Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Bring 'em in

One of the changes I'm most excited about this fall is that all our classroom computers now have built in cameras and have the videoconferencing software Skype installed. Almost every faculty member has colleagues who are either experts on some topic you cover, or are teaching a similar class at another institution. Bringing in guest lecturers has always been a great way to engage students, but it was pretty inconvenient and expensive. Connecting classes at different institutions to compare or collaborate on projects is another rather engaging idea. Desktop videoconferencing lowers the bar to accomplish these objectives to almost negligible levels.

Skype is a commercial outfit that makes money by interfacing the internet with conventional phone lines which allows them to charge less for international calls, and allows travelers to make international calls from wherever they're connected to the internet. Luckily this doesn't have anything to do with the video-conferencing end of the business. All computer to computer calls, whether video or audio only, are completely free.

To make a video call, you need some sort of camera, but as mentioned, all the classroom computers at UW Oshkosh have one installed. For your guest's connection at the far end, many laptops come equipped with a camera, and an external camera that's pretty good quality can be had for $40 at Target.

We've had a few instructors work this into class in the past few years.

Barb Benish in Journalism has had several alumni from their program who have gotten jobs in the field skype into her class (do you have to capitalize it when you use a proper noun as a verb?) to discuss what they actually end up doing in the real world, and how the class content prepared them. How's that for validating learning objectives?

In the current presentation environment, it's pretty common to want to accompany the human presentation with a presentation or demonstration on a computer. Skype makes that pretty easy with a Share Screen function. You lose the video while the screen is shared, but it's easy to switch back and forth at will, and while the distant guest is sharing their computer screen, they can still see and hear the video of your class. Jodi Carlson in Career Services has brought in a vendor into class to demonstrate software that the students need to use and we have a similar event planned for Becky Cleveland in Nursing.

Dating from before Skype, when we had to have somewhat rare and expensive special videoconferencing systems at both ends, the Economics Department set up a partnership with a similar class at the University of the Pacific in Lima, Peru. The students worked on parallel projects, with small student groups communicating and eventually holding a mock trade negotiation at the end of the session. (It was handy that they're only an hour later than us so they could meet at normal class times.) While there are still some advantages to these high end video conferencing systems, Skype could now accomplish everything we did in those sessions for the cost of a web cam, and you don't have to arrange for us to bring in the video conferencing equipment.

In another example of pre-Skype days using the higher end video conferencing system, Paul Van Auken brought in the author of one of the books the class was reading. The author traveled to Eau Claire to utilize a video conference facility at UWEC. Now, the author could probably have stayed at his home in New Auburn (or anywhere else with a moderate to fast internet connection.) This year the Miriam Toews, author of the Common Intellectual Experience book, cannot make to campus as we have done with prior years, but we plan to have an event connecting over Skype later this fall. I wonder if we could have gotten Steve Martin in a Skype call when they did Picasso at the Lapin Agile last year?

Outside of class, Skype is a great way to be involved in meetings you can't physically attend. Last spring my colleague Kerry Huberty was afflicted with a broken foot. We were both going to attend a meeting in the College of Ed and Human Services on a cold rainy morning on which it would have been a definite problem for her to cross campus on her little medical scooter. I just walked into the meeting, whipped out my laptop at the end of the table and connected with Kerry on the other side of campus. The meeting proceeded pretty much normally with the benefit that we could continue to deal with the agenda that required Kerry's input.

I gave a presentation with desktop video conferencing to a conference in Toronto a few years ago. My co-author AnnMarie Johnson was physically attending the conference, but I was really the main presenter. She connected her laptop to the internet and the projector, and I delivered the presentation. Being able to see my audience really made a difference. If you've ever been a presenter with a "webinar" system where the audience can see and hear you, but the only communication back is a chat window, you know that can be a pretty strange experience. Even a low resolution video image coming back gives you the feedback to know if the audience got your jokes or simply if they are paying attention. I was surprised how easy it was for me to see raised hands and converse with attendees during the Q and A.

More than a few job interviews have been conducted by departments on campus via Skype.

Skype has an option for audio-only calls with up to 20 participants. Lenore Wineberg in Curriculum & Instruction has used this to allow her students to participate in elective out-of-class discussions on the course material. John Zarbano of Radio-TV-Film/Theatre used a similar method to meet with his on-line summer class. It's also a great way to have office hours available for distant students.

In order to use Skype, both parties need to have a Skype account which is as as easy to set up as any other internet service, and you have to have the program Skype installed (already on all our classroom computers). It's available for every kind of computer and actually as voice-only on many smart phones. To make contact, you exchange your Skype user names, which get added to a contacts list. Calling is a simple matter of clicking on the name on the contact list and clicking a green button with a telephone icon on it. Skype, of course, has to be running on both ends, so it's a good idea to establish times via email prior to the video call.

The cameras on our computers are fixed to the computer, but at UW Oshkosh our classroom computers are on carts with wheels so it's pretty easy to turn it around to face the class and tilt the computer to frame the image the way you want. There's no zoom, but if you need a little more intimate contact, a student questioner can come closer to the computer.

Back in my days as a photography teacher, I had thought it would be neat to have my class talk to a famous photographer or museum curator. I wonder if I could have gotten them to take the time if I had a Star Trek transporter. Skype's not quite transporting our atoms across space and time, but it does a pretty good job with a picture and voice. I wonder who will be the first to bring in a Field's medal or Pulitzer winner to a class in Oshkosh? Dare we go for a Nobel laureate?

As usual, for UW Oshkosh readers, give me call if you'd like some help.

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