Videoconferencing and Guest Speakers

Terms of Engagement: Teaching & Learning in the English Department

– by Hilary Doda

One major drawback to bringing guest experts in to a classroom is the logistics of the endeavour: do we pay stipends, pay for travel and housing, time used? The organizational and financial complexities can sometimes be major obstacles between instructors and the types of classes we would like to teach.

I tried an experiment this year with Writing 2222 – Introduction to Editing – that helped to break some of those barriers down. My goal was to give the class a chance to interview some professional editors, to get a sense of what the profession was like from a variety of expert sources. The problem? The most enthusiastic potential interviewees I knew were in NYC. Videoconferencing is simpler than ever, however, with the technology available in most classrooms. It took less than five minutes of technical setup in March – far less time than the emails back and forth to work out arrangements – and we were able to have live interviews, in-class, with industry professionals both in New York City (March 13th) and Toronto (March 20th).

Students had a preparatory assignment due the class before the scheduled interviews, requiring a short industry profile of the publisher whose reps we were interviewing, as well as one to four questions they would like to have answered during the session. Putting points on that assignment meant that the students came to the interviews prepared to talk, and setting the date a few days prior meant that I was able to send the questions to the interviewees in advance so they could discuss and prepare their answers.

Questions on the days of ranged from technical aspects of the industry – numbers of available positions and hiring procedures – to more casual fare. We heard anecdotes about working with authors and marketing departments, stories about industry conferences and directed advice about breaking into the industry. The class discussed tips for aspiring authors, and were able to get directed and individual advice on career arcs and current trends.

IT&S has webcameras for loan with built-in-microphones which can pick up questions from about half the way back into the seats in Seton 306. With that plugged into a USB port, and the use of Skype, a video-calling program already installed on all classroom computers, we were able to dial in to the interviewee’s computers on their pre-arranged Skype accounts at the interview time. By placing the webcam to face the classroom and running the signal through the classroom projector, we got as close to a face-to-face meeting as was possible without the expense of plane tickets.

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