Video Conferencing

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Welcome to the first post in the DRC’s [Digital Lessons] series! The idea of this series is to introduce different categories or strategies for teaching writing with digital resources, as well as provide a practical snapshot of how others have applied them in their work. W encourage you to leave your own stories and experiences in the comments! Seeing how others have applied digital techniques in the classroom helps expand the imagined range of possibilities for all of us, and makes the idea of working in new angles and tools more exciting and less daunting.

If you have questions about the series, topics to suggest, or would like to participate in a future installment, please send me an email! I’d love to hear from you.

What is it?

Video conferencing is more or less what it sounds like – conferencing with students online using a video chat program such a Google Hangout or Skype. Used in conjunction with Google Docs, video conferencing allows instructors to work with students one-on-one on their writing remotely, with both parties having free access to view and edit the writing in question. Students paste a copy of their draft into a Google Doc set up by the instructor, and the two use the Doc as their point of reference for the work during the video conference. Rather than sharing a static hard copy of a text, or viewing a file on a single screen, using Google Docs allows the text itself to be, in a sense, the “space” in which the conference takes place, encouraging students to see it as an evolving product.

While meeting through a screen rather than in person can pose a few technical and rapport-building challenges, it can also offer numerous advantages over face-to-face instruction – including additional access and new collaborative and revision practices. Though most scholarly discussion of this practice takes place in the context of writing center studies, video conferencing offers many of the same advantages to individual [writing]instructors as well.

What have people said about it?

Video conferencing is a fairly new practice, with only a small number of writing centers in the country currently offering the service. But the idea of online writing instruction as a tool for expanding tutoring’s potential, rather than just replicating face-to-face meetings, has been in discussion for years. Jackie Grutsch McKinney noted in 2010 that contemporary writing centers “will likely be marked by the plurality of approaches to support writing, not just how they use that technology to replicate established ways.” Daniel Anderson argues that the challenge of composing through “low-bridge technologies” like Skype and GoogleDocs (free programs that merely require entry-level skills for use) can “open pathways to creativity and motivation.”

Additionally, advocates of the Skype/Google Docs pairing for writing conferences say that the flexible, “living” nature of a collaborative Google Docs draft means students are more likely to see their writing as a work in progress, rather than a static finished product (Summers, Dominguez). As a result, such sessions often yield more opportunities for original writing and drafting than face-to-face sessions – something my own experience tutoring at the UW-Madison Writing Center’s Skype location corroborates.

What kinds of things can I do with it?

Video conferencing can be a powerful tool for student conferences. By making the text itself the space in which interactions between student and instructor take place, video conferencing makes it easy to integrate functions such as tracking the revision history of a document into the fabric of a conference, rather than

And perhaps most obviously, video conferencing gives both instructor and student incredible flexibility in where and when to hold conferences. While some instructors worry that this lack of physical space for a conference might lead students to take them less seriously, I’ve found that the instructor’s attitude leads the way – if the instructor treats a video conference as a serious meeting tool, students will almost always follow suit. For those facing issues of difficult schedules, limited meeting space or other logistical challenges, video conferencing offers a way to maintain one-on-one contact with students while maintaining the benefits of meeting in person.

Why might I want to use it in my classroom?

Video conferencing is a great way to increase students’ awareness of the ability of digital tools to facilitate collaboration. Despite the increasing presence of tools like Google Docs in K-12 classrooms, many students still harbor negative impressions of collaborative work – especially the dreaded group projects. By sponsoring students in using tools like Skype and Google Docs to work collaboratively on improving a text, video conferencing can help to improve students’ attitudes towards collaborative writing. As such, it makes a great pairing with the oft-maligned group project. An instructor might schedule one-on-one video conferences for an individual assignment early in the semester, then follow up with a group writing project once students have been exposed to working on a text collaboratively online. And since Google Hangout can support up to ten people in a video chat (though, unless you’re working with some powerful processing, not without some lag), it’s possible to support the group project through collaborative conferencing with the instructor as well.

Video conferencing can also enhance access to one-on-one instruction for commuter or returning students, who may have difficulty coming to campus for office hours or other appointments outside of class time. At UW-Madison, the Writing Center’s Skype satellite regularly serves students who are currently studying outside the country, or whose living situations keep them off-campus when not attending classes.

Video Conferencing in the Writing Center: Leah Misemer

To learn a bit more about how video conferencing works in practice, I asked Leah Misemer to share some insights about her experiences with Skype and Google Docs conferencing. Leah is the director of UW-Madison’s Online Writing Center, and manages a staff that includes five graduate student tutors working with students through video conferencing.

What do you like about video conferencing, especially as compared to traditional face-to-face sessions?

