University of Richmond faculty and staff in various disciplines are increasingly using the videoconferencing software Skype in the classroom to connect with colleagues and research partners abroad.
The university's reputation as a global institution has been improving during recent years. Newsweek named UR the "hottest school for international studies" in 2007, and 70 percent of the class of 2007 studied abroad at one of more than 50 partner institutions.
Skype contributes to UR's growing global reputation because it easily and cheaply enables faculty, staff and students to make connections with academics from different countries and cultures--from their own classrooms.
Skype, which emerged in 2005 and is available for PC, Mac and Linux operating systems, allows its more than 500 million users to make voice and video calls and chat via text, for free, with other Skype users anywhere in the world. Members can make calls to landlines and mobile phones for a small fee.
Jake Kulstad, an academic technology consultant at the University of Richmond's Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology, helps faculty and with the technical aspects of Skype and shows them creative uses for Skype in their teaching.
He helped Kristen Lindgren, a psychology professor, set up a Skype call with a research colleague in Iraq from the nonprofit Heartland Alliance, for whom her class was analyzing statistical data.
Her students asked her colleague questions in one Skype session, she said, and presented their data analyses and conclusions in another on the final day of class.
"Putting a face to a name makes things feel real," Lindgren said, "and there are mutually influencing processes happening when you actually have video.
"It's really important for students to have some sense of connection with the people over there. If they didn't, it would seem like this abstract project, and the students would ask, 'Why'?"
Kulstad said, "With Skype, students are much more engaged than by corresponding via e-mail." Lindgren said that some students told her the Skype calls were the best part of her class.
Terry Price, a leadership studies professor, said he was concerned that his students would miss two classes while he and most other Richmond leadership faculty would be attending the International Leadership Association conference in Prague in November. He contacted his technology liaison, Jon Messer, and asked about his options for holding class remotely.
He said that Messer suggested Skype, and then helped him complete test runs from campus and Prague before class. Instead of lecturing, Price interviewed a Holocaust survivor who lives in Prague. The students introduced themselves and used Skype to ask her questions.
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He paid for the fastest Internet connection from Prague, he said, and had no technical problems.
David Salisbury and Peter Smallwood, UR professors of geography and biology, collaborated in the fall of 2008 to offer a unique experience to 19 students in Salisbury's sustainable development class. Smallwood had been serving as the country director for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he oversaw a research project with the goal of determining which plants and animals should be added to a protected species list.
McKenzie Johnson, a conservation biologist and Smallwood's research assistant in Afghanistan, told him that she faced a choice: She could do all the research herself, or train motivated Afghan undergraduate students with the biological background and the English and computer literacy to conduct the research--but she didn't have enough time for both.
Smallwood said he knew that Salisbury had a class full of capable, intellectually curious students in the U.S. who were interested in wildlife conservation, so he suggested Johnson use Skype to teach Salisbury's students how to do this research, which would free Johnson to train her students in Afghanistan.
Salisbury's students watched on one screen as Smallwood taught them about Afghan biodiversity, its political situation and an overview of the conservation project while following his Power Point presentation on another. Johnson taught two more classes on how to research and determine which species should make the list.
"So that was the project, and Skype is the only thing that made that possible," Smallwood said.
Salisbury said his students gathered in a classroom at 6 a.m.--There is a 9.5-hour time difference between the U.S. and Afghanistan--and presented their findings via Skype to the Afghanistan Wildlife Executive Committee, who questioned the students and used their research and recommendations to determine whether to place the animals on the list.
Everything the students suggested be protected, including the Griffin vulture, cheetah and snow leopard, was accepted to the list, Smallwood said.
"The opportunity to do something that has real-world connection is a big deal," he said. "It doesn't occur to you what you could do until you realize there's a tool to do this. Skype allowed the students to develop a relationship with Johnson that was much stronger than if they had simply e-mailed questions back and forth."
Salisbury said he appreciated the opportunities for spontaneous communication Skype provided, and that one big advantage was that students who may not have asked a question through e-mail had a less formal chance to ask it during Skype calls.
Salisbury, Smallwood--this time, from the U.S--and Johnson teamed up to offer a similar experience to Salisbury's fall 2009 class.
Michele Cox, director for study abroad at UR, is a frequent Skype user. She's used Skype to talk with students and colleagues abroad and domestically, and has conducted Skype conferences for incoming exchange students to ask questions before arriving in Richmond, she said.
Jennifer Stevens, an administrative coordinator in the Office of International Education, said that the students asked questions about orientation, on-campus housing, what the campus was like and whether English-as-a-Second- Language classes would be available to them.
Cox said that she particularly liked the real-time live interaction and immediate responses she got while using Skype. She and Cindy Holma, an administrative coordinator for the Office of International Education, conducted video orientations in the Career Development Center's conference room for 10 to 12 Buenos Aires-bound UR students to "meet" with the international coordinator at an Argentine university. They used a portable videoconferencing unit, consisting of a video camera and a conference phone, and proprietary videoconferencing software, for which UR owns several licenses.
