Learning Management System (LMS).  I also use email a lot. However I always use other e-stuff as well and this year have started a Facebook group. My current courses are three Certificates in adult literacy/numeracy – Certificates in General Education for Adults (CGEA). Students need to complete around 12-15 units for a full certificate and in a face-to-face context this would involve around 240-350 hours of class contact time. We have continuous enrolments and each student is enrolled on an individually determined suite of units.  My students are regionally based – unable or unwilling to attend on campus for numerous reasons including geographical isolation or family commitments. These students are highly diverse including: teens who have dropped out of school (youth at risk); mature age return to learn; those who must be undertaking training in order to get their benefits; and culturally and linguistically diverse learners. As well as the literacy/numeracy issues that are the reason for them doing CGEA many of these students have low IT skills My background is in sciences and in equine studies but I also had a literacy and numeracy component in my previous adult education role in the UK, I think that the diversity of my own background and experience is extremely helpful in working with such a range of students.

I could write reams about both the barriers encountered and the things that work so to try and keep this brief I will just talk about some of what have been key issues for me with solutions I have tried and the effectiveness of those solutions.

1. Diversity (and age) of student computer systems

For anyone teaching online in any way other than with the students all in one room on organisation computers that are very similarly configured this has to be one of the most significant barriers to success! It not only impacts on students getting online in the first place but also poses ongoing problems for submission of work or for students reading specific documents that may have been posted in formats that they cannot read. This diversity of systems issue is compounded by the low computer literacy levels of many of our students across all age groups.


Solutions to date

  • Start with getting students into the virtual classroom – it is much easier to problem solve once we can talk and application share
  • Do this with stepwise generic instructions for Elluminate configuration – this really means get the students to access the Elluminate support link because thankfully this detects the current situation and then steps the user through configure and audio set-up
  • If the student has problems at this stage (about 3-4% may do so) then get as much information as possible and use email with screenshots and phone calls if necessary to help them
  • Once students have accessed Elluminate we do an induction into Elluminate and also demonstrate the LMS (course website) through application share
  • Any later issues can be addressed by the student sharing their desktop I can then observe and coach the student through the problem process or if necessary be given control of their desktop

The above has generally worked well for me in getting both my own students and those of my colleagues online. Occasionally the problem solving can take time – one instance in particular was a student whose Java had become corrupt. There have also been one or two students who have been unable to get online  from their home computer because of hardware issues or age/sufficient free memory on their computers.

I am in the process of developing a DVD that we can send out to all students on enrolment that will include all the start up information (including some of the troubleshooting), an overall course induction and useful open source applications with links for downloading current versions.

2. Communication

When students are regional/remote and we never meet face-to-face communication strategies become a key factor for success. I certainly don’t think we have this one full solved by any stretch of the imagination. I think it is critical that there are several different communication strategies in addition to planned virtual synchronous sessions.

When students enrol we emphasise that most communication is through email. We ask that they have their own personal email address (recommending Gmail if they don’t have email already) and that they initiate contact by emailing me to tell me they are ready to start. They are strongly discouraged from trying to phone me if they have questions or problems (except if they can’t access their email) – there are several reasons for this:

  • Establishes the online nature of the course more strongly
  • Gives practise in writing emails and messages
  • Provides a written record of the communication so that students can refer back to it to check the answer they received to any questions
  • Allows me to provide “how to” instructions in a stepwise manner with supporting images
  • If I am online in Elluminate I don’t answer the phone but will see an email as my email is always open
  • I do much of my Elluminate work from home (better connection, quieter environment) so I may not even know someone has called until I check my work phone for messages

Currently students communicate with me mainly through email and Facebook although occasionally through the course website (LMS) mail system. They submit work via email, their personal journal in the LMS, completion of quizzes in the LMS and via the LMS mail system. The submission of work is very “messy”. Because much of the learning for these students is about process a piece of writing may be drafted and redrafted and thus sent electronically between lecturer and student several times. So we have multiple versions and now with a second lecturer joining me in providing feedback we are involved in multiple handling to try and track student work and ensure it all receives comment/feedback.

