Once you get into a subject and start following it in forums and on social media, you soon discover that there are a lot of hare-brained ideas out there – like Twitter for example. I mean who on earth is going to restrict sharing their thoughts with the world to 140 characters? What a step backwards! Um… Tell that to the reporters who covered the Arab Spring; or the police in London who thwarted an number of the more serious outbursts during the London riots in 2011, or the graffiti artists who sprayed the Google DNS on walls in Turkey to help people get their views out when the service was banned their. (Seriously, that must be a first – a DNS as an act of rebellion!)
The truth is, it’s damned hard to predict what new technology or innovation is going to catch on. 18 months ago, it seemed that MOOCs were going to conquer the education universe. Now that some of the flaws have been exposed, people are not so sure. By “people” here I mean academics and journalists. They have a heavily vested interest in new ideas as they feed their right to existence. Studying new phenomena can provide an academic with a job. For the journalists, it is their job. And it’s important to remember that the authors have a vested interest.
Which brings me onto the subject of video-conferencing in teaching. The idea has been hanging around for quite a while now and I most certainly have a vested interest in the technology. As a language coach in the early noughties focussing on enabling managers, I soon found that a large proportion of my day was spent travelling between offices. Getting the managers to come to me was pretty much out of the question, as the vast majority suffer from the “I’m indispensable” syndrome, which afflicts middle managers and above, and prevents them from leaving the building during office hours. It got to the point where I occasionally had to turn down new customers, because of travelling issues. This was the pre-DSL era, and the spectacularly expensive video conferencing systems that some of the big companies were starting to use ran on ISDN connections. (And were really seen as an unnecessary evil compared to the option of flying across Europe to discuss something.)
I started using Skype about just over four years ago, which means that I was by no means the first to try this! But Skype did a lot of work around that time which reflected in call quality. At the beginning, I did a trial with a couple of really good customers who had both been moved to other locations hundreds of miles away. In effect, I had lost them as customers so there wasn’t anything else that could make it worse.
The results were pleasing. Firstly the customers were happy – anything else would have been a deal-breaker – and most importantly the sound was good enough that I could even identify very subtle intonations, Key to this were good speakers and a good microphone. Professionals don’t really want to be sitting in their office with a gaming headset on, so a pair of Bose speakers, a Logitech webcam, and a Sony mike were provided by me. All in all, it worked well enough to provide a meaningful learning environment. The customers and I were satisfied with the experience.
Jumping forward to today confronts us with a different world. Broadband is all but universal in industry, and managers have learned from their kids that Skype is a pretty decent quality. Some companies are using Google hangouts for ad hoc meetings. The resistance to communicating in real time via a computer is shrinking. But the question is, does it provide a good enough experience for teaching? We have already reached the point where some desktop-sharing and video link platforms have come and gone. Others have developed and are in the second or third generations. But is it enough?
One of the most critical things is lag or latency. Once you start having to wait for the hardware to catch up with the speaker, you are going to get irritated pretty quickly. Lag with the video isn’t such a big issue as I saw at the recent iMoot, an online conference for Moodle teachers and developers. Watching the person was a nice bonus, and it helped with facial expressions and gestures, but the fact that it was occasionally behind the audio by half a second or so didn’t detract from the message. (Anyone who watches dubbed films will understand this.) Desktop sharing certainly is nice to have, but more interesting for the language teacher is the ability to use the desktop as a virtual whiteboard. If you have ever tried to use one of these things, you’ll know just how hard it is to use a mouse to do anything useful. The only way to achieve decent results is to use a graphical tablet and a stylus – not necessarily a very expensive accessory, but one that very few people have to hand.
So what stands in the way of face to face teaching taking place across continents? Putting an expert onto a screen in front of a class is trivial, and giving the expert direct feedback from the class is also not a huge challenge. Software like the open source BigBlueButton (and any number of other conferencing systems) can link experts and learners from all over the world in one virtual classroom.
Two years ago I discussed with the author of an English schoolbook the scenario of him being able to directly link up with a classes from time to time and highlight certain key elements in his book. He was keen on the idea, his publisher has the resources and technology to do it, and we both knew of teachers who would be more than willing to go down this road, but we also both knew that it wasn’t going to happen.
The technology doesn’t hold up those wanting to work that way, so why isn’t it more commonplace? Lack of access to the technology? Fear of change? Or is there some deeper psychological resistance? I doubt we will ever got to the point whereby all teaching is done this way (however good the experience becomes) but can video-conferencing become the method of choice for teachers or will it remain as a second-class alternative in the minds of the participants?
Your views are welcome!