by Steve Taylor

Not long ago, the idea of live two-way video communication seemed futuristic. For years, phone companies dabbled with video-enabled telephones, but the bandwidth of a telephone connection just isn’t up to the job. With the nearly ubiquitous high-bandwidth Internet connections of the present day, however, one-to-one video conversations  via computer have become commonplace.

By far the most common system for this at the moment is Skype. Skype began as an Internet-based phone system (“voice over Internet protocol” or VoIP), but in 2006, added video capability. You can use Skype to connect to someone’s standard telephone (without video, of course), but there is a charge for that. When communicating Skype-to-Skype, voice-only or with video, there is no charge. That’s true for international calling, too, which is especially compelling, given the cost of traditional long-distance phone calls.

Apple’s iChat program also supports videoconferencing, including multi-party conferences, but only operates on Macintosh computers.

In education, one powerful use of videoconferencing is for a class to be able to converse— in real-time— with a highly regarded author, artist, or scientist, for whom it would not be practical to arrange a site visit. Children in elementary schools use videoconferencing to chat with authors of their favorite books.

Vassar students in Prof. Jeremy Davis’ Experimental Animal Behavior class used Skype to interview authors of articles they were reading. Students would read several articles by a single scientist, then prepare some questions. They would discuss the papers in class, then call the author, to ask their questions. Both students and scientists enjoyed the experience.

Since most recent-model computers have built-in cameras and microphones, Skype is easy to use for one-to-one videoconferencing. Using it for one-to-many conferencing is more difficult. Although it’s easy for a class to see and hear the remote person via a classroom’s projection system, the classroom computer’s built-in camera and microphone don’t work well for a room full of people. With funding from the Fergusson technology fund, Prof. Davis purchased a conference microphone, which made it easier for the class to speak to their remote scientists.

Another way to use videoconferencing in education is “many-to-many,” in which one class interacts with a remote class, often in another country. This technique has been used by Prof. Silke von der Emde’s German classes and Prof. Hiromi Dollase’s Japanese classes, to share knowledge with students in other cultures.

This type of videoconferencing calls for a more sophisticated system. There is a special communications protocol (H.264) that enables high-quality, real-time video and audio communication, but must be done using a specially designated device, rather than a standard computer. Many colleges and universities, as well as hotels and conference centers, have rooms with these devices. Vassar has such a system in College Center Room 204. A centrally located microphone picks up voice from anywhere in the room. The videoconferencing device— located above a 50-inch LCD display— includes a video camera that can be pre-programmed to pan and zoom to a dozen different locations in the room, so that the remote viewers can see the individual who is speaking.

In order to make use of Vassar’s videoconferencing facility, you’ll have to reserve the meeting room via Campus Activities and arrange for an operator via Media Resources. It’s advisable to arrange for a test-run previous to the conference day, to make sure that everything works on both ends.

Vassar’s newest player in this field is Adobe Connect Pro. Connect Pro is essential a web conferencing system, which is to say, a system for sharing computer screens and text chatting, which has for many years been used as a way to provide training or product demos to groups. But Connect Pro also includes voice and video channels and the ability to record sessions for later playback.

Please contact your ACS liaison to get started on any of these systems.


The Teaching and Technology Forum

by Steve Taylor

Though it’s not a recent event, I thought it would still be worthwhile to write about last spring’s Teaching and Technology Forum.

In its eighth year, the forum is a poster session in which faculty members display and explain teaching initiatives (or in some cases, research initiatives) that make interesting use of technology. A new feature this year was the inclusion of some student-initiated projects as well.

Keynote Speaker
A special feature of the forum is its keynote speaker. This year’s keynote was Prof. Paul Ruud, of the Economics Department. In his address, he proposed a new blog, in which Vassar  faculty members would regularly post brief descriptions of their class activities. With a high participation rate, this blog would let any instructor know what his or her students were doing in their other classes; then the instructor might adapt some lesson plans to complement what students were doing in some of those other classes. It might also encourage faculty members to communicate more with each other, based on a greater awareness of what each other was teaching. The result could be a strengthening of the cross-discipline integration that is the core of a liberal arts education.

The poster sessions, while quite diverse, covered topics that might each be considered to be one of two types: those that used technology to visualize information and those that use technology to increase social networking.

Visualization Technologies
Some poster sessions show ways in which technology could be used to give students greater access to images of what they’re learning about. Lucy Johnson, with Anne Sando (2010), showed how they are building a database of photos of the archaeological artifacts; Arden Kirkland and Holy Hummel showed how they are building a database of photos of the costume collection; Andrew Tallon showed his growing collection of digital 3D panoramas of architectural sites; and Sarah Kozloff showed how she is using streaming technology to provide students with anytime/anywhere access to film excerpts. Jane Parker showed a novel use of video for skills training: projecting video of a skilled squash player onto the front wall of a squash court, for players to mirror in real time.

Visualization is also used for getting a new perspective on scientific data. Alicia Sampson (2012) and Rebecca Eells (2012) worked with Kate Susman and Jenny Magnes to build visual models of worm behavior; Joe Tanski and Bona Ko (2010) used x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to analyze the elements of art objects.

Social Networking
While these projects used technology to bring  students closer to their learning materials, others used technology to bring students closer to other people. Kelsey Forrest (2011) and others in Saúl Mercado’s class created a social networking site to benefit the Vassar community, while Leslie Williams and Adalake Barnwell created  a site to facilitate communication between local high schools students and the Vassar student mentors. Students in the Bioinformatics program created their own support group for fellow students. Some people used technology to  collaborate on their work: students in Leonard Nevarez’ class used a wiki for collaborative writing, while Tracey Holland used a wiki  to co-write with her own collaborators; Natalie Friedman’s class did their writing assignments on a shared blog site. Zeynep Gokcen Kaya, an exchange student from Turkey, presented her research on social interaction in virtual worlds.

Interestingly, two exhibits showed uses of technology that enhanced both visualization and social interaction: students in Jeremy Davis’ class used Skype to interview authors whose articles they were studying, while students in Hiromi Dollase’s class used videoconferencing to speak with students in Japan.

More information, along with photos and reproductions of each presenter’s poster can be found at <>.Watch for the announcement of next spring’s event— you won’t want to miss it.