To Skype or Not to Skype: Technology in the Classroom

As my students can attest, I’m constantly fiddling with my classes. Almost every semester, I’m trying some kind of experiment, testing out some new content or a new way of delivering that content, getting feedback from students, and tossing what didn’t work. I’m sure it drives some students batty. But hey, it builds character.

One thing I haven’t tried yet is video-conferencing or live streaming in the classroom. I’ve done a lot with recorded material, and I’ve had students participate by phone several times, but I haven’t yet experimented with live video content. From other professors I’ve talked to, this approach has some tremendous benefits, as well as a few significant problems.

On the positive side:

  1. It makes it easier to use guest lecturers in the classroom. The costs associated with bringing a guest lecturer to campus are usually prohibitive unless the right person just happens to be in town (not terribly common in Portland). But, video-conferencing makes it far easier. Indeed, one of our professors in San Jose, routinely uses this approach to allow students to interact with the authors of books they’ve read for class. Talk about a great learning opportunity.
  2. It makes the classroom accessible to a much broader audience. Western has had a pretty aggressive distance education program for a long time,  making most of our courses available to people who don’t live in Portland. And, that’s a great thing. Live streaming takes this a step further and opens the classroom itself to more people.
  3. It makes it easier for students who need to miss a class. The Chronicle of Higher Education had an interesting article on this a few weeks back, “Absent Students Want to Attend Traditional Classes via Webcam.” I’ve already experienced this in classes that I’ve supported with recorded material. Students no longer have to scramble afterward to copy another student’s notes, hoping that she was paying attention in class. Instead, they can just view the lecture/discussion for themselves.

On the negative side:

  1. The technology isn’t always as stable as you’d think. Nearly every professor that I’ve talked with who has used some kind of live online content has a story about the technology not working properly and the classroom time that they wasted troubleshooting and fiddling with the technology. Even seasoned technology like Skype can glitch unexpectedly, costing precious classroom time.
  2. It can be frustrating for the students who are physically present. I can’t imagine that there’s anything more annoying that sitting in a class watching a professor fiddle with some technology designed to make the lecture available to people elsewhere. You have to be thinking, ” Hey, I’m right here! I spent good money on this class, so let’s get started.”
  3. Students may be tempted to skip class more often. This is one of the more commonly cited worries whenever you talk about making classes available outside the classroom like this. And, I’m sure it’s a worry that’s worth talking bout seriously. As the video clip below from the movie Real Genius demonstrates, though, this is a worry that’s been around for a while.

What do you think? If you’re a teacher and you’ve used these technologies in the classroom, what did you think? Was it worth it? Or, if you’re a student (or you used to be one), have you been in a class that used video-conferencing or live-streaming? Did you find it distracting or beneficial? Did it contribute to or detract from your learning experience?

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About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on March 21, 2011, in Teaching Tips, Technology. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. This is slightly different from what you’re asking, but my wife is a professor. She hasn’t used Skype in the classroom but she has used it for office hours (she has an evening office hour that she does from home) and it seems to have worked well for that.

  2. I love the idea of using skype in the classroom but I think more for short stints than for the whole class time and then only occasionally (for a sort interview with a guest prof, author, or even a missionary overseas). I think shorter stints could be more effective than longer ones, but I understand that sometimes you just can’t do it justice in a short span and may ned a longer segment, even the majority of the class time – but I do have to say, as a student with a hearing impairment, it probably wouldn’t always be my favorite. But I am the exception and not the norm.

  3. The latest version of Skype seems very stable if you have a consistent internet speed. Krista and I have lectured over skype for some Crusade events (they put us up on the big screen, and we could see the classroom on our screen). Overall it worked pretty well… the only frustration I had was that there is sometimes a slight lag of a second or so, which meant that I was occasionally talking over the classroom response, which was a little frustrating, but wasn’t an enormous liability.

    • It’s that “consistent internet speed” that seems to have caused problems for some other people I’ve talked to. Particularly if you can’t guarantee that there will be a consistent connection on both ends. It’s good to hear that it worked out well for you, though.

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