Cox said that the quality and flexibility of this setup is better than Skype. Phil Sherman, a senior engineer for Telecom and Multimedia Services, said that this was because the users were directly connected to each other, rather than going through an intermediary server, as Skype does. With more connection points, there is a greater risk of dropped calls, he said.
Holma said the orientations would help the students recognize someone when they got to Argentina. "Most students going abroad--they're scared, unless they've traveled a lot," she said. "But it's not just traveling; they're also going to another university.
"One thing we love about Skype is the video aspect of it. They can start to feel more comfortable with their abroad experience even before they go. They'll have somebody on the other end that they already kind of know."
She also coordinated Skype interviews for eight UR students applying for resident assistant positions with a boarding school in Greece, she said. The students were unable to see the interviewers, who did not have webcams, Holma said, but she encouraged them to "look at the camera as if it were a person, because it's so easy to focus on the image of yourself at the bottom of your screen" and look down, instead of directly at, the interviewer.
Skype made the students' demeanors and enthusiasm more palpable to the Greek interviewers, she said. "It was just like an in-person interview," she said. "That's as good as it gets without actually having to go there."
Two students subsequently received job offers from the school, she said.
The international education staff hopes to set up a program where incoming international exchange students could interview with Cox via Skype, she said, and then be given an opportunity to connect with their classmates currently studying abroad at UR. They hope to have this program available when the new international center opens in fall 2010, she said.
Faculty and staff at UR have also used Skype for other purposes besides communicating internationally. When one of Price's students was sick with swine flu, he set up a camera in his classroom and let her watch through Skype, he said.
Another student of his attended class via Skype while home with a family emergency, he said, and even though she didn't have a webcam, she was still able to participate in the class discussion via a microphone.
Lindgren said she hoped to use Skype to bring in mental-health experts in different fields to have conversations with her psychopathology students next semester. And Price wants to use it to bring a leadership scholar to his class.
Kulstad said he particularly liked Skype because his preschool-aged niece and nephew, whom he only sees a handful of times a year, now recognized him when he visited them in Minnesota.
Skype, despite all its accolades, is not a flawless tool. It's unreliable in conversations with more than two users, Kulstad said, and it's a hassle to reconnect if the call is dropped--users must sign back in, redial and re-enable video chat.
Lindgren said that when using Skype internationally, it was sometimes hard to stay connected, and the video did not always match up with the speakers' words because the Internet connection speed was much slower in Iraq than in the United States. Cox said that sometimes she had dropped connections or unclear images, and "the conversations would skip like a record."
Smallwood said that as much as a one-second delay "could really screw up the normal cues of conversation." When he was in Afghanistan, Internet service providers routinely ripped off customers and gave them much less bandwidth than they paid for, making it much more challenging to conduct a delay-free videoconference.
Salisbury's students' Skype presentations in 2008 happened on a laptop instead of a projector screen because of a camera conflict, Smallwood said. "You need a more stable technology or a dedicated tech person to monitor the technology for a more prestigious or formal event," he said. "It's too much for one person to be teaching and monitoring the technology."
Kulstad said he was on hand at 5 a.m. to assist with Salisbury's 2009 final class, and there were no technical glitches. He encourages faculty to practice using Skype before using it in class, and to ask the person on the other end whether he or she is familiar with microphone setup, feedback and echoing, which will happen if the microphone is right in front of the speakers.
When choosing videoconferencing software, "Skype may not always be the best tool," he said. "Ask yourself, 'What do you want to accomplish?'"
The free version of DimDim, a browser-based, web-conferencing application, offers users one webcam connection and four audio connections, and lets up to 20 people hear the conversation and chat privately. If one person's connection is lost, unlike Skype, DimDim maintains a persistent chat room for the others to keep on communicating. It also lets web-conference coordinators share desktops, web pages, a whiteboard and polls.
Adobe Connect lets up to three people simultaneously hold a videoconference, for free, from a web browser.
And UR faculty and staff can work with Telecom and Multimedia Services if they need larger-scale solutions, more connections or a recording of the videoconference, Kulstad said. They can reserve rooms in Weinstein and Jepson Halls and the Robins School of Business that are equipped with videoconferencing software and hardware, he said.
Jon Ojanguren, a senior from Spain, raved about using Skype in Salisbury's fall 2009 class. "With Skype, your work on the other side of the world becomes real," he said. "You don't just use books--Skype connects you with the theory and helps your work make more sense."
Skype, which plans to go public in 2010, recently set a record of having 20 million people on at the same time. It earned the No. 7 spot on Time's 2009 list of the 50 best web sites.
Contact reporter Allison Czapracki at email@example.com
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