One evening most weeks, some Esperanto speakers here in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina get together for dinner and face-to-face conversation. The most frequent participants come from Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill … and Santa Fe.
It might seem impractical for someone in New Mexico to be a regular at a meeting in North Carolina, but former Raleigh resident Bruce Sherwood is with us most weeks, often showing us photos of his travels or a book he’s reading or something interesting on his computer. He also joined us at a regional meeting one Saturday to watch Esperanto-related video clips. But he’s not actually with us in person. We see and hear him, and he sees and hears us, via the Internet.
Back in the mid-1980s, Duke University built a video classroom (conveniently a few steps from my office, in fact) that was part of a network of similar classrooms at other nearby universities. A lecturer in any of these classrooms could be seen from the others on a large projected television image. The video was one-way, but there were microphones in all the classrooms, permitting students to ask questions and, to a limited degree, engage in discussions.
Today we can do all this and more from our offices and homes for far less than the impressive sum Duke spent to create and operate that classroom. In fact, our weekly conversations between Durham and Santa Fe cost us nothing beyond equipment and services already paid for.
Many computers, especially laptops, come with everything you need to make video calls already built-in, though you might want to add a better microphone, a better camera or a larger screen. Built-in or added on, you’ll need, besides the computer:
A camera. If you don’t already have one or you want to get something better, you can find decent quality “webcams” for sale even in some drugstores, and many video camcorders can be used as well. You’ll need to tell your computer which camera to use, a choice made either in the calling program itself or with your computer’s System Preferences (Mac) or Settings (Windows).
Either a headset or else a microphone and speakers. Note that with the latter you can encounter problems with feedback, though in our experience the Skype software does an excellent job of filtering it out. The problem doesn’t exist at all with a headset, but that’s harder to use if you have several people participating on one side of the conversation. Again, you’ll probably need to tell the computer which microphone to use if there’s already one built in.
A computer screen. Surely you have one of those! But if several people are looking at the same screen, you may want a bigger one. Don’t overlook the fact that you can connect most computers to a high definition television set using an HDMI cable and a fairly inexpensive adapter. (The exact adapter you’ll need depends on your computer.) Incidentally, no matter what the salesman tells you, you don’t need to spend $100 for a “premium” HDMI cable. Anything labeled as “high speed” or “340 MHz” will produce the maximum quality with any currently available video source. A “better” cable can no more enhance a digital picture than it can a movie’s plot.
You’ll also need a broadband Internet connection, preferably at least 768 kilobits per second in each direction, though I’ve made do with less. Unfortunately there are still a lot of places in the U. S. that are limited to dial-up, and if you’re in that situation, all I can say is that high-speed is coming eventually.
Finally, you need a video conferencing program. The most popular seems to be Skype, which is available for Mac OS X, Windows, as well as some smart phones and the Apple iOS devices like the iPad and iPod Touch. At present Skype charges nothing for two-way Internet video calls. If you want to involve more than two computers in the same call you can (up to six, I believe, at present), provided at least one party to the conversation is a subscriber to Skype’s premium video service. (See the Skype website for details.) There are other video conferencing services as well, and I don’t mean to slight them. Skype just happens to be what I’m most familiar with.
So much for the technology. What can you actually do with it? Here are just some ideas:
A teacher in one location can work with a group of students in another, even on another continent.
A class can be entirely virtual, with each student in a separate location.
An isolated student can take part in a class far from home without the need to travel.
Two classes in different places, ideally in different countries with different national languages, can connect to practice conversation and gain experience hearing different accents.
It’s important to note that the practical number of separate locations for a truly interactive class is limited by practical concerns. For one thing, only so many video images can fit onto the same screen. Skype suggests limiting calls to five locations: your own plus four others (so your screen shows four simultaneous video pictures). Skype also imposes an absolute upper limit of 10 simultaneous connections (with the screen divided into nine parts), and it would be difficult to work with more than that anyway.
Note that if one of the locations has more than a few persons present, it can be hard to make out individual faces in a wide view of the crowd. In that case it makes sense to use a separate, movable camera (perhaps on a tripod) or even a couple of cameras with software to switch between them. Camtwist, Manycam and Webcamplus (for Windows) permit you to do that and more, such as superimpose text.
In general, for most language classes, the smaller the number of students the better. One exception is a Cseh-method course, which employs group response. That group response is more practical for large classes, and it helps beginners develop confidence because they aren’t put on the spot to respond individually.
In fact, there are other video services, such as UStream, that allow you to set up what amounts to your own television station, broadcasting from one location to an unlimited number of Internet viewers. Some services also allow you to switch between originating locations, so you can conceivably have instructors in two different locations — like a television program with hosts in different cities. It’s also possible for viewers to make comments or ask questions via text message or voice connections as in the Duke video classroom, except that UStream allows the possibility of a far larger potential audience.
If you want to try teaching a course this way, I strongly suggest keeping it small and simple at first. Do trial runs with some friends before your first “live” class. Make sure you’ve selected the right camera and microphone and you’re familiar enough with the software not to fumble around when, for example, you want to switch from the camera to a picture of your computer desktop. The more complicated your setup (switching between multiple cameras, using an external microphone instead of the built-in one, etc.), the more you should test and practice.
While it’s important to make sure the technology works, don’t overlook preparations for the course itself! Even if you have a lot of experience teaching classes in person, teaching over a video link is different enough that you should get some experience with some short, simple lessons before diving into a major course. Also recognize that the technology is still somewhat cutting edge, and occasional connection problems such as pauses, skips, and slightly unsynchronized picture and sound do occur. (It sometimes helps to disconnect and start over.)
I’ve barely touched on the subject here. I suspect that in coming months the American Association of Teachers of Esperanto and the Internacia Ligo de Esperantistaj Instruistoj will devote increasing resources to live, on-line classes, since these obviously have some major advantages for teaching Esperanto. If you’re not already a member of those organizations, note that joining AATE makes you a member of both for as little as $20 per calendar year with electronic delivery of their publications. Membership with publications on paper is $40 per calendar year. See the AAIE website for more information.