The Sky(pe) is the Limit

Me as one of the heads in Futurama.

Last week, I went to California to speak at a seminar at UCSB. This created a small problem for me:  I would miss both of the classes I teach on that day. Having someone substitute teach a Calculus I class is no big deal. In fact, a common practice is to “swap” classes or exam proctoring with other faculty members who will have to travel for conferences or seminar talks. But I am also teaching Real Analysis, IBL style, and that is a little more difficult to get someone else to do. I decided to teach a long-distance class instead (my talk did not conflict with my class meeting time) using Skype, a free video-chatting tool.

Usually during our class meetings, students present their own proofs to theorems that I have assigned previously. We discuss the proofs in class, correct any mistakes, address any misunderstandings, and sometimes pause to write down explicit examples illustrating a new concept. When I decided to do a long-distance class, I realized that the usual style of class was probably not going to be all that efficient without me being there (although, who knows? maybe It could be). Sometimes, though, if there is time left in our meeting and we have covered all of the assigned theorems, I will have them get into groups and look at the material that comes next, and maybe have them prove a few theorems in class. What I usually do in those cases is walk around the class and answer any questions they may have or give a hint. This is what I realized would be the best structure for my Skype class.

A couple of days before the class meeting, I posted on our class webpage which problems I wanted them to look at during the class period. They would be allowed to work with whoever they wanted. A few of the students agreed to bring their laptops (with webcams and Skype installed). At the beginning of class, they were in charge of getting things going. Meanwhile, in Santa Barbara, I was sitting in front of my computer. One of my students called me about 15 minutes after class started, with a question. They passed the same laptop along to other students, and this way, much like I would in class, I was going from group to group answering questions and giving hints. At some point, they placed me on the desk facing the whole class. This is when things got a little bit awkward, they ran out of questions! So I stared at them for a while longer, until I realized that this is also exactly what leading group work feels like. I was also happy to see that they were discussing problems with each other, and pretty active throughout. I started distracting myself by reading the news online, replying to emails, etc. And every once in a while, someone would come up to the desk and ask a question. I remember scribbling something on a piece of paper at some point and showing it to the camera. That worked pretty well, I thought! In the end, they worked on some tough problems and discussed them with each other and with me. To me, that’s a pretty successful class day!

On the negative side, I felt like sometimes I wanted to see what was going on in the whole room, not just in the direction I was “pointed at”. In fact, it seems like the students felt a little intimidated by having me sitting right in front of them, and some of them later moved to where my webcam peripheral vision didn’t reach. Honestly, I felt like I was one of those heads in Futurama. This was especially frustrating when one of the students decided to show her proof to the class on the blackboard, and I was pointing in the opposite direction! On the other hand, it is pretty great that someone decided to present for the class, without any pushing from me!

Overall, I thought this was a pretty positive experiment. It definitely got me thinking about other ways in which I could use this sort of technology. One obvious application is as a contingency plan for snow days (see this post for how this has stumped me in the past). But I’m not sure how this would work for an intro-level math class with lots of students, or a more lecture-based class. I think this idea requires a certain level of maturity in the students which I can expect from Real Analysis, but maybe not Calculus I.

Another application is office hours. I spend a lot of time outside of class meeting with my Real Analysis students because they are very frequently confused (this is in part a consequence of using IBL, but also, come on, it’s Real Analysis!).  I commute, so I would like to be able to work from home on certain days, but I would like to be able to address the needs of my students at the same time. But why not work from home and be logged on to Skype for two hours? Then, if they have questions, they can call from the library, or their dorm room, or a computer lab, or wherever. They can call me in a group, or individually. I am going to attempt this next week, and we will see how it goes.

Aside from teaching, you could also use this technology for research. In fact, I have used Skype before to talk to my former PhD adviser, and to collaborators. I think it works really well in these situations, too.

Has anyone else used this particular software for teaching purposes? Any other similar software you recommend? I was thinking that tablet computers could easily be incorporated, especially for note-taking and then emailing or posting on a webpage. Please, share your thoughts in the comments below!

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One Response to The Sky(pe) is the Limit

  1. Brie Finegold says:

    I use Skype for my online class this semester. Being able to teach two online courses has been really awesome since I just had a baby, and Skype is very convenient. The only thing is that I haven’t mastered the use of conference calls involving many people.
    The program “Elluminate” is supposed to work really well for this. But I had the problem that at the beginning of the course, hardly anyone “came” to online office hours. So I just told the one/two students to Skype with me since we were all familiar with how that worked. Then one day recently, I had THREE (count them now) students, and that required me to get back to one of them later in the day :)
    Let me know if you find another program you like. I’m having trouble testing Elluminate because I can test it only when students want to get on simultaneously, and then they have to be patient while I figure out what’s going on. If I do figure it out though, the upside is that I can “draw” on a virtual blackboard in front of them, share my desktop, and video chat all at the same time.

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