Time-traveling back to 1995….
My introduction to the virtual classroom was almost 2 decades ago! One of my undergraduate professors decided that he would have us meet virtually for a class session. In 1995, internet was still a novelty. I had my email through school and felt like one of the elite. I recently stumbled upon an email about that first virtual classroom experience, software has changed, but the premise is the same.
From the 1995 email:
“You will be ‘in’ a virtual ‘classroom’ on the ‘Penn’ campus. See who else shows up, identify yourself, and talk to each other. There’s help on line, but the key thing you need to know is that if you type “ at the left margin, whatever you type until you hit will be attributed to you as spoken ‘discourse’ everybody else can hear…(Some strange things may happen to you, but what the heck?) List-lurkers welcome to come along and meet the rest, and I will try to be there myself, but there are time zones and a schedule where I’m lecturing that evening to cope with.”
I attended this session and was frustrated that my slow typing meant that I was always at least a step behind everyone else in the conversation. Then, we discovered what Professor O’Donnell was trying to teach us. Thirty minutes into the session, “O’Donnell” revealed that he was a Teacher Assistant pretending to be Professor O’Donnell. Lesson learned; we never really know who we are talking with online.
Now, I get the opportunity to teach librarians how to use virtual classrooms for meetings and trainings. In March, I went to Valdez, Alaska to teach a conference session on this topic. I must admit that playing the game “Get Out of Valdez” gave me brand-new appreciation for the Pacific Northwest and reinforced my thoughts that the Alaskan librarians are made of awesome. I was welcomed warmly to our northern most state and had the opportunity to meet many Alaskan librarians, from those working in remote villages with a population of 40 to a former Washington librarian who now manages the Anchorage library. Despite concerns that days of snow may prevent us from departing Valdez, we all made it safely out.
The session focused on how to create interactive, fun webinars and I gave the participants several templates that they can re-purpose for their own use. Attendees later told me that I helped them see the simple things that could be done to enhance the webinar experience.
Through my various communities of practice including; I have been able to practice and fine-tune my webinar skills over the years. In the beginning when the Washington training group decided to experiment with web meetings, I was resistant. I knew I would miss seeing my colleagues face to face and the social interaction of those meetings often lead to great new ideas and projects. However, I soon became a convert. Now, while I love seeing my colleagues in person at trainings and conferences, I appreciate the times that we meet virtually.
Plus, there are so many more opportunities for collaboration now that I live much of my life in the “virtual world” of librarianship. I can meet regularly with my fellow Continuing Education state-wide coordinators from around the states and keep up with my local colleagues between our quarterly in-person meetings. I was able to partner with my colleague, Shirley Biladeau, from the Idaho Commission for Libraries to offer a series of eReader webinars for library staff. We are currently partnering on teaching Turning the Page 2.0 in the fall. Without the help of our virtual spaces including the virtual classroom, my job would be a lot harder.
Now, 18 years after my first attempt at navigating the virtual classroom, I am passionate at sharing my knowledge and skills with others. Also, I generally “know” who is in my classroom because we now have VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) that allows me to hear the voices of my peers. And if someone isn’t on a microphone and communicating over chat, I trust they are who they claim to be.
Jennifer Fenton is the Continuing Education/Training Coordinator at the Washington State Library and can often be found glued to a computer screen with a headset facilitating, attending or monitoring various online trainings and meetings.