CXO

Remotely Possible: Using an IT support tool for distance learning

If your latest distance-learning project has a small budget, examine your existing software to see if you can use it to solve the problem. Read how one IT trainer in Texas used the remote control features of a support tool to teach classes in London.


By Kevin Watt

Remotely Possible/32 (RP32) is not a new product. In fact, its replacement is available under the name Control It. My company has used this Computer Associates product for the past four years. It was purchased for the IT support staff, but I experimented with it and used it as a distance-learning tool for our learning systems staff. I had to create a distance-learning program without buying any new software, so I had to be creative.

If you’re considering a distance-learning program for your company, you might be surprised at what you can do with software already in-house. This review of Remotely Possible offers tips on what you’ll need for a distance-learning program and what software features are helpful for this type of work.

The basics
The first quality that made RP32 useful for my project was that it was part of the standard install on all computers in the company. So, users were at least somewhat familiar with it.

To use RP32, both participants—the viewer (the computer that is initiating the connection) and the host (the computer to be viewed)—start the application manually. The viewer enters the computer name, or IP address, of the host and clicks the viewer button. On the host machine, a small window appears, indicating someone wants to establish a connection. The host operator clicks OK to complete the connection.

Once the connection is made, the host's desktop is displayed on the viewer’s monitor. The keyboard and mouse configurations of the viewer are changed to match whatever settings the host is using. For example, if the host computer has the Num Lock and Caps Lock on, as soon as the connection is made, the viewer’s Num and Caps Lock are turned on also. This is what allows the viewer to control the host machine.

A nice feature of RP32 is the ability to set the User Preferences either before or after a connection is made. For example, it may be necessary to disable the inactivity timer. The viewer can disable this remotely on the host machine if necessary to prevent premature disconnection during a demonstration session. Other settings that can be set are Disable The Wallpapers When Connected, which improves the transmission speed; or the MonitoringOnly mode, which is handy if using RP32 as a coaching tool. The MonitoringOnly mode disables the viewer’s control of the host machine, which allows a viewer to watch the actions of the host without interfering inadvertently.

Easy to use
The RP32 toolbars use large buttons and icons, a welcome change from the microscopic toolbars of many applications. It also has a standard menu bar and automatic tool tips display.

The Connection dialog box has several helpful features and provides several connection options. One strong feature is the address book. The address book feature can be a wonderful time-saver for storing the addresses of computers you connect with frequently, precluding the need to type IP addresses every time you connect. Buttons at the bottom of this box allow the viewer to select how to connect. If the viewer wants to demonstrate something to the remote student, he or she can choose to connect as the host, meaning the remote student will see the initiator’s desktop on their screen instead of the other way around.

The Connection box choices also include a File Transfer and Chat options. File Transfer makes it easy to move student exercise files from the instructor’s storage drive to students' computers. RP32’s file transfer is similar to the drag-and-drop procedure for moving files within your own directories. The Chat feature is helpful, especially when coaching the host.

The Chat feature can be enabled at any time. By clicking the Chat button, the host (student) will see a chat box appear on the screen. The remote coach can type a comment, command, or compliment quickly and unobtrusively without interrupting any ongoing audio conversation.

Connecting to multiple hosts
Another handy feature is the Keep this Window Visible button. It took me a few tries to figure this one out. But once I did, it greatly expanded the way I use Remotely Possible to teach. This feature allows RP32 to connect to more than one computer simultaneously. As more connections are made, the computer names are listed on a drop-down list on the toolbar. To view a different connection, you simply select the computer name from the drop-down menu. The active window switches to that computer.

The problem with multiple connections is that you may wish to watch each screen simultaneously. That's where the Keep this Window Visible button (KTWV) comes in. As each desktop is displayed, clicking on the KTWV button "pins" the window and keeps it displayed, and cascades subsequent desktop displays. From here you can tile the display to view all the connections at once. However, the more hosts displayed, the smaller the desktop area you can see on each one, requiring additional scrolling to view the activity of the students. I've found four connections to be optimal.

Well-written Help files
Finally, I've got to commend the Remotely Possible Help files. Documentation wasn't readily available within my company for this software. That meant I had to rely almost exclusively on the Help files. These are probably the most complete, easy-to-read Help files I've encountered. They are clear, concise, and do not include any cryptic or uncommon phrases that need to be deciphered.

Remotely Possible and distance learning
When we used Remotely Possible to train employees in London from our San Antonio office, we connected to the student computers as a viewer so we could observe their actions while they responded to the instructor’s directions. We used telephones to provide audio support. After making the connection as described above, the students were directed to open a lesson file that was placed on their desktop with the File Transfer option.

The instructor identified the students by asking them to complete a simple action one at a time. As she observed the response, she placed a note indicating the student’s name on the monitor. Because RP32 uses computer names to indicate who is connected, the instructor needed a way to match human beings and machines to allow her to personalize her instructions.

When a student showed signs of difficulty, the instructor simply took control of that computer after telling the student to remove his or her hand from the mouse and watch the screen. As she performed the operation, she queried the student to assure he or she understood what was happening. When she completed the demonstration, she "un-did" the task and asked the student to repeat it while she observed. The exchange of control didn't require anything other than one person relinquishing the mouse to the other. That's what makes RP32 easy to use as a teaching tool.

Financial and educational payoffs
By using Remotely Possible in our distance-learning program, the students benefited from not having to spend hours traveling, or waiting on an instructor to travel to the training site. Most important, the students received the training when and where they needed it with very little coordination. Remotely Possible provides the just-in-time training capability our company had been lacking at a fraction of the costs incurred through travel expenses. The students also worked from their own workstations so the environment was a familiar one. Their interface with Remotely Possible didn't require them to learn an entirely new program just to be trained on another application.

The student response to the evaluations let us know the training was effective. One student said, "I was skeptical about learning pivot tables this way, but now I'm looking forward to more training like this."
Have you bought software designed for distance learning or found something in-house that you can use? How has it worked? What would you recommend for other distance learning projects? Send us your thoughts on distance learning software.

Kevin "Kilo" Watt is a performance specialist in the information technology training department of USAA in San Antonio. He is a MOUS Authorized Instructor with expert level certifications in Word, PowerPoint, and Excel 2000. He is currently working on distance learning for USAA. He teaches Resumix, the Human Resources resume reading software, Remote LAN Access courses, Outlook e-mail and calendar classes, and other Microsoft Office business applications.

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