I am using a new combination of tools for online teaching that I am finding really effective. The structure works well for small group course discussion (5-10 students). In courses with more students, I chose to meet smaller groups of students, while other groups meet without me rather than have large online classes. This is online equivalent of putting students in groups during class time and rotating between the groups. The alternative, addressing a large class with a performance or lecture does not take advantage of the intellectual resources that students bring to learning. Lectures can be pod- or video-casted and shared asynchronously with other technology. A synchronous meeting should take advantage of the time it took to get people in the same time frame.
The question then is how to best structure a synchronous online meetings and discussions. In the past I used a tool--Tapped-In that provide a "place enriched" chat with an automatic "recording" sent to all participants. This used the text channel well, it sometimes led to disjointed talk as everyone was typing in a delayed way to what was read a few lines above. Often multiple conversations are going on and it is hard to divide and focus.
Voice chats allows for a faster flow of ideas but forces a sequential structure on contributing to the discussion (only one person can talk at a time). This limits participation and increases the role of moderating who speaks and for how long. When these sessions are recorded, is hard to scan a recording to find the particular salient points. So I have been experimenting with a combination of text and voice using two tools. The first, Skype, carries the voice and the second, etherpad, supports our "extended" collaborative sense-making.
Skype is a voice over the internet service that makes it easy (and free) to open a challenge with students. Students have to have earbuds (macs) or headsets (pc without built-in mics) to keep from getting an echo and in some cases it is helpful to have those with noisy backgrounds mute their mics then they are not talking.
This is a screen shot of an empty etherpad. No account setup--just go to etherpad.com and open a blank one. I then use the text conference on skype to send the url to the etherpad. Then all of my students join and are coded by color. While we are having the class discussion the people who are not currently talking are tasked with making sense of what is happening in the main section of the ether pad. The notes of the session are being taken for the group, by the group. Someone might be doing the framing while someone else is typing exactly what is being said and someone else might be worrying about formatting, polishing or embellishing what was said about their contribution a few minutes earlier. Commentary can be added without disturbing the person speaking who may not see the text for a few minutes but will be able to respond when someone else has the floor. In the chat box on the right, the participants can add comments, ask questions or agree or disagree with the content. As the professor, I can see if students have problems with content, or want to share a different perspective.
So as the ideas are developed in the verbal channel they are also being developed in the visual channel. The content is not identical but instead helps in the process of meaning-making. If the speaker is off topic it become apparent visually as the note takers don't know where or how to include the content in the building section. If the speakers do not understand this is also apparent. And shaping what the person is saying in the textual summary can provide subtle clues as to what is essential about what they are saying. This shaping can be very effective in helping students work out ideas.
Below is a picture of the first part of the pad and it is apparent from the colors that a number of students are participating in the process of taking notes. When this is done, the students copy the ideas and move them to class wiki, but leave the link back to the etherpad. This way the wiki can be further edited to help get an overview of ideas that were discussed.
This method works with small numbers as with larger numbers the pad is being worked on by too many people and it moves around and it is hard to see the sense making. But with less than 10 people, it can be a quite effective way to have, record, and reflect on what happened in the class. With students who are used to multitasking, it invites them to be a part of both the verbal and text channel as we make sense of ideas.
I know that there are tools that try to put these functions in a single interface, but I have not yet see one that I think works as well as this combination. The speed with which etherpads update and their ability to enable multiple authors in real time is quite impressive.
So that is my tip or strategy for online teaching and online meetings. I would be interested in hearing about what you find as the most effective way to structure synchronous time with your students.