Distance Learning 2.0: Class by Webcam

What if you could attend class from the comfort of your home by using a webcam? Or what if your professor could use a webcam to bring in guest speakers without regard to cost or location? Videoconferencing services like Skype are now making those ideas possible.

Webcam

Learning by Webcam

It wasn't long ago when a bad snowstorm could mean you'd miss a class without question. Yet with the availability of Web conferencing services like Skype, there is now the option of attending class using a webcam. This means that you can see and hear the professor and other students using your computer, while they can see and hear you. You can listen to lectures, participate in discussions and even give presentations while not present in the room.

Videoconferencing can also be used to bring in guest speakers. The expense of having a guest speaker attend a class in person can easily become prohibitive due to travel costs, meals and lodging. Yet using a service like Skype eliminates those costs and enables a speaker to provide a talk or just engage in a discussion with students without ever leaving his or her home or office.

According to a 2009 report from the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement, 12% of faculty at U.S. colleges and universities had used videoconferencing in the classroom. This included over 4,500 faculty members at 50 institutions. At that time, only 4% of those surveyed were unfamiliar with the technology, a smaller number than those unfamiliar with wikis, Google Docs or virtual worlds like Second Life.

Videoconference

It's Not Yet the Future

While there are many fascinating possibilities opened up by the use of webcams in the classroom, there are still drawbacks. First, despite major advances in the technology in recent years, it's still not a perfect science. Both ends of the Web-based conference call must have strong Internet connections to avoid choppiness and delays with audio or video.

Also, teachers must commit the time and resources, including technical staff, to the set-up and operation of webcam calls. Even for teachers who are familiar with the technology, hiccups with set-up can be distracting and time-consuming, which takes away from the traditional classroom experience.

There's also the question of where allowing a student to attend class using a webcam leads. If one student makes the request due to a snowstorm or car breakdown, will it lead to a slippery slope? In each case, the value of having a student present who may otherwise be unable to attend must be weighed against the value of human interaction in the classroom.

In addition to Skype, there are a multitude of other collaboration tools for the digital age.

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