EuroCALL: an introduction
The European Association of Computer Assisted Language Learning (EuroCALL) was established in 1993. Members, who currently represent 33 countries from within and beyond the continent of Europe, are invited to attend an annual conference. The conference comprises plenary presentations by authorities in the area of computer assisted language learning (CALL), applied linguistics and e-learning as well as research, 'show and tell and poster presentations by members. In 2006, the EuroCALL conference EuroCALL 2006 took place in Granada, Spain, where it was attended by 338 delegates.
EuroCALL: the Virtual Strand
It has long been believed that many would-be EuroCALL conference delegates are prevented from participating by factors such as the timing of the conference, difficulty in obtaining permission to attend it and the cost of travelling to and staying in a foreign city. In order to test this hypothesis, and to offer access to those unable to take part in the conference in person, it was decided to offer a limited Virtual Strand (VS) for the EuroCALL 2006 conference. Since this was to be a pilot test, it was also decided that participation should be free on this occasion, with the option to review this decision in future, should the VS prove to be successful. Success would be judged on the following criteria:
Number of participants who registered to take part in the online conference.
Number of hits on the VS website and the locations from which these originated.
Enthusiasm of conference delegates towards the idea of proactively offering virtual colleagues information about both the academic and social sides of the conference.
Amount of online discussion that took place between virtual participants and those in Granada.
Although it would have been possible to employ a managed learning system (MLS) of the sort used by many higher education institutions, the VS environment was deliberately designed to incorporate tools with which participants were already likely to be familiar. Since they may not have access to a MLS at their place of work, it was decided that the VS would allow participants to use computer mediated communication tools (CMC) of a type that they would also be able to use in their day-to-day lives and work. In order to provide additional support, a pre-conference workshop was offered to anyone who wished to practise using the tools in advance of the conference, whether this was in a face-to-face situation or online. The same tools were used to design, discuss and set up the VS, since the team was located in five separate countries across two continents and had to communicate online during the design phase.
Central to the environment was the conference blog, which acted as the hub for all VS activities. The blog page offered not only information from a group of dedicated conference bloggers about presentations and social activities in Granada, but also links to streamed versions of plenary and other presentations at the conference. As well as this, a presence indicator and chat tool (a blobber) was attached to the conference blog. The blobber showed the number of people reading the conference blog at any one time and offered a text chat room where it was possible to talk with others accessing the blog page. A voice-over-internet tool was also made available, but this was abandoned due to technical difficulties. Finally, a wiki was set up for delegates to post questions and comments about topics not covered in the blog.
Participants in the VS
The EuroCALL VS was advertised on the EuroCALL 2006 web site as well as on discussion lists that language teachers around the world were likely to read. As a result, 126 participants from 30 different countries signed up to take part in the experimental VS, the majority of these (approximately 120) being unable to attend the conference in person. 20 delegates attended a face-to-face workshop to practise using the VS tools and, as well as two of the VS designers, 15 of these volunteered to contribute to the conference blog.
Contributions to the conference blog included information about presentations and social events attended by the bloggers, both in written and photographic form. As well as outlining presentations, they addressed issues such as CALL and copyright and ICT and constructivist learning in their postings. They asked for information from other delegates about mobile language learning, for opinions about the comments made by the members of the panel discussion and by delegates who attended the annual general meeting. They also provided post-conference reflections about the experience of taking part in the VS.
Announcements about the VS were also made via the blog, particularly when technical hitches delayed the availability of the streamed conference sessions.
The blobber tool proved to be extremely popular. Delegates both in Granada and at a distance regularly chatted with each other about the conference and their own experiences of technology enhanced language learning and teaching.
The conference wiki was used primarily during the VS pre-conference workshop, as a repository for information about activities during the workshop. Delegates were also encouraged to leave questions and comments for the panel discussion on the appropriate page of the wiki, but they did not take up this challenge, possibly because the wiki may have been seen as peripheral to the central activity of the blog and blobber tools.
