Skype 'rescues' professor stranded in Europe by volcano

Despite the department's successes in delivering a lecture over Skype, McLeod is weary when asked if he thinks Skype-enabled lectures will become the wave of the future

When professors "phone it in," it usually means they're being lazy or dispassionate about the lessons they're teaching. But for Columbia University Law professor Tim Wu, phoning it in was the only way he could teach his classes this week.

Skype and LifeSize may have HD video compatibility soon

Wu, who is best known in tech circles for his long-standing advocacy of network neutrality principles, first flew to Germany last week to deliver a speech on net neutrality and Internet freedom at the Re:Publica conference. But after a volcanic eruption in Iceland grounded flights throughout the continent, Wu found himself stuck in Berlin with no way to make it back to the States in time for his classes.

Tony McLeod, the assistant director for the Department of Educational Technology at Columbia Law, received an e-mail from one of Wu's colleagues on Tuesday morning and invited him to come up with creative ways to stream Wu into Columbia classrooms in time for Wu's afternoon classes.

McLeod decided to use Skype since it didn't require Wu or the university to buy any new equipment or download any new software. Rather, Wu could simply fire up the Web camera on his laptop and use Skype to hold a videoconference call with Columbia. From there, the school would project a video of the call onto two 14-foot screens in the classroom in the classrooms to make it seem as though Wu – or, more accurately, a giant projection of his disembodied head – was in the classroom giving his usual lessons.

While the Skype setup was easy to put together, McLeod had concerns about Skype's overall quality. The university had used Skype the year before to teleconference in a lecturer from the United Kingdom and had found the video and audio quality to be somewhat dodgy.

This time, McLeod found the audio on Skype to be vastly improved and that the video only needed some minor reconfiguring to get a strong picture. After ensuring that Wu was seated in an area with plenty of light and after increasing the contrast ratio on the video project, Wu was ready to teach. And because the classroom's chairs were already hooked up with push-to-talk buttons beforehand, students were able to directly ask Wu questions throughout the lecture without going through any complicated procedures.

"We've used Skype in the past and it wasn't the best quality," explains McLeod. "But it's amazing how things have changed for the better in the course of a year."

Brian Donnelly, the director of educational technology at Columbia Law, says the school has typically relied upon video conferencing services in the past that require their own native software as well as their own equipment. But now he says the school is relying more upon web-based systems that let anyone with a Web camera and an account log onto a videoconference.

"Web-based video conferencing is getting better and better," he says. "It seems to be the start of what will end up being a fairly big trend. Recently we had a videoconference with an American Bar Association committee called the eLawyering Task Force over a Web-based conference service called MegaMeeting. And we had nine different people interacting over the Web at once, without having to download any specific software onto their machines. It's just a link."

Donnelly says the school is more likely to use dedicated Web-based videoconferencing sites like MegaMeeting for most of its videoconferences. However, given the short time the Educational Technology Department had to set up Wu's classes this week, Skype can certainly suffice in a pinch.

And yet, despite the department's successes in delivering a lecture over Skype, McLeod is weary when asked if he thinks Skype-enabled lectures will become the wave of the future. After all, won't more professors be tempted to Skype into their classrooms while sitting on a beach if given the opportunity?

"This is something that should really only be done in an emergency setting where one of our faculty members is simply incapable of making it to class," McLeod says. "While we were happy to set this up, the process does take a lot of grunting and groaning, so I wouldn't want it to be encouraged. It could put pressure on facilities that can't handle it and it would shortchange the students paying for a classroom experience."

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