I am hoping to develop a more consistent structured approach by using individual student blogs as personal portfolios where lecturers and the individual student have admin access so that work can be submitted by posting to the blog and attaching documents as necessary. That would make the process much more transparent and keep all the versions chronological.

3. Lack of a social dimension to the class


In my experience online students can feel very isolated, this happens even if they are not geographically remote but is more of an issue for those who are. Students in a face-to-face class will chat at the start and end of (and often during) class, they will share morning, afternoon and lunch breaks. Even if they are at a different course level or a different point in a course they will discuss, share ideas and collaborate to some extent. This is very hard for them to do during an online course (especially with rolling enrolments) even if they are highly motivated to complete the course, and in my opinion it is one of the major reasons for the reported low levels of retention and completion experienced by online courses in general. Collaborative projects are also hard to organise and manage in our online environment as we have self-paced, flexible learning that also has a degree of individual customisation in content. This means that we rarely have two students doing the same activities at the same time.

Retention in CGEA face-to-face classes is generally poor and completion rates are very low some of the reasons include:

  • Student motivation (lack of!) the reason for studying is often because students are required to be in education or training as a condition of receiving benefits
  • Previous negative experience of education – in my opinion this has extremely complex impacts with students intensly disliking/fearing a traditional “classroom” environment but also clinging to it as familiar and also simultaneously having negative feelings about a more appropriately adult learning environment
  • Lack of study/learning skills and no “habit” of study – these take time to develop and establish
  • Students often need more time than is available and so may have to re-enrol
  • Unrealistic expectations – younger students often expect that the course will be easy/quick to complete or that by simply enrolling they will automatically learn and gain the qualification

Low retention/completion is common for courses where the main learner groups are those disadvantaged in society for whatever reason. This is an added challenge to successful online delivery!

I use a a number of strategies (described below) to try and establish a “community” and develop positive group dynamics.

Elluminate inductions tend to be individual or small group because of our rolling enrolments so I use several activities that can be cumulative. For example I have a regional map for students to add their location), this is saved and added to in successive inductions to build a picture of student locations throughout the year.


There is an “introduce yourself” discussion topic on the LMS which I had hoped would develop into a longer term conversation although this is not very effective. I think that the student perception of the LMS is of a “classroom” and that it is too formal an environment for them to chat, this is made more so by the lack of flexibility in the LMS.

I started a class blog last year and have trialled using this with a few students. I haven’t really worked out the best way to operate this with rolling enrolments as I haven’t found a good strategy for using this consistently – putting up a weekly post for comments when all students are doing different activities doesn’t really work.

This year I have initiated a Facebook group for students to participate in if they wish to do so. FB is an environment that is familiar to most (though not all) of my students so I am hoping that in time we will have a thriving group who can help and support each other in studying. This has already had some benefits in students who already know one another discovering that they are both doing the same course and in some increase in communication – mainly in letting me know that they will not be attending a drop-in Elluminate session or in asking for sessions times and questions about their work. I really need time to develop this and to put more posts on the group to try and initiate activities and start more discussions.

All of these have helped to some extent but none have been “standout” successes. I keep tweaking and adjusting how I do these, and I plan to try additional ideas as and when this becomes possible.

Our regular Elluminate sessions are “drop-in” in nature at the moment. I am available online for a number of timetabled sessions each week and students are very strongly encouraged to “drop-in” during these for help and to discuss their progress with work. This means that there are at most 3-4 students in the room at any one time and usually these just work on the LMS until I am free for them. I am working on developing some whiteboard and/or research type activities could be available for the students to work on collaboratively while they wait to catch up with me eg building a Wallwisher or making and sharing Toondoos. When the need arises I do topic focussed sessions for individuals/small groups and feel that if I can extend these this would be helpful for developing a sense of community. However my main enemy is lack of time!

4. The extra time taken to do almost anything in an online context.

Expect everything to take longer. This is true both in Elluminate and in the LMS and with written work

Although text chat can be very fast in Elluminate, it can also be very slow with students who have literacy issues and are not natural keyboarders;

The lack of visible body language in Elluminate slows everything down as does a lack of microphones (some of my less motivated students often have “not working” microphones). When using the whiteboard to explain maths I can’t just look at my student to gauge whether they are “following” thus I need to include additional checks by asking them for their own input on the whiteboard more frequently than I would in a face-to-face situation. This issue becomes less of a problem as I get to know the students better.

