Friday, February 26, 2010

The Webcam and the Online Classroom

"The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own." - Susan Sontag

With CCC Confer's video tool, instructors and students can see one another in real time. Virtually any camera that can be recognized by your computer - from Webcams to sophisticated professional cameras - can be used to project a video image onto the Confer screen. The tool (at present) allows upt to six video images to be displayed in a video window similar to the one at right.

Reasons NOT To Use Video. Just because you can use video online does not mean you should. It takes a lot of bandwidth to transmit video, so if you’re unsure about the connections between you and your audience or students, you may expect some problems with video reception and quality. There are also potential problems with students who – for whatever reason – can’t see your video. I’m not necessarily talking about differently-abled students, but also students whose machines or configurations don’t allow them to see what you’re happily transmitting. Are you prepared to give them a description or “second chance” to “see” what they can’t see? And video is – by its nature – captivating. Our eyes gravitate toward motion, so the camera will capture attention whenever it’s available. That’s a good and a bad thing: it may actually distract your students’ attention from other content you want them to see and understand. To get a good camera picture, you have to pay attention to lighting and whatever else the camera captures.

Jonathan Finkelstein writes, “The virtual classroom interface is already quite complex. When you add an additional visual, be sure that it contributes to learning. When the instructor is explaining visuals on the white board and asking for frequent participant responses… adding an additional visual such as a video image of the instructor or participants is likely to distract limited cognitive resources from the main instructional events.” (Learning in Real Time: Synchronous Teaching and Learning Online)

Richard E. Mayer adds, “People do not necessarily learn more deeply from a multimedia lesson when the speaker’s image is added to the screen.” (“Principles of Multimedia Learning Based on Social Cues.” In R. E. Mayer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning)

And Jennifer Hofmann cautions, “In my opinion, live video should be used judiciously. Using live video throughout an entire session can distract from the content and provide additional technological challenges. Additionally, by focusing so closely on the trainer’s face, you may reduce the perceived opportunities for participant collaboration.” (Live and Online! Tips, Techniques, and Ready-to-Use Activities for the Virtual Classroom)

So Let's Use It Anyway!

One thing you'll notice from the pictures of these experts is that they're looking at the camera in these pictures. We're naturally attracted to their eyes when we look at them, and it's reassuring and engaging to see them looking back at us. On camera in the Confer classroom, remember that your students will be looking at your image. Are you looking back? If not, what message is your image sending to the class?

You'll also notice that the pictures are well lighted and desgined to capture the faces of these authors. With your Webcam, you may have to make some lighting adjustments to make sure your students can actually see you (rather than a silhouette or shadowy blur) at their end. And pay attention to your background: if you transmit in front of a window with busy traffic, for example, your audience will find it hard to focus on you rather than what's going on behind you.

Question and Answer Period. One of the best uses of the Webcam in the Confer classroom is during the period when your students ask you questions. At this time, you can look directly into the camera and deliver the kind of "body language" and facial expressions that will reinforce your message and answers. If it's possible to have someone else read the chat questions to you so that you don't have to look away from the camera, your undivided attention will be most effective.

Live Events. Another popular use of the video tool is to capture and transmit live events that have both a face-to-face audience and a remote audience. In the example to the left, we were using a handheld digital camera to capture a public hearing, with speakers, their slides, and the audience’s reactions. Becuase this was a public hearing, we added captioning so that viewers with hearing disabilities could participate in the discussion.

Demonstrations of Techniques. "I can show you better than I can tell you," as the old adage goes. Using the camera to let your students see how you do something is an effective - and timely - way to teach a specific technique. Confer instructors use the Webcam to show students how to use brush strokes and mix watercolors, finger guitar frets, speak in sign language, treat a wound, change a diaper, cut hair, fold origami shapes, perform stitches, care for animals and pets, install and adjust audio equipment, dissect organisms, give a speech, prepare food dishes, set a table, and many other things. For this purpose, the camera you use should be one that you can move, focus, and control remotely so that you can ensure that you're projecting an image that helps students understand how you're doing what you're demonstrating.

Guest Speakers. You online (or face-to-face) class can be enhanced if you're able to invite a guest from another area to join you for an online video chat. These distant experts can raise issues, impart real-life experiences, and help you drive home specific lessons by virtue of their expertise and credibility with your students. If you decide to invite someone to visit your online classroom, make sure you do some prep work first. Meet with them online first to ensure that they can log in, perform audio and video checks, and navigate the Confer environment. Discuss timing so that they show up on time and prepared to interact. You may also want to prepare your students so that they will have questions ready for your guest when he or she arrives.

I'm sure you have ideas about how you might (or do) use video in your online classroom. Please feel free to share them!
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