Webcams and Teleconferencing in Education

While webcams and teleconferencing may not initially appear to be Web 2.0 technologies, I would suggest that they important to the current 2.0 paradigm and, as these technologies develop, will become increasingly critical in whatever 2.0 unfolds to. By drawing in content from divergent areas, by crossing boundaries that were previously insurmountable for reasons of cost and time, and by demonstrating and expounding upon the digital connectedness between people, the ideals of student based learning becomes possible. I want to explicate that statement a bit, and then turn to the more ‘technical’ aspects of this post’s technologies.

Student-based learning is largely dependant on sudents having a hand guiding their learning. This is commonly translated into blogs and wikis, where the authorial voice is upset. A central issue with these kinds of collaborative/2.0 tools is that both are grounded in text – text is limiting because we cannot communicate using facial gestures/hand motions/intonations/etc, whereas webcams and teleconferencing both inject these essential dialogical elements into the discourse.

In addition to provided added physical and tonal context to collaborative learning spaces, these technologies can let experts speak to classes – Professor Kymlicka, for example, could talk to a Dr. Payrow Shabani’s political philosophy class despite the geographical distance between Kymlicka and Payrow Shabani’s class.This ‘traditional’ use of these technologies to bring experts to the class can show students that even the professor is a student, if the professor is evidently learning alongside their class.

I think that these technologies can be helpful are in the following situations:

  1. Students choose a particular speaker that they want to hear from. The students are given a lecture on what the expert will be talking about ahead of the expert’s talk to assuage student concerns that they don’t know enough about a topic in the hopes that this will empower them to ask questions and demand explanations from the expert that might not be forthcoming without the ‘pre-speaker’ lecture.
  2. Students can find experts and work with the professor to introduce them to the class. This can take the form of either a live webcast, or a prerecorded presentation from an expert. Prerecording are helpful to teachers because they can determine how to best fit the expert into their course.
  3. Perhaps most significantly, there is no reason why only one guest has to come to speak to the class. Webcasting and teleconferencing allows for live debate between experts ‘in front of’ the class. As soon as students realize that even experts hold different opinions they might involve themselves in the discussions and focus on getting the experts to explain things to the students, using contextual examples that the students can appreciate. Moreover, debate between experts that is kept at a level that the students can follow what is being said can show them what scholarly discussion is like, and which they can model their own scholarly debates after.

Since webcams reduce the costs of recording, if the professor/seminar leader is willing, recordings can be uploaded either to YouTube or to a privately hosted video archive. This can let students return to the discussion at a later date and reflect on what was said. This is especially useful for when the lecturer intentionally ‘seeds’ early classes with information that later is recognized as essential to the course based on further instruction. Students that can watch recordings can see the sophistication in the academic presentation, and potentially take away that sophistication for their own presentations later on in either the class or generally in life. Moreover, seeding can be exciting for instructors – they can develop narratives that are rewarding to those that pay close attention to the lectures, without unnecessarily punishing those that cannot attend class for whatever reason.

There are other advantages and drawbacks, which are relatively self-evident but worth noting nevertheless:

  1. Skype is easily installed and even easier to use. Moreover, it is installed by default on most consumer laptops, which are increasingly being shipped with built-in webcams.
  2. These technologies allow students unable to attend class to participate from a remote location. Think of a student that is injured over the course of the semester, constraining them to a hospital. Assuming that they have access to the ‘net and a computer with Skype installed on it, the student can remain an active participant in class despite their injuries.
  3. In the case of the TA or professor being called away on other business, if they can spare the hour or two that the class takes they can give a lecture from wherever they happen to be.
  4. These technologies can be used by students and/or lectures/TAs to create ‘mini-summaries’ of classes, where they state what the central points of a class were, the strength of those points, and potential avenues to subsequently explore the material (this kind of exposition could be put on a video archive site, or YouTube, so that other students could learn from their colleagues and develop interclass discussions about particular classes and webcasts). Perhaps even more useful, lecturers can post an ‘Astro-boy’ summary where they summarize most of the information in the class, but intentionally mis-state a few pieces. At the beginning of each class a random sample of students could be required to hand in answers that identify what was incorrect in the previous summary, with individuals that have the correct answer posting their own video commentary to correct the professor. This can get students used to public speech and communication, and get them to know each other’s names (which always seems to be an important step in fostering class-wide camaraderie)!

There are, of course, downsides to these technologies as well, though I do not believe these challenges are insurmountable:

  1. It can be time consuming to initially familiarize yourself with the technologies I am referring to, especially if you’re not used to using electronic communications.
  2. For teachers and students that are concerned about having their conversations recorded, these kinds of communications lend themselves to recording.
  3. If implemented rashly, such as as a substitute for face to face meetings, TAs can become overwhelmed by the number of students that ‘call’ them at any time of the day to talk about the class.
  4. Requires installing some software and making sure that the communications aren’t blocked at any of the participants’ access points – it is necessary to test the technology before moving it into a production (i.e. classroom) environment.
  5. Can be a bit awkward to get used to the introduction of new technologies at first.

Now, I said that these tools are of incredibly use to the Web 2.0 philosophy, and I meant it. While these technologies don’t entirely upset the authoritative voice of the lecturer, they can be used to break down elements of that voice. Moreover, it can enrich students’ experiences by altering the context in which they are learning – rather than the same professor teaching each class (which can lead to memory bleed between lectures), a guest lecturer brings a distinctive voice to the class, and stands out as a (potentially) unique experience. This added bit of context can assist students’ recollection of what happened in the class, and with a better memory of the class and it topic matter they can have discussions about the topic manner that is more sophisticated than would be otherwise likely. Finally, by having students, professors, and TAs develop little webcasts about particular elements of classes, and then allowing other students to have a shared, open, and collaborative discussion about the webcast, it is possible to empower students – they can then direct the conversation and ask questions that are informed by their backgrounds.

It is this final stage – posting and commenting on webcasts – that genuinely makes these particular technologies members of the Web 2.0 paradigm. Without this degree of collaboration, these particular web tools tend to remain stuck in the realm of Web 1.0 or 1.5 (whatever 1.5 may be). As I intend to bring up in a few later posts, webcams and their ability to pre-record content for public posting is a critical element of extending the educational context, and can be done without either breaking the bank or bedeviling instructors with technical details.