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READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog


Take the stress out of computer video-chat school visits by pre-planning for any potential technology failure. Illustration by Pixabay.com

By Christine Kohler

“If anything can go wrong, it will.” – Murphy’s Law

In today’s techno-world this is especially true. The day of a recent video-chat school visit I posted on Facebook, “Satan is alive and lives in my computer.” Although my stress-level skyrocketed that morning when my PC’s operating system corrupted, I thought other authors might benefit by what I did in pre-planning to ensure “the show must go on,” and on schedule.

Tip #1 -- Communicate clearly with the teacher in pre-planning e-mails.

Tip #2 -- Decide what video-chat program to use. I had used Google+ Hangout but this particular school blocks Google+ Hangout and requested that I use Skype. I agreed.

Tip #3 -- Exchange phone numbers. I recommend writing the contact phone number on a physical calendar. You can’t always rely on contract info being accessible electronically. Right now the Outlook app on my iPhone has not been connecting to WiFi for weeks. I’ve tried uninstalling and reinstalling, but it still won’t connect. So, while I’d like to rely on electronic contacts and calendars, it’s still too risky. I never had to call the teacher, but it’s one less stressor if the electricity or internet is out and your contacts are only stored in electronics.

Tip #4 – Ask how many students will be in attendance and plan accordingly. In this case there would be 110 freshman and the teacher had requested a program for one hour and ten minutes. I suggested the classes be split into two sessions, and she agreed. That ended up being best because during the program I could see most of the 55 teens sitting on high-rise seats, and there was time for more students to ask questions after each 20-minute presentation.

Tip #5 -- Schedule an equipment test the day before with either the teacher or an audio-visual aide.

Tip #6 -- E-mail hand-outs or your PowerPoint slides. Although I had worked out with my own IT prior to the event to use a version of Skype that allowed me to share screens and show PowerPoint slides, the function failed to show up the day of the test. I asked the teacher if she was using large screens (recommended over students trying to gather around a computer monitor). She had two large screens mounted in the room. The teacher said she would show the PowerPoint slides when I cued her to and I would still be shown on the other screen. (My slides only took about five minutes of the 20-minute talk, followed by 10 minutes of answering students’ question.) If you don’t know how to integrate PowerPoint, watch a YouTube video on the topic.

Tip #7 – Download Skype separate from a browser. I tried using Skype through my Outlook e-mail browser about a month before the school visit. I used a laptop signed into my husband’s e-mail account on the desk beside my PC to test it. Both kept disconnecting frequently. At first I thought it might be because we live in a dead zone. But after consulting an IT he downloaded Skype onto my computer and told me not to use Skype through a browser, and close browsers when I was using Skype. Our test between my PC in the Texas dead zone and his computer in Arkansas lasted well over a half an hour, so it confirmed what he had said about the open browsers causing the disconnection problem.

Tip #8 – Between the time Skype kept disconnecting and my IT telling me to close browsers, I asked the church secretary in town if I could do a Skype visit at the church if necessary. The day of the video-chat school visit when I awoke to find my Operating System corrupted, in the trouble-shooting brainstorming stage I had decided that if I could not get the PC fixed in time (I couldn’t), and the laptop would not do (it did), then I would call the church secretary and ask to drive to town and use her computer. That evening when I posted, “Satan lives in my computer,” a New Mexico author said she always has a back-up place in town on-call for emergencies. In hindsight, I also would have downloaded the independent Skype program onto my laptop instead needing to do it during the emergency.

Tip #9 – Two professors told me when testing to see where the camera is focusing and don’t put your notes somewhere that will make it look as if you are looking at your lap, or to the side, which makes you look shifty-eyed. Which brings me to practicing the presentation. I’m a natural speaker and teacher. But when practicing this presentation while sitting in front of a monitor I found myself stumbling, and looking at my notes too often. Finally, I stripped my notes to mostly cues. I enlarged the print to 14-point, printed, and set it on an easel beside the monitor. At the time of the video-chats, though, once the students filed in and waved at me, the practice paid off and the natural speaker-teacher part kicked in and I barely glanced at the cues.
As for the focus-point, however, since I had to switch at the last minute from the large PC monitor with an external high-quality camera and microphone to the tiny lens on my laptop, I had my husband help me test it using his laptop and Skype account in his browser. What we found was that I needed to set my laptop on a couple of books on top of the desk, and I had to sit off to the right of the monitor. The lesson here is to not assume all computer equipment will focus straight ahead. Test to get the focus fully on your face.

Tip #10 -- Lay your show-and-tell visual materials within reach. When the video-chat is rolling you don’t want to get up and move around. In my presentation, besides the PowerPoint slides, I show a coconut shell, WWII cannon shell and trowel, and books while I am talking. My theory is that visuals hold attention and are more interesting than just looking at me for a half an hour. But you need to keep the program flowing in a smooth continuum and short time frame. Organizing the visuals did this. One thing I recommend, though, is if you have pictures, put them in a PowerPoint. I have shown pictures in live programs, but in video-chats I realized they can’t see photos and manuscript markings like they can objects.

The best resource for school visits is author Alexis O’Neill’s blog School Visit Experts.com

As for the school visit itself, it was wonderful. There is nothing like interacting with intelligent, inquisitive student readers. In future blogs I’ll share more about how the teacher used technology in the classroom and the students’ terrific projects on theme in my novel NO SURRENDER SOLDIER. But for this blog article I wanted to post on my experiences of what can go wrong with technology and how to guard against it ruining what should otherwise be a positive way to present a book program to students at a reasonable cost long-distance.

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