Tag Archive for videoconference

Window into Gaza, pt. 2

part 1

Today, I would like to explore the visual richness of our online, distance interactions using Skype. How did video make the experience many times richer than similar interactions using discussion forums or audio? Perhaps the answer lies in the importance of body language in communication. Many times during the conversation, our students picked up subtleties from our guests through body language. When an individual was excited to make a comment, we could see hear leap from her chair, slide over to the microphone, sit upright, and take a sharp breath before beginning to speak. These visual cues communicated the energy behind the speaker’s ideas before she even opened her mouth. Similarly, when our students asked really tough questions, we could see a slight slump of the shoulders, a downward gaze, and an awkward pause while they considered how to formulate a reply. When funny moments occurred, we could see smiles and laughter, even from a distance of 6,000 miles and one blockade.

We know that the brain simplifies the visual information our eyes take in so that we may make sense of it. In other words, our brains only process a fraction of what we actually see (can someone help me find a source for a study of this?). It may follow that, even though video is only a partial representation of a room in a distant location, it seems real enough to us. As the videoconference grew longer, we became increasingly accustomed to the dynamic and effectively communicated challenging concepts back and forth. The richness of the videoconference made a meaningful exchange possible.

This successful experience completely changes the rules for future global education initiatives at school. I used to think that virtual exchanges were the next best thing to international trips. Now I find that they are equally valuable, though different in nature. When we think about our lower school students, who are unlikely to travel as a class to any faraway land, we assume that their experience is going to be less rich than that of our middle and upper school students. Now, I imagine a curriculum in which students would Skype each other weekly, at a predetermined time, building deep relationships and exploring meaningful curricula over the course of a year or longer. The nonexistent cost, immediacy of contact, and regular scheduling give videoconferencing at least equal potential as short international trips to support meaningful learning. Of course, virtual exchanges may also enhance actual trips, as students get to know each other before traveling and keep in touch after the trip is over.

I can’t wait to get started …

A Window into Gaza

This morning, we successfully held a 2-1/2 hour discussion between students at Catlin Gabel and in Gaza City, Palestine. Mercy Corps runs a program called Why Not Youth, an Internet-based curriculum to facilitate greater understanding between Oregon and Palestine. I entered the activity with two uncertainties: How familiar could students get with each other through Internet video? Would the technology even work, and what would we do if it didn’t?

Gaza

The experience far exceeded my wildest dreams. At first, the technology teased me with hints of success. We showed up at school at 7:00 a.m. (5:00 p.m. in Gaza). For a good 45 minutes, we watched the Gazans’ Skype status flicker on and off. What could be going on there? Power outages? Internet connectivity issues? Would the lesson be a bust? We got video first, to murmurs of excitement from our people. Then the audio clicked in … and out … and in. We were off and running!

For a distance of thousands of miles, using free Skype technology, the quality was absolutely amazing. We must have been getting at least 5 fps video rate and telephone-quality audio. Every 20 minutes or so, we got completely disconnected but reestablished contact within about a minute. In a way, the interruptions helped remind us how remarkable this connection was. If you don’t have it yet, get the latest Skype upgrade. The video compression is far superior.

The students on both sides prepared questions in advance, mostly so that the Palestinian students could find the English vocabulary needed to clearly express answers to complex questions about freedom, elections, and the press. For the first hour or so, the conversation proceeded in relative formality. Each group asked a question, and the others responded.

In the second hour, the magic really began. To my amazement, the students on both sides demonstrated a growing familiarity with each other. They laughed at jokes and awkward moments. One student played the oud. Our students admitted they didn’t know anything about the Oscars. They challenged each other with serious questions. Our students came to grips with how little they knew about life in Gaza. They sympathized with the plight of being virtually imprisoned in a 39 km strip of land.

Hyperbole thrives in the blogosphere. I truly try to avoid it. Today, I need to make an exception. The connection we were able to make between Oregonian and Gazan students today far exceeded my expectations. I truly believe that this represents a new frontier in global education. The technology is finally accessible enough that we can make exchanges between people in very different life circumstances, connections that truly challenge assumptions and teach in the most powerful manner. It is going to take me days to fully process what we experienced this morning. I can’t wait to plan the next one.

Also read part 2 | part 3 | part 4