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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Experimenting: A Skype Test

Figuring Out What Works, and What Does Not

I’ve been writing about the ways in which we can be flooded by change, by technology — drowned rather than swept along. But even as I am registering those hesitations, I am also experimenting — trying to learn how to ride the tide, how to make the new options work. So last night Dr. Eliza Dresang, who is the Beverly Cleary professor of Children’s Lit at the University of Washington, brought Marina and me into her class by Skype. We did an hour Q and A with MLS students taking their YA materials class — about 2/3 of them planning to work in public libraries, 1/2 in schools. We’ve Skyped before, but only to keep in touch when one of us ahs been on a trip far away.
       Frustrations: Eliza was smart enough to have a test run two hours before class, and then I could not hear them. It took some exploring and tinkering with my laptop to figure out that its speakers were not on the right settings. This is not a problem with Skype, but just a warning that even if Skype works perfectly, there may be little glitches that require you to know, or be able to trouble shoot, your machine. Once we got going, the visual part was at best OK. While we could see the class clearly, students far from their camera looked tiny. And the little inset box showing us had that jumpy quality of really old and bad computer images. In effect the visual part was like looking at a snap shot of them, with a bit of motion, and a snapshot of us. The best that can be said of the visuals is that we could pick out who was raising her hand — so there was a kind of contact that we would not have had if we were speaking on the phone. Benefits: the class was able to see us, and to ask us questions, with a sense of being in a space together that we really could not have easily created any other way.
       Surely some of you are expert Skypers and can add to this report — would we have had a much better visual experience if we used a different camera, not the one that happened to come with my laptop? Any other tips to offer? But my take away is that Skype is much less than a full and direct visual connection. It is more like a postcard with a bit of motion and good audio. We should use it to have a better sense of sharing an experience, of being in a space together. If that is so, lets figure out how best to use that kind of experience — in our libraries and classrooms. 


  1. Mary Ann Cappiello says:

    One of the adult students in my nonfiction class was sick this weekend, and instead of having her miss an entire day of class, we decided to Skype her in. She was able to stay in bed and recover, and we “moved” her around from table to table. In this context, it really worked well. When I did a read aloud of a picture book, I did an extra “show” for the camera. When she needed to be doing small group work, we moved the laptop to a different table. Essentially, she was a talking head. But by being “present” in class, and hearing our discussions, she got so much more than if she simply attempted to make up the work. I don’t know how it would have worked if it were the reverse, and I was the talking head, trying to effectively communicate with the class as a whole.

  2. interesting — again helps to define what Skype can and can’t do — it does allow presence and participation, so long as we understand its limitations

  3. Susan Campbell Bartoletti says:


    I’ve done a few Skype school visits. Like you, I always do a test run the day before, and then I ask the teacher/librarian to call via Skype before the students arrive.

    I work on a Mac lap top, but I imagine the tech capabilities are similar for PC users. I begin with general conversation, so that the students can get a sense of my personality (and vice versa), and then do a mini program. WIth the mini-program, I activate the screen share feature, so that they see the visuals (and I can see them, too), and then open up for Q and A.

    I have done Skype visits with small groups (classrooms of 30) and with as many as 100 students. So far, so good. It’s worked well –even with the large groups. Although nothing replaces the in-person visit, I like being able to connect in this way with students and their teachers.


  4. Stasia Kehoe says:

    Thanks for sharing this experience, Marc. It resonates with things I have heard from other authors experimenting with virtual visits. One interesting idea some authors have shared is to try to enhance that sense of personal connection despite the technological distance by providing something physical to share–for educators and older students, this might be a reading list with a handwritten note from you; for younger kids, bookmarks or something like that–which you can incorporate into the presentation. In general, I think it is very worthwhile for authors to experiment with Skype and similar technologies because it does enable you to reach out to readership beyond the scope of those that can arrange in-person visits.

  5. Susan’s suggestion for using a screen share feature — something I’ve long considered but have not yet tried — and Stasia’s for creating a mix of virtual and physical presence are both great. We need a toolkit for authors and for teachers/librarians — rules of the road, troubleshooting tips, expectations so we can all figure out how best to make use of this option. Anyone else want to post about your experiences — good, bad, and what you learned along the way?