Was the VS successful?
In terms of the success criteria outlined above, the pilot study must be considered a success, as illustrated by the summary below:
- 126 virtual strand participants from 30 countries signed up, suggesting support for the original hypothesis that many more delegates than are able to attend the conference would like to take part.
- Although not all of those who registered to take part in the VS did so while the conference was in progress, the hit counter for the conference blog shows that they did so later, with more than 1050 hits being recorded from locations in 46 different countries by 15 October 2006.
- The breadth of scope of entries in the blog illustrate that conference-based delegates were keen to share their experience with online participants. For example, 'what a great idea to create a Virtual Strand for those who cannot attend the conference in person. Thus, everybody can participate.' (blog entry, 4 September 2006).
- Because the blobber is a presence indicator as well as a chat tool, it was possible to observe how often delegates were chatting with each other when logging into the blog; there was no occasion on which the chat room was empty.
Learning from the VS
We learned a lot from running the VS, both in terms of practical issues and delegate behaviour.
Conference bloggers provided feedback that there was insufficient time in the programme for them to blog successfully. They suggested that wireless access would allow them to write their blog while attending presentations. This was further highlighted by the fact that virtual participants commented that they had observed 'gaps' in the blog's content. This issue will have to be addressed for future VSs, either by insisting that all bloggers have wireless access, or at least a laptop, so they can write their blog and upload it during a break.
As noted above, the blog was used to notify participants of technical hitches such as the delay in uploading the streamed video presentations and the unavailability of the voice chat tool. While using the blog in this way addressed issues of notifying problems, it was not ideal because it impinged upon its central purpose: reporting on and sharing the experience of being at the conference itself. Unfortunately, technical problems are not always predictable, so participants' expectations had been managed in advance by informing them that there might well be technical hitches and that these might be either server or client side. Server side problems could be addressed by the technical support team, although participants would need to be patient, while client side difficulties were beyond the control of the VS team.
It had been assumed that virtual delegates would be relatively proactive, using both the blobber and the blog to make comments, ask questions and raise issues in response to what they read in the blog, viewed in the streamed videos or chatted about via the blobber chatroom. This, however, did not, on the whole, happen. Very few virtual delegates posted messages to the blog, although the blobber chatroom was very well-used. As yet, we have not analysed data to find out why this might be, but it seems reasonable to assume that participants may have been inhibited by not wishing to publish their thoughts in a public arena such as a blog, while being happy to take part in the more informal atmosphere of chat. A post-conference questionnaire will shortly be distributed to participants to investigate their behaviour further.
For future occurrences of the VS, we would hope to encourage virtual delegates to be more proactive, perhaps by opening a practice blog a week in advance of the VS, thus providing an arena in which participants could overcome their inhibitions. We would, as explained below, also hope to introduce further online activities to encourage virtual delegate participation both in presenting and discussing materials.
Judging the VS on the success criteria above, this was a successful undertaking. It has, therefore, been decided to develop the VS in subsequent years with some modifications based upon the lessons learned from the initial pilot. As well as ensuring that bloggers have wireless access or are at least able to write their blog entries during the event rather than later, several new developments are proposed, including:
- Live video and/or audio streaming of selected presentations, discussions and symposium sessions.
- Virtual presentations of research, work in progress and posters.
Details will be available on the EuroCALL 2007 website very shortly.
Open University, UK
The author would like to acknowledge all members of the EuroCALL Virtual Strand team: Peppi Taalas, University of Jyväskylä, Finland; Therese Ornberg-Berglund, University of Umeå, Sweden; David Barr, University of Ulster, UK; and Isabel Pérez, University of Granada, Spain. Without whose help and support the event would not have been a success. Special thanks go to Stuart Gold for allowing the EuroCALL Virtual Strand to use the Blobber tool.
Finally, the conference bloggers were both enthusiastic and conscientious in their recording of events at the conference - without them and the virtual delegates, the Virtual Strand would not have happened.