Tuesday November 13, 2012

As part of our year-long series, Learning 2030, The Agenda has been asking educators to tell us about some of the different teaching tools they are using to educate students. It's all in an effort to get a better sense of where learning is today and where it is going. Submissions so far include an elementary school teacher who uses the social media site Twitter and a Grade 10 teacher who uses a program called Civic Mirror

Today, Richard Windeyer of Wilfrid Laurier University's Faculty of Music talks about another web-based service not normally associated with teaching that he uses in his classes. 

This is a screenshot of my current favourite teaching tool – Skype. 

I use it as part of my teaching practice at Wilfrid Laurier University's Faculty of Music where I have been a part-time instructor in music technology and composition since 2000. On average, my largest class size is about 40 students. My courses focus on cultivating the students' technical and creative facility with various software tools and techniques to record, analyze, process, and compose digital audio works. 

For years, I would hold the usual "office hours" on campus where my students could drop in and consult with me on their assignments throughout the day – yet only a handful of students would actually be able to take time away from their other classes, rehearsal schedules, and part-time jobs to take advantage of this. The handful of students that would appear at my door would often spend the first five to 10 minutes of their visit setting up their laptops, logging on to the perpetually intermittent campus wi-fi, while quietly praying that their laptop wouldn't mysteriously freeze or the battery suddenly drain – and all of this while keeping one eye on the clock so as to avoid being late for their next class. With all these little distractions, I could sense that their ability to focus and retain whatever we covered in that session would be compromised. Eventually it dawned on me that the ideal time to hold office hours would be in the late evenings and weekends, when my students actually had the time to focus on their assignment. 

Having recently begun my own studies in E-Learning and Instructional Design through the University of Toronto, I began to think about how I could utilize distance education techniques to improve my current, physical classroom teaching. Among other things, I began offering additional, virtual "office hours" (from my home in downtown Toronto) via Skype. These sessions would typically be held during late afternoons or early evenings towards the end of the week, when students were more likely to be working on their assignments and in need of answers or technical guidance. If necessary, students could also request a weekend Skype session at a mutually convenient time.

Our sessions capitalize on Skype's "Share screen..." feature. While students sit in front of their computer working on the assignment, they share their computer screen with me. The impact (for me at least) was immediate – I can see and hear exactly what they're doing with the software. I can see where they are succeeding and where they are having difficulty. I can observe how they interact with the software, how they listen to and think about what they're doing. They can play excerpts of what they're working on for me to hear and comment on while I help them navigate the software's interface, point out useful features, make suggestions, and answer questions. I can also periodically take over control of their computer's mouse to demonstrate certain tools or techniques, and then have students repeat the steps while I act as a kind of coach. As a teacher, this is especially important for me – I can show them how to do something rather than simply tell them how to do something.

I should point out that I avoid using Skype's video chat feature for a couple of reasons. First, I find it often requires significantly more internet bandwidth and processing power than audio chatting. This is especially important since computer speeds and internet bandwidth quality often varies dramatically between students. Secondly, it reduces the amount of visual distraction which I find is so easily introduced and encouraged by video chatting. In the classroom, students are perpetually distracted by so many things (the screens of their devices, the world outside the classroom windows, social interactions, my lecture slides  and heaven help me if my shirttail is hanging out or I'm having a bad hair day). I think Pythagoras had the right idea – in ancient Greece, he apparently taught his students from behind a curtain so that they would not be distracted by his physical presence, and their focus would be fixed on the sound of his voice and the content of his lecture. With video chat disabled, our collective eyes and ears can remain focused on the work at hand. 

It may seem counter-intuitive that a long-distance communication tool can exact better focus, attention, and absorption of course content than in an actual, physical classroom, yet this seems to work quite well. Despite the virtual, "distanced-ness" of teaching this way, I actually feel (more than ever) like I'm a much greater help to my students' learning process. 

Now, I should add that I still hold "physical" office hours on campus before and after each class and that the number of students that turn out to either physical or virtual sessions has not increased significantly (I suspect this has more to do with the prevailing attitude that many students seem to have about asking for help as a sign of intellectual weakness). Yet I can't help but wonder if the physical distance emphasized by Skyped-in office hours actually helps a student to preserve their need for intellectual autonomy and independence, while encouraging just enough consultation with the instructor to deepen and enhance their learning.

In any case, this little experiment is all part of an ongoing process – to figure out how I can be the most effective teacher possible to my students.