Time for developing/sourcing and improving learning resources for the LMS. The notional face-to-face contact hours for our three courses add up to over 1200 and we have to have a strong element of guided content in the first part of each level because of the literacy levels and the lack of study skills and motivation when students begin. Maintaining the content is also an ongoing activity (links change!). I strongly encourage my students to let me know if there is a link that doesn’t work and this helps immensely but it is a reactive rather than a pro-active solution

Responding/giving appropriate feedback (this usually means adding comments on texts to enable students to edit and return for further feedback) asynchronously. I find I have to give much more detail and think very carefully about wording as I am not there to explain if there is not enough information to help the student.

I’m not sure there is a solution to the time taken issues except that they all improve with practise and familiarity. I have already utilised as much pre-existing content as I can through weblinks. This has a downside in the changing of links and in the time taken to find good resources and good example texts but it is much quicker that having to develop all the resources from scratch. Some resources that have had to be developed as I have been unable to find anything suitable that is already available. For me it is critically important that managers/admin realise the extra time needed and this in itself can be a major barrier.


When I look at what I have just written (and those are just some of the primary barriers that we are tackling) I’m surprised that my journey into fully online classes has actually happened at all! Writing this post has helped me to stand back and get a better perspective on just how far we have come along this road in two years. I know there is still an incredibly long way to go and what I’m doing will never be perfect but at least we have made a start and have improved access to literacy and numeracy courses for students who live in regional Western Australia and for whom attending a face-to-face class was not an option.

I would very much welcome some feedback and especially ideas and suggestions for what I might do to make it work better! It isn’t only online students that can feel isolated – online teachers can also feel this way – although I have colleagues delivering courses with blends that include some online they all use traditional paper-based flexible learning and/or face-to-face classess/workshops within their blends. I would particularly love to to hear from others delivering anything fully online with a blend of platforms, buteven more so if you are a literacy/numeracy teacher/lecturer.

Elluminate your consultation process!


A couple of weeks ago I was part of an incredibly exciting event here in Western Australia. The Federal Government, through the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR), is in the throes of developing a new National Foundation Skills Strategy for Australia. Part of the public consultation process for this has been a series of focus groups around the country in major cities and some regional centres. These have been run on a “World Café” model with participants in small groups re-mixed several times.

Because Western Australia has huge issues around geographical isolation the forward thinking Literacy people from the Department of Training and Workforce Development suggested a variation to the process that would enable regional participation. The suggestion was that an Elluminate virtual room would be a possible solution! I teach literacy/numeracy and I currently deliver entirely online using Elluminate as a major component of my blend. Because of this our State Literacy experts knew of my Elluminate experience and asked me both to advise on the best way to do this and to be the primary Elluminate moderator for the whole process.

From the moment I was asked for my input I was completely ”hooked”. It was a challenge, and an opportunity to show what is possible with Elluminate. Incidentally throughout the whole planning process I didn’t meet “face to face” with anyone else involved in planning the event. About  90% of communication was through email with around three medium length phone calls and an Elluminate meeting.

What I am giving here is the whole process from my perspective. It can’t be over-emphasised how much it was a team effort. It would not have been possible without: the vision and drive of the literacy experts from the Dept. of Training and Workforce Development; the superb moderators who managed the discussion rooms; and the continuing support throughout from the Sector Capability people at WestOne.


This post is a “window” on the possiblities, outcomes and the event itself from my perspective as the Elluminate adviser and primary moderator.

The requirement was:

  • a place for everyone to be together for a briefing and for the final activities in the process
  • four to five “tables” depending on number of participants
  • the capacity for groups to remix 2-3 times

Maybe the initial first reaction from most people would be breakout rooms – however I will now duck for cover and say that was definitely not my first thought! Yes, I have used them but I am not a great breakout room fan. They are excellent if you want to use one or two. For example with two lecturers online with our students we have a breakout room where one of us can work with a single student. However disadvantages experienced include the following:

  • time consuming to access and move between – especially for inexperienced participants as moderators have to do the moving in this situation;
  • not (as far as I am aware) included in the recording if the main room is being recorded;
  • from my own experience, apparently heavier in terms of bandwidth, as greater dropout and other issues such as lag experienced when breakout rooms are in use, particularly when participants may have slow connections.

