Engaging an invisible audience

Broadcast.jpgI hadn’t appreciated what a difficult job radio presenters, with their invisible audiences, have until I tried delivering an interactive, live, online session for the first time last year.  Unlike delivering face to face sessions you can’t see your ‘audience’ … so there is no body language or instant feedback or indication that someone doesn’t understand, is bored or is even listening. Perhaps this is to do with the fact that traditional radio broadcasters are doing just that … ‘broadcasting’ or sending out a message rather than trying to engage with and encourage participation of the ‘audience’ … something that those who are offering, or thinking of offering, live online session, tutorials, meetings (instead of or as well as face to face ones) to their learners or colleagues would surely want.

So how do you engage an invisible audience of online learners or colleagues? Peter Chatterton offers some excellent (imo) advice in the JISC ‘Elluminate Good Practice Guide’ (note: you don’t need to be using Elluminate for it to be relevant). Along with attending lots of online sessions to get firsthand experience of this type of online environment, which does feel different to a face to face equivalent, I used the pointers in this guide when getting ready to start delivering our Lunchtime Bytes (live, online interactive information sessions) with my JISC RSC Wales colleagues.

I am only going to pick out a few of the key points here, so let’s start with the reason why you might choose to use a web conferencing type tool like Elluminate, Adobe Connect, DimDim, BigBlueButton (all discussed in previous posts) … to promote engagement amongst learners, who are not in the same room or even country / time zone as each other.  JISC’s  ‘Elluminate Good Practice Guide’ says,


… and I would agree with this wholeheartedly. If all you want to do is send out a message to a live audience (broadcast) then perhaps a tool like Slideshare’s new ‘Zipcast’ is the one for you as it really only allows one person to speak to many about a topic (supported in this case by a Slideshare presentation); although Zipcast also enables the audience to communicate via text chat. Web conferencing tools like Elluminate and those mentioned above allow for much wider user engagement.

In order for tools like Elluminate not to be used solely as ‘broadcast’ tools JISC ‘Elluminate Good Practice Guide’ has the following advice:

  • Take time to learn and familiarise yourself with the tool you are using.  I agree with the driving a car analogy used in the JISC guide “once people have mastered the use of the controls, they become second nature, but in the early days of learning, one has to consciously think about using the controls such as the clutch pedal.” If your passengers can tell that you are not a confident driver they are more likely to get out as quickly as they can rather than staying and enjoying the ride!
  • Prepare and plan and structure online sessions as much as you would face to face sessions (at least for the first few). Again I would agree with the comment in the JISC guide that tools like Elluminate have “a tendency to “amplify” either existing good or bad practice and poor preparation is likely to be “exposed” in the virtual environment“. It is also much more difficult to think on your feet and adapt a session when you are sat at a desk talking to your computer, rather than faced with a reactive live audience.
  • Draw on existing good practice. If you are good at engaging students and staff during workshops, tutorials or meetings then draw on these face to face practices and techniques and apply them appropriately within the online environment … although knowing the features of the tool and having planned how you are going to use them to achieve your desired outcome is really important here.
  • Sort out or minimise technical problems so that these things don’t get in the way of engagement.

The JISC ‘Elluminate Good Practice Guide’ is a great starting point for anyone engaging live, online with learners (or colleagues), particularly chapter 3 ‘Designing for participant engagement’ . In addition, the main piece of advice that I think all of the JISC RSC Wales team would give to anyone leading a live online session would be wherever possible have a co-presenter working with you – to welcome late arrivals, to deal with technical problems, to keep an eye on and respond to text chat, to past URLs, to change polling options, to open and close microphones … generally to enable the session leader to focus on the learners or attendees and keeping them engaged!

2 thoughts on “Engaging an invisible audience

  1. Excellent post, the difference between providing a message when you’ve got tangible feedback such as seeing someone reaction and when you can’t see your audience is huge, and can often be unnerving. It takes a lot of practice to keep speaking and broadcasting even when you don’t have a clue how your message is being received.

  2. It’s hard to write to an invisible audience because you don’t know what they want to read! Sometimes when you get a comment it helps a lot to know what people are thinking of it

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