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Koen Timmers: Using Lync to Enable Blended Learning

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by Koen Timmers
Expert Educator Columnist, Belgium

Fourteen years ago, I started my lesson by searching for chalk. Nowadays, I sip on my coffee and play a short fragment of Jimi Hendrix. Welcome to the world of distance learning! My school started a blended learning project, more than 5 years ago. My students are attending 50% of their lessons in the classroom and the rest at home. This miracle is enabled by some tools.

Never heard of Lync? Microsoft Lync is a web conferencing tool which allows people to set up meetings, online workshops and even distance learning. By using screen, microphone and webcam, students and teacher can see and hear each other. Screen sharing allows students to pick up the information their teacher is sharing with them. Lync allows synchronous distance learning but it has more to offer. By recording lessons, ill or weaker students can catch up. The chat allows to share urls, or pieces of code. By setting up a whiteboard, teachers and students can use annotating tools to brainstorm, instruct or collaborate.

Technology can enhance learning in two ways: it can extend our physical reach and it can change our minds. These were some of the wise words of one of my favorite speakers, Sir Ken Robinson. To me, Lync serves two purposes: on the one hand, distance learning wouldn’t be possible without this web conferencing tool. Want to know a bit more about the other? Read along…

Sometimes tools offer benefits which are expected when you decide to implement a new tool. But sometimes there are unexpected side effects. While I was using Lync, I noticed that using the webcam takes a lot of bandwidth, which can affect sound quality in a negative way. On the other hand, allowing every student to put on a microphone causes a lot of distraction and noise. It also takes a lot of time to activate the microphone when students want to ask their question, so I always tell them to put questions in the chat, except when it’s a comprehensive question. Every class has its shy students– people who don’t ask questions, suffer problems in collaborating. Well, the unexpected side effect and also the mind changer is that these shy students become the most active in the chat. They love to solve peer’s questions. Indeed Lync can increase student-to-student and student-to-teacher interaction, participation and accessibility.

Literature confirms the benefits of using web conferencing tools in education. Everett (2007) advocates that “Web conferencing is seen as a tool that encourages an interactive and collaborative environment while creating a sense of community”.

To my opinion, using web conferencing tools to enhance distance learning offers pedagogical, financial, socio-cultural and technical benefits to the student, teacher and school.

Technical Pedagogical Organizational Socio-cultural
Availability of apps, possibility to learn/teach anywhere Possibility to collaborate, recorded lessons, increases accessibility, increases student-to-student and student-to-teacher interaction and participation

Con: taught and learned by one screen

Efficient time use, financial benefit, no transportation, extra grants from the government (for the school) Familiar environment, advantages towards employment

Traffic jams and costs can be avoided. People are learning in a familiar environment. However, some considerations have to be made: students are learning and working on one screen, this might change the pedagogical approach. It might also be difficult to ascertain whether students are really present (they might log in to a session and then leave). My students know I can set up a poll at all moments, on which they have to answer within 2 minutes. My way to assure everybody is online.

Microsoft Lync can promote project based learning or a flipped classroom. Sometimes I provide some screencasts to my students. This allows them to learn independent. My roles switches to a guide whom they can ask questions in case they are in trouble.

Considering to start using Lync? In this quick guide, I teach you the basics of Lync and distance learning. I also provide some tips.

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