The last of these is particularly relevant to our context in regional Western Australia. We regularly experience poor connection speed/low bandwidth despite our supposed broadband connections. Although Elluminate generally works very well in these conditions it behoves us to avoid the higher bandwidth options where possible.

Having instantly dismissed breakout rooms because of our regional/connection issues the obvious and logical option seemed to be several separate Elluminate rooms. As I write this I can visualise people throwing up their hands in horror at the logistical issues and indeed my first thought was – how could that possibly be managed to ensure that people move to the correct rooms to remix and balance numbers at each change.

The idea of several rooms was greeted positively so this was planned along the following lines:

  • one Briefing Room where everyone would come together before moving to the other rooms
  • four to five rooms designated as “Discussion Tables” each facilitiated by a moderator.

The participants would then move and remix between the “Discussion Tables” as necessary.


So planning progressed with the initial thought being to pre-arrange the groups and send each person the links they would need. Even as I was saying this my inner self was saying No! No! This will be a disaster! In my experience if you send people more than one Elluminate link in an email there is a high risk that 10-20% will click on the wrong one at some point. After further thought I came up with the solution that we adopted. This was to have whiteboards in the rooms at each group remix/changeover point. These would have participant names grouped with a live link for them to use to move to their next room. There was an additional advantage in this as it enabled us to rearrange groups at the last moment to compensate for any non-attendees. We would then ask participants to enter their next room and afterwards to exit the one they were leaving.

The next challenge to the Elluminate environment was the final activities. In the “real” (face-to-face) meetings these activities are comprised of 8 questions posted around the physical room with participants moving around the questions and adding short responses/comments/ideas on post-it notes. The solution was to use whiteboard roaming enabling all participants to roam the whiteboards and add their responses to each question. The “Discussion Table” moderators each monitored two questions in order to organise the contributions and add extra whiteboards as needed.

Once the structure of the event was finalised and agreed by the consultants I produced  a timetable and briefing sheet for moderators describing the process. The next step was a meeting in the “Briefing Room” on the Thursday evening before the Friday morning of the event, this was an opportunity: for our State Literacy experts to brief all of us on the consultation; for the consultants carrying out the process to have an introduction to Elluminate and indicate any changes they wanted made to the way we had set everything up; and for a moderator briefing and opportunity for questions and clarification. This session was scary as one of the moderators was suffering from a very poor connection and was unable to hear most of the conversation due to audio lag and drop-out. I spoke to her by phone afterwards to catch her up on what had been discussed. I think all of us had (hopefully, well concealed) nerves that one of us would have an issue on the Friday morning.

Risks and contingencies

We tried to risk manage and contingency plan as far as possible for any issues arising. The most likely being connection issues for myself as I planned to have all five rooms open simultaneously allowing me to quickly respond to problems; connection issues for the other moderators; connection issues for participants; equipment problems for anyone;  possible problems with people moving between rooms. We put in place several strategies to try to mitigate these issues should they arise:

1. I planned to remain in the Briefing Room throughout

  • all participants had that link and so could easily return there if they had a problem
  • moderators were asked to keep their Briefing Room link live throughout if possible so that they could text me there if they hit problems
  • moderators were alerted to email me – or tweet if they encountered problems and they couldn’t contact me via the briefing room

2. Monitoring arrival in rooms so that:

  • if participants did not leave their previous room themselves we could remove them easily to reduce confusion and pressure on their connection
  • if anyone went to the wrong room we could alert them and give them the correct link

3. Monitoring all rooms myself as far as feasible to enable me to:

  • join and help more quickly if any issues arose and specifically to take over if a moderator lost connection
  • remind moderators when session changes were due

4. Giving the “table” moderators a fairly detailed timetable of what they needed to do and when with an overview briefing to flesh this out prior to the virtual briefing session the evening before the event

5. Pre-preparing as much as possible in advance including setting up and converting all the slides to whiteboards beforehand so that I was able to load them quickly and easily into the relevant rooms.