I would say that Skype can be a really student centered space, and that’s one of the things I love about it. I might even like to try using GDocs in an in-person session for this reason, because it encourages so much focus on the student’s ownership, and on collaboration. The collaborative aspects that the tech facilitates are important to writing instruction. Your students – you teach them, you see them everyday, you grade them. The increased intimacy and collaboration working through Skype with GoogleDocs brings can be really useful. I’m working to step out of an HS authoritative role in the classroom, and [working with GDocs Skype]helps give students more freedom to see what they can develop. It’s still new, even hypothetical in some cases, but it’s working well so far. It’s also useful that the student has such a strong record of the session to take home with them. Having the language on the page that way – it’s stable. In a Skype session you can use both modalities – type and talk – to get the fullest benefit for students from the time.

You are able to provide services to writers that are not THERE, not able to come to campus for whatever reason. If they’re studying abroad, not able to physically get to your location on campus, for whatever reason. And I also feel strongly that there’s an advantage to working in Google Docs – one that’s hard to replicate in a face to face session – in that you can look at, and work in it, together, making it a really collaborative space. A sort of playful space, almost. And I really like that about how we run Skype. This can be hard to replicate in person because it can be a little strange to sit there and say, let’s open your computer and work in this space together. Obviously if you’re in person your student will always have a draft, and sometimes it’s a paper one, and that can’t be imported into Google Docs. To replicate what you can do in Google Docs face to face, with the same kind of dynamic – I think it might have to involve scissors and paper, that’s the only equivalent I can come up with. I’ve done that before, but only with students I knew very well, and it took advance preparation. With

, it’s easy to set up as the norm.

Another thing I’ve heard from my instructors is that they really like how intimate it ends up being. You’re in your space, they’re in their space, and while there may be an initial awkwardness because of that, at the same time there’s an inviting nature to that that makes the writing space feel homier. So I think it could be seen as more approachable, and it can be easier to bond with a student that way. I’ve had tutors experience sessions where the student introduces their kids, their pets – it’s that kind of thing that’s possible in

that’s not possible with an in-person session.

What kinds of students do you tend to see for video conferencing? How (if at all) do you work to adapt to them?

The students I work with, there’s a sense of optimism about using new tools, new technology for this kind of one-on-one teaching. It’s in the background, but I feel like it comes through in various ways. It also works well for students who need to build some confidence as writers but who are most comfortable via talking. Skype gives an intimacy, and allows for conversation, while also putting focus on the act of writing itself. Many students think best through talk, through talking through ideas, and I can do that through Skype in a way I can’t in an email, for students who can’t access me in person. That’s one of the places that Skype itself really shines.

What are some of the challenges or drawbacks, and how would you recommend anticipating them?

As with any technology, you want to be aware of the learning curve for students. Because if you’re not careful, the technology becomes what the session focuses on – getting the student access to the doc, getting Skype up and running – and then that takes away from the writing that’s supposed to happen. Until the software’s updated a bit, be ready to encounter some bugs – some cutting out, some disconnects. Even with someone who’s bandwidth is fine, it can still freeze or bug out on occasion. So you might want to budget a little extra time, more than you might in-person, just in case.

Skype still intimidates a lot of people that don’t have a facility with technology. That may change as the tech native generation grows up, but right now for instance, I really pitch Skype hard to  [adult graduate students], who are working jobs, who have kids and may not live in Madison, but they seem to prefer email instruction – because they know how to use email, they know how to fill out a survey on the web. It’s easier for them than downloading and learning a new application. So I feel like there’s a generation gap a little with Skype.

Also, one of the things I’ve been reading around as I’m looking at the way other writing centers do sync conferences is that there’s also an economic access divide – because you need to be in a place with enough bandwidth to support a video conference. Video takes a lot of bandwidth. It’s getting better, but Skype especially is heavy in this regard. I’ve dealt with this in various ways in conferences, when difficulties arise. I once had a video conference where a student was on her phone and it kept cutting out, so I was eventually like “let’s not do this anymore – rather than my calling you back again and again, let’s just chat in the bottom of the document.” So we used the GoogleDoc to exchange real time(ish) comments. It was kind of weird, and prevented some of the best collaborative aspects of the Google Doc, but we were able to have a complete session – so it was challenging, but we made it work. I know instructors have dealt with connection or video issues by just holding chat conferences with Google Hangout or the Skype chat feature, and done so successfully.

You also need to be clear about your expectations about what’s going to happen. I have a spiel I give at the beginning of every appt about what’s going to happen – how I’ll use the document and how I’ll talk about that, that I’ll be in the doc but they’re welcome to look at another copy of the draft, that I’ll take notes about the session in the bottom of the doc, etc. Really just the tech version of the talk I give at the beginning of an in-person session. And that’s very important to making it a collaborative space.

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