Tips and Techniques
This semester, I've worked with a number of faculty who use teleconferencing technology in the classroom. So far, we've had faculty members simultaneously teaching sessions to their students and to students in China, interacting with experts in the field, partnering with classes from another institution for interdisciplinary sessions, coordinating discussions remotely from the DNC, and participating in study sessions for students while away at a conference. Throughout the process we've learned a lot. They may seem self-explanatory, but these tips can increase the likelihood of a good teleconferencing session and the opportunity for meaningful interaction. If you can think of additional tips, please share them in the comments.
Know How to Connect
Participants can connect to a teleconferencing session in a number of ways. If they are using a room system, they can usually call your room system directly. Otherwise they can connect through a service like BlueJeans, which is software that bridges different connections. When starting a session, make sure your participants know how to connect.
Test the System
Before your session, it's worthwhile to test out the teleconferencing system. Things to look for will include picture quality and sound. Can you hear them well enough? Is there a lag in the video?Do you know how to sign onto the system if someone who supports technology is running late?Further, for the best experience have your participants connect through a wired connection and not through WiFi. While Skype can offer a good experience, depending on what version the participant runs on their computer could negatively affect the experience. For a more consistent session it may be best to have participants connect through the browser link.
Speakers, Headsets, Mics, and Webcams
The higher quality webcam the participant is using, the better the experience will be.Using an external microphone will also improve the sound quality. Further, if participants are using an external microphone, they should have the mic placed behind the speakers. If the mic is in front of the speakers, it will pick up that noise and you will hear considerable feedback. When interacting with just one participant, the best option may be for them to use a headset with a built-in mic. There are no feedback issues and their voice may be picked up better.
Establish a Backchannel
How can you communicate with your participants before and during the session? Make sure you have some way to reach your participants whether it's through email, phone, text message,chat, etc. A back channel will help you work out any kinks before the session and also allows you a way to communicate with the other group privately. For instance, if two classes are meeting, the instructors can communicate and shape the session without announcing it in front of the classes.
Get a Feel for the Room
Not all teleconferencing rooms are set up the same way. Before the session starts, notice where the cameras are placed. Point them out to your students so that they may more effectively communicate with the other participants. If the other participants are not online, have your students practice speaking and let them see how they appear on screen. Are they looking into the camera?
This may not be in issue in a teleconference space, but it could be an issue for outside participants or if you are Skyping in from another location. Is there good light where you are? Will people be able to see you? Make sure the light source is front of you so that you will not appear back-lit or as a silhouette.
One thing to think about is how you wish to interact with your audience, both inside and outside the physical classroom. If you're having a group discussion, or talking with an expert in the field, you may wish to sit with the students or in the audience. By sitting with the group, it's much easier to work the camera and it feels like there is more of a group dynamic.
This is more of an issue if you are Skyping in from another location. Where are you located? Is the room conducive for a quiet chat or is it full of things that may distract? If viewers can look out the window from where you are located, they may focus more on what's happening outside.If you're in your office, put a note on the door not to be disturbed. Choose a location that is quiet, so that participants will not hear other conversations or extra noise.
Have a Backup Plan
Sometimes technology doesn't work. In case you are unable to teleconference, have another activity ready or a modified lecture you can give.
This goes along with having a backup plan, but it's helpful to orient your expectations and those of your students and the participants. Is the technology seamless? No. There may be video lags and issues with the sound. If the people involved understand that, then they will be more forgiving when problems occur.
Setting the Tone
Envision the participants, whether they be a professor from another institution or a classroom full of students, as guests to your class. Welcome them. Introduce yourselves. Try to get everyone involved to be on screen initially. It's disorienting and can erode trust when participants realize there are other people in the room besides those with whom they've been interacting.
The screen where you see the participants is not always the same place as the camera. Resist the urge to stare at the screen when talking to people online. Instead,focus on the camera.
People get nervous on camera. When you are leading a session, tell your students that the other people participating are also nervous. Remind them it is not being recorded. Listen to their fears and try to address them.
This may seem like common sense, but the relationships you have with your participants are important. Is the participant a colleague with whom you've previously worked? Has rapport already been established?On the other hand, is the participant an expert in the field with whom you've had very little interaction? How might that affect what happens during the session?Teleconferencing may cause stress, especially when the technology is not working perfectly. No matter what level of relationship you have with your participant, talk to them before the session about how you both will handle these situations.
Collaborating Outside the Class
If you are doing a one off session with a guest Skyping in, you may not have an ongoing collaboration outside of the class. However, if students were to submit questions to the guest a few days before the session, the participant may be able to better prepare their responses.When collaborating with another class outside your institution, you can foster a richer interaction by having the students work together. The collaboration may take the form of a discussion forum,group blog, or even peer-editing of thought papers. Moreover, having a shared resource outside of the classroom, where students may pose questions, allows all of the students a jumping off point for the online session.
Don't Teach to the Technology
Teleconferencing may not be conducive for every activity. Instead of changing your teaching methods to fit the technology, why not look at activities you do and see how teleconferencing can support those goals?
Take Notes, Revise and Share
Teaching with teleconference technology is fairly new to most of us. After your session, think about what went right and what didn't. Why did one activity work well and another activity fall flat? Revise your activities for futures classes and share what you've learned with colleagues.