The event

The whole event passed off very smoothly – to my great relief! We had a couple of minor issues that were overcome thanks to the contingency planning.  One participant was unable to access her next room from her current one by clicking the link on the whiteboard, but was able to copy the link, leave the room and then join the next room. I think this may have been a bandwidth issue. When providing the link in text for this participant  in the first instance I inadvertently gave her my moderator link for the room instead of the participant link, however this was quickly rectified.  Another  participant accidentally went to the wrong room on one occasion but moved quickly and easily to the correct one once given the link in text. One room moderator had a microphone failure and had to get a new headset. I saw this and returned to her room. The participants didn’t need me except to add a whiteboard – they already had an established conversation process by then.

My connection held up well and I had no problems with maintaining all five rooms open for the duration of the event.

NFSS 5 Simul Ellum Sssions Resize

Having five rooms open to monitor at the same time was logistically very interesting – I have only ever previously been in two simultaneously! Incidentally I don’t think it would have been possible without two screens. How I managed the multi room scenario is as follows:

  • Opened the briefing room and loaded slides
  • Opened each of the four “table” rooms successively, and for each room, loaded slides, moved speaker slider to minimum and put myself to “Away” before moving on to open the next room and do the same there.
  • I routinely work in Elluminate with unlocked windows as I prefer a large chat window and I think an unlocked format was essential for me in this event enabling me to change window sizes at need
  • I didn’t use docking and minimising to manage the rooms, instead I reduced the Elluminate window width – this enabled me to quickly see the current whiteboard in any room by simply widening the window
  • I lined up the “table rooms” from one to four left to right on my secondary (left hand) screen and used the full primary (right hand screen) for the briefing room
  • I was in the briefing room early and as participants logged in I reminded them to check their audio and also chatted to break the ice and ensure that everyone was comfortable with the environment
  • Then I remained “in” the briefing room throughout
  • When I needed to communicate to room moderators I did so through private message text in their room – this was mainly time reminders to ensure that the room changes were all occurring at about the same time.

What went well

The short answer is everything! However there were some aspects where I was particularly apprehensive of issues and where the reality far exceded my hopes!

  • Using five separate rooms instead of breakout rooms gave an outstandingly better experience for everyone
  • The room change arrangement worked exceptionally well, using a single whiteboard for each change with participant names associated in a group with a live link was far more successful than trying to send out links in advance
  • Using participant roaming through the whiteboards for the final “post-it note” activity seemed to mimic the face to face scenario far better than I had anticipated
  • Having five “live” rooms open simultaneously was far less problematic than I had feared.

Improvements for the future

As is always the case one of the most important parts of using any innovative strategy is to identify how it could be done better next time. These are my own particular areas for improvement:

  • Set up room timers with a name – I had four live timers on my screen at times and I couldn’t  easily tell which one belonged to which room
  • Ensure that participants know that the room name is at the top of the window on the “frame” – I had a comment from a participant that she hadn’t known that and that when she realised it all became much easier
  • Add to the moderator briefing to the effect that the primary moderator will remind just before room changes – I hadn’t warned the moderators that I would do this
  • Organise my list of links better with more space between them and better labels to ensure I don’t choose the wrong one to pass on to someone else.


We have had many positive comments both from participants and from the consultants. The amount of data gathered is very large with numerous whiteboards and much text input as well as the recorded discussions on audio from each individual “table”. Using these multiple inputs has given the data a high level of “richness” as everything is captured. This is different from the usual face to face situation where discussion round a physical table is usually captured only sparsely through outcome notes on paper. Another advantage of the online environment for this type of consultation is that there may be several discussions going on around the same table using the different media so more ideas can be exchanged in the same time period.

This is the first time that Elluminate has been used in this way here in Western Australia or indeed we believe Australia wide. I have also never seen any mention of it being used in this way globally and would love to compare notes with anyone who has done anything similar to this.

I found the whole process and the event itself incredibly exciting and can’t wait for the next opportunity to be involved in a complex Elluminate situation.