Videoconferencing in the Classroom with Skype
Mary Barr, Lecturer in African American Studies, incorporated Skype videoconferencing in her classroom activities while teaching a course last term on Race, Class, and Education. Mary strives in her courses to provide hands-on and interactive experiences for her students. According to Mary, such activities engage students and ultimately provide them with a better understanding of the social problems they are studying. Skype videoconferencing is just one strategy among many she uses in her classroom to promote interactive participation. Mary chooses pedagogically relevant technologies to engage her students, the range of activities spans the incorporation of Web 2.0 applications to the creation of a Facebook page for class.
In her course on Race, Class, and Education, Mary explored the variety of ways that the education system in the US perpetuates social inequalities. She used the movie “Hoop Dreams” to demonstrate the societal tendency to vocationally track students. Through a friend, Mary was able to contact the film’s executive producer, Gordon Quinn, and ask him if he’d be willing to be part of a videoconference with the class. Once Gordon Quinn agreed to participate in the videoconference, Mary turned to Matt Regan, an Instructional Technologist with the Instructional Technology Group, for technical assistance with videoconferencing. Matt suggested using Skype for videoconferencing.
Prior to the videoconference, students posted questions and comments about “Hoop Dreams” for Gordon Quinn on their Facebook course page. Gordon answered both questions posted to the Facebook page and questions asked live during the interview. During the videoconference, Matt simultaneously filmed the students and recorded the conference with Gordon. While filming the session, Matt zoomed in on the students individually as they asked questions. He used “Call Recorder” to record Gordon’s side of the session through Skype. Gordon was located in his film company office in Chicago. The setup was very informal – phones went off, people walked by, etc. The recorded session allowed one to see Gordon in his element. After the video conference, Matt used iMovie to stitch footage of the students and footage of Gordon Quinn together in a DVD so you can see both sides of the conversation through a split screen technique.
Mary pointed out some of the advantages and disadvantages of using Skype for videoconferencing. On the positive side, Skype is convenient, costs associated with using the service are low, and it allows you to bring visiting lecturers into your class easily. Through videoconferencing, students participate more in their own learning, hence they are more invested. Mary would definitely recommend videoconferening, though it is not a perfect medium. As far as detractors go, Mary found that students were uncharacteristically quiet due to the presence of the camera in the room. It was obvious that they felt freer to talk when not being filmed. Also, given that both sides were more interested in watching the screens in front of them rather than looking into the camera while they talked, there was a perception that the interlocutor was avoiding eye-contact. In this way she found it worse than teleconferencing.
Mary said that Matt went above and beyond the call of duty by creating the DVD of the videoconference. The DVD sports footage of the students, Gordon Quinn, and the film itself. Matt spliced in scenes from the film that Gordon had referenced during the videoconference. Mary will thus be able to use the DVD in any future offerings of this course. This allows one to explore the possibilities at one’s disposal for integrating the recorded videoconference into the course materials.
Matt had a lot of fun doing this project and experimenting with classroom uses of Skype. He had previously used Skype for communicating with his wife and daughters while they were abroad. Skype uses VOIP – voice over internet protocol – to to convert voice signals into data streams. While Skype’s VOIP allows for video conferencing, Matt cautioned people not to use it for high profile videoconferences, since quality is mediocre.
Using Skype is simple – all you have to do is download the software, create an account and screen name, and start Skyping other users. You can use just the audio portion of Skype, or you can use the video feature. The beauty of Skype is that it can call other computers, as well as landlines and cell phones. The service is also quite inexpensive when compared to other phone plans. Skype is a flexible platform that allows for the addition of various add-ons that are downloadable. Each session is easy to set up, just double click on the person you want to contact and you are ready to go. The video communication feature is excellent, though it requires a fast internet connection. Overall Skype is more stable with a cable modem, less so with dial-up or wireless. If you use Outlook, Skype can integrate your Outlook contacts. Skype can also be integrated within your browser. It also has an IM client. You can use third party software, “Call recorder” or “Pamela,” to record your conversation in mp3 format. Skype also allows you to send files.
Some things to be aware of before using Skype, you may require additional hardware components depending on your computer. These include webcams, microphones, etc. It all depends on what your machine is equipped with. Also, transmissions can be lost – due to battery life or connections that fail. Security vulnerabilities were a problem with previous versions of Skype, though this has since been resolved to a great extent.
Matt had some helpful hints for using Skype: allow enough set-up time, have a good microphone, ensure that Skype is using the correct microphone – be it internal or external, test the connection ahead of time, and synchronize the time with your interlocutor, also be aware of potential distractions: cell phones, walk-bys, picture-in-picture display.
Matt suggested that you can use Skype in your classroom to conduct interviews or tutoring, to connect with students in different countries or peer faculty, to collaborate on group projects, and to attend remote lectures.
To access Matt’s presentation, please click on Videoconferencing with Skype
For more information on similar projects, please see our most recent EdTech Newsletter.