It was just 30 minutes before class when Thomas Nelson Laird, an assistant professor of higher education at Indiana University at Bloomington, got the e-mail from a student: "I can't make it to class. Can you beam me in by Webcam?"
"I thought, I don't know if I can do that," the professor says. He looked at the clock and thought about the time it would take to rig up a link via Skype or some other video-chat system. He had used the technology before, though, so he figured, Why not?
Professors across the country are facing similar questions. Webcams are ubiquitous, and students are accustomed to using popular services like Skype to make what are essentially video phone calls to friends and family. Recognizing the trend, this month Skype unveiled a service for educators to trade tips and tricks, called "Skype in the classroom."
Professors also frequently bring in guest speakers using the technology, letting students interact with experts they otherwise would only read about in textbooks.
Mr. Nelson Laird's course, on diversity in education, has about 20 students in a circle. So on one seat, he set a laptop with a built-in Webcam for the missing student, who could not make it because of a snowstorm. It worked—the student even gave a five-minute presentation, her face displayed on the laptop screen and projected on a screen at the front of the room. But the professor noted that he had squandered five to 10 minutes of class time in setting up the connection, with a program called Adobe Connect.
The scenario was a first for Mr. Nelson Laird, and he says he hasn't yet thought out what his policy will be should a flurry of such requests occur. "Am I willing to do this occasionally? Sure," he told me this month. "But I'm not going to set this up every week."
Exactly how often professors fire up Webcams in their classrooms is hard to figure. The most recent data from the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement shows that about 12 percent of professors said they had used videoconferencing in their teaching. Mr. Nelson Laird helps lead the annual survey, which was conducted in the spring of 2009, of about 4,600 faculty members at 50 American colleges and universities.
As that number grows, will videoconferencing change the dynamics of traditional classrooms?
Perhaps no classroom professor has experimented more with videoconferencing in a single course than Paul Jones, an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In his fall 2009 course on virtual communities, he brought in a guest speaker via Skype nearly every week. That let his students interact with some of the leading scholars and authors on the topic—including Fred Turner, an associate professor of communication at Stanford University, and Howard Rheingold, who has written many books on Internet culture—who would have been unlikely to make the trip down to speak in person.
The guest speakers did not have to offer prepared remarks. Instead they were asked to simply make themselves available for questions from students during their Webcam appearances. In advance, students were required to use their Webcams to record short videos about the visitors' ideas. The guests would view the responses ahead of time, on YouTube or some other video-sharing site, to see what the students were most interested in.
"It's a bargain for these guys," says Mr. Jones, referring to the guest speakers. "They don't have to prepare a talk, and they get to interact with really smart students who are familiar with their work—and they don't have to travel."
Mr. Jones chose not to record the guests' video appearances themselves, or open them to the public. "I wanted the speaker to feel free to say whatever the hell they wanted," he says.
When I visited the University of Virginia last year, I saw a Skype guest speaker in action. Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies there who frequently explores new educational technology, had agreed to give a half-hour talk via Skype to a friend's class at the University of Wisconsin at Madison's library school, and he let me sit in. A few minutes before he was to appear, he headed to his faculty office, logged onto Skype, and donned a headset. A Webcam built into his monitor broadcast his image, and thanks to a camera on the other end, he could see the classroom full of eager students. He spent a few minutes on prepared remarks, and then took questions. Afterward, he joked that his friend now owed him a beer, or else a guest lecture in return.
In his own courses, Mr. Vaidhyanathan cashes in on those favors. During one recent class session he linked in Jeff Jarvis, an associate professor of journalism at the City University of New York. "I get to talk to students I wouldn't have otherwise talked to," Mr. Jarvis told me. "I've done this probably a dozen times at least. You're in for 30 minutes, and you're out. The obligation is so minimal that it makes it easier to say, What the heck?"
New Chore for Professors
There are some downsides to classroom videoconferencing.
The technology does not always work, although it is far more reliable than it was just a few years ago.
The first time Katherine D. Harris, an assistant professor of English literature at San Jose State University, tried inviting a guest speaker via Skype, she could not get the video to work, despite help from one of the university's tech-support staff members. Students in the course, "Digital Literature: the Death of Print Culture?" could hear the guest but not see him. Sometimes the audio would cut out as well, which made it harder for them to concentrate.
Would she do it again? Only if she knew technical help was close at hand. "It's almost easier to do it in person because you don't have the technology mediating everything," she says. "There's just so much to handle and take care of rather than just going to pick someone up."
Even letting students participate via videoconference has its drawbacks.
"I want to throw out this caution," says Scott Johnson, director of Illinois Online Network, the online division of the University of Illinois. "Unless the professor is committed to personally supporting and facilitating these ad hoc accommodations and provisions, and willing to carve out class time to set up and maintain the provisions, this is a moderately dangerous road.
"My issue is that the creation of an on-demand condition of readiness for any technology is not feasible for the majority of the faculty of many institutions. If the institution has educational technologists on staff, it is critical to enlist their assistance for the present and future if this technology-friendly teaching climate is going to be sustainable."
The concern reminds me of a scene in the 1985 film Real Genius. A series of scenes shows a classroom at an elite university. Early in the semester, all the students are in their seats, attentively taking notes. As the term wears on, more and more students have left tape recorders in their seats, since they're too busy to make it. Finally, recorders fill every desk, and the professor, too, is absent—replaced by a reel-to-reel machine playing his recorded lecture. On the board reads the message: "Math on Tape Is Hard to Follow: Please Listen Carefully."
Some level of phoning it in might be helpful, but professors will have to decide how far to go in accommodating their students' desire for convenience—and their own.