Today I used Skype for only the second time.
Instead of venturing to Fairfax for my History and New Media minor field readings class this afternoon, I Skyped in. This was partially out of convenience–it was nice to be in my apartment instead of on I-66 at 5:45–but mostly as an experiment. Because history education is a large part of the readings course, and videoconferencing is increasingly used in the classroom, Dr. Kelly Schrum, our professor, rightfully urged us to try it, if we could, at least once. I’m glad I did.
These are my thoughts, based purely on experience and not on educational theory. I’d be curious to hear what others think, both from their experience and from a pedagogical perspective.
Due to technical issues, I wound up experiencing videoconferencing into class in two ways: full video and, on my classmates’ end, audio-only.
During the first half, my video connection worked. My classmates told me I was a giant head on the screen (I made a sign saying “Obey” to celebrate the occasion). With the way Dr. Schrum set up the webcam, meanwhile, I felt like I was sitting right there in the classroom.
This felt more natural than I was expecting, at least on my end. I could follow along the discussion extremely well. Two weird parts stood out for me:
Since the webcam was in one place and my head was displayed in another, whenever my classmates looked toward me, they looked toward the screen, although I was “gazing out” from the webcam. I had the same thing happen on my end–because the webcam on my MacBook Pro is on the top of the screen, I’m sure it seemed as if I was looking down. I also found myself more conscious of my expressive face–something that I normally don’t notice in-person in the classroom, but did notice more knowing my face was blown up on the screen. I also found that my hand gestures were more deliberate–for example, making sure that air-quotes were visible.
Second, and perhaps more important from a pedagogical perspective, I did feel more hard-pressed in participating in the discussion. In person, it’s easy to see that I’m wanting to say something. I felt myself needing to push a little bit more–even though it was at least easier with the video on, since others could see I was looking to say something.
When it came to the group activity that Nate and Lindsey created, I realized it would be easier for me to do it solo than have Dr. Schrum move the webcam over to one group, not to mention to have me on the speakers. So that part was not as conducive to Skype.
Audio Only, On One End
When the class took a five-minute break, I turned off the video on my end while I got out of my chair. When I came back and turned the video back on, I noticed that I was the last one back. After a couple of minutes, it looked like everyone was waiting for me; it was then that I realized that I wasn’t showing up to the class! I could see everyone but they couldn’t see me! In spite of Dr. Schrum’s and my best efforts, we couldn’t get me back on the screen.
So for the rest of the class, I was an audio-only participant, which provided a different experience. It was less disconcerting on my end because I could still see everyone, so still felt like I was in the room. I found myself less conscious of my facial expressions than I had been. But I also felt like it was harder for me to participate. I had to insert myself into the conversation more than I had with video and, as classmates can tell you, much more than in person.
I also noticed a slight technical glitch, which I found in the first part but particularly in the second: When I spoke, I couldn’t hear my classmates. It might have been that I was using a headset. But I did find that a bit distracting. There was a lag time of 1-2 seconds after I said something before the audio from the class came back. This was especially evident when I presented my thoughts from Megan’s great activity on audiences and presenting history online. So with those factors my participation felt less natural–but still more so than if I had been on audio-only, as happened due to technical glitches when both Megan and Nate Skyped in (I hope they will comment on their experiences below. Hint hint.).
In the end I still prefer being in class. There is something to be said for being there in person. However, all things considered, Skyping in did not take away from my experience as a student nearly to the extent I thought that it would. I was able to participate almost as fully as I normally do, especially when I was on video. In part because of where Dr. Schrum put the camera, and I think in part because this is my third class in the same room, I felt the same level of comfort and like I was part of the class. I followed along the conversation well and, except for the aforementioned glitches, felt like I could take part. This was even true, albeit less so, for the second half.
So while I think Skype or other videoconferencing technology was not a substitute for being there in person, it did come close. As the technology and, hopefully, bandwidth improves, I can see videoconferencing being a vital tool for education to overcome factors that prevent people fro being there in person, whether minor factors like laziness about I-66 traffic or major ones like teaching students in another country.
I would be curious, however, to see how it would work in a class of more than seven people. Would it be as effective? How much adaptation would the teacher and students have to make? That I’d like to try next.