I received an interesting call from a friend yesterday that is leading me down an interesting New Media road.
Our friend is also a teacher at my son’s school, so when her son was preliminarily diagnosed with the H1N1 flu virus, there was a bit of concern. She showed no symptoms herself, but the school administration was concerned with her being in the classroom while she could potentially be carrying the virus. That said, losing her time and skills, when she was not herself sick, pushed them to try something a little different. That fact is, what they asked me to implement has been possible for years, but this particular situation was enough to push them into action. This is probably a familiar situation to anyone who is an new media consultant. People have to come to the decision to investigate New Media on their own. It is nearly impossible to push them into it.
In the classroom
The software and hardware we are using is nothing special and many other systems could be substituted for what I am about to describe. First, all of our classrooms are outfitted with Smart Technologies interactive whiteboards. These are projector based systems where a computer screen can be projected and also “drawn on” electronically. Since these screens can project anything on the host PC, it was a simple affair to load Skype (http://skype.com), create a user id and login. In our specific case, a microphone for their desktop PC was located and tested. The built-in mic on a laptop or a USB headset would also have worked. We are going to try and bring in a simple webcam to allow the remote teacher to see the classroom, but even one-way video would work for now. (An assistant will monitor the classroom locally and act as an intermediary between the students and the remote teacher A webcam, though, would allow the remote teacher to interact more closely with the students — watching for hands raised and confused looks)
In the “studio”
The remote end of the connection, set up in my home office for this first run, includes a standard Windows laptop or Mac Mini desktop computer. On the laptop, we can use the built-in webcam for video or connect my Digital8 camcorder to either computer to use as a more functional camera. A camcorder is a bit better as it has better quality optics and also allows for zooming in on materials and demonstrations. This would also allow you to record a high quality video of the presentation as it happens for later use.
For the audio portion, I am equipped with both lavaliere mics, like you see on television news shows and a shotgun microphone, like those used to record on location for television and film. You don’t need any of these, of course. You can use the audio coming from the camcorder or web cam, the microphone built into your laptop or a USB headset.
Most presenters typically want some way of writing or drawing information for their students and, in some ways, this becomes even more important for remote teachers. I have several solutions ready for this.
1. Flip chart and stand
I happen to have flip chart pads, stand and markers which I use for my own presentations, so we could simply set up one of these and point the camera at the pad. These are available at any office supply store. If you were teaching from an actual classroom, you could also just use the blackboard or whiteboard provided there.
2. Computer applications
On my Windows laptop computer, I have the program ManyCam which not only allows me to select a webcam or video camera, but also allows me to display whatever is on my computer screen. In this way, a teach could use a word processing program to type out whatever she wanted to present to her students, including pre-designed pages, Powerpoint presentations or anything else they might wish. CamTwist is a similar program for the Macintosh. Both are free.
3. Graphic and drawing programs with digitizing tablet
To take it a step farther, I have a small Wacom drawing tablet and pen connected to this computer. This allows me to load any graphics or drawing program and use the computer screen as a virtual whiteboard.
Again, you can make this as simple or complex as you wish within the bounds of the technology you have. In our case, I think I am going to start out with the flip chart and maybe use the other technology if we think it might help.
We are supposed to conduct our first sessions this Wednesday, so I will right up another report to let you know how it went — the good, the bad and the ugly.
As you might imagine, this same setup could be used to bring in virtual guest speakers for your class, group or event. I am amazed how few people take advantage of this technology and the access it gives to experts across the country and the world. It matters little where you teach or live these days. You can still bring amazing people to talk to your class or even set up virtual “sister classrooms” all over the world. Imagine helping your students learn with another classroom in the UK, Australia, Europe, Africa, — wherever.
If you would like to know more about using New Media tools like these, leave a comment on thie blog post or post your questions to the New Media Interchange Community site. Finally, I am also available to come to your school, business or group (perhaps remotely) and show how New Media can be used to further education in all its forms.