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John Simkin

Video Conferencing

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We've been using the Marratech desktop video conferencing programme for just over a year now. The fact that you don't need much in terms of equipment in order to be able to use it (and the programme's general user-friendliness) has had great effects for us. Last spring, for example, we were able to hook up a teacher from a university in Alabama to a video conference running at 15 sites all over the south of Sweden so that my students could interact with someone who really knew the American novel they were studying inside out. We paid him our going rate of 25 euros/hour too (I think it's important not to rely on unpaid enthusiasts!).

Last autumn I started a system whereby students studying from home or via study centres all over the south of Sweden (an area about the size of England) could link up to me in between studio video conferences to ask follow-up questions. For me it meant 30-45 minutes one evening at home every couple of weeks, but for them it meant that they felt they had access to their teacher and that they weren't entirely on their own. As you would expect, the fact that they *could* ask questions meant that they increasingly didn't need to, so my job became more and more concentrated on the areas where my skills and knowledge were really needed.

I have not personally used this type of software. Are your answers to the students archived? This seems to be one of the great advantages of forum software. If teachers use this software for feedback you don’t need to constantly repeat yourself. (A problem I get when I get email questions about my website).

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You can both record a session and play it back (with all the audio and video + the shared whiteboard and chat windows) and save the whiteboard at the end of the session. We do so many of these conferences nowadays that we don't bother to record everything.

We've now got a bank of 'before' whiteboards, which are the preparation for an on-line session. What these have on them depends on the type of session. I've been doing a lot of phonetics this autumn, so a typical whiteboard will have phonetic symbols on one page and a diagram of the inside of the mouth on another. I can then move the symbols around so that students can see where in the mouth different sounds are made, and how the sound before affects the sound after, so to speak.

One of the most useful features, though, is the fact that you can speak to people and see them in real time, despite the fact that you're all at different locations (you can have lots and lots of stations connected up at the same time, provided that everyone's got adequate bandwidth … which we have got in Sweden).

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