Some time has passed since my last blog entry, and in that period I have made certain modifications to the technical setup of the Carmenta Online Latin Classroom (www.CarmentaLatin.com). The major change I’ve made is to discontinue using the online web conferencing service WiZiQ for both the video and audio aspects of the online classroom. For while the WiZiQ video feed and classroom whiteboard were both perfectly serviceable for my purposes, the audio portion began to seem to me inadequate and even rather annoying. The problem is that the WiZiQ audio has a built-in delay of about two seconds between the time that one person in the online classroom speaks and the time when others in the classroom finally hear what the student has said. And while this at first may seem to be not a very big problem, in the context of a live Latin class, where there is so much quick back-and-forth interaction between teacher and students, it can quickly turn into a maddening nuisance.
It was obvious to me that a better audio system would allow for a smoother, more natural classroom environment, and since I wished to provide an online course that would differ from a traditional in-person course as little as possible, I went looking for other options. It wasn’t long before I discovered Skype. Skype, an online audio communication service, allows for conference calls of telephone quality with no appreciable delay between the moment when something is spoken and when it is heard by another participating in the conversation. I was impressed with the service. The only problem was that its calls with three people or more did not allow for a live video feed. (Video is only an option for single-person to single-person calls.) After thinking on it for a while and becoming more and more annoyed that neither service offered all of what I wanted, I finally hit on the idea of combining the two. After running a few tests, I discovered that it was entirely possible to run the two services simultaneously as long as each student in the class kept a WiZiQ window and a Skype window open at the same time on his personal computer. As long as I muted all the audio for WiZiQ, the class could communicate orally entirely through Skype, while its visual aspect (video and whiteboard) continued to be run by WiZiQ. It would take a little bit more time to educate students in how to use the two systems simultaneously, but after the first couple of class meetings this would no longer be an issue, and the setup would then be nothing but beneficial. Each student in the class keeps his Skype window open but it is completely covered by the WiZiQ window so that there is no reduction in size and no loss of visual clarity.
Now a description of certain major aspects of this web conferencing classroom: The WiZiQ whiteboard takes up about two-thirds of the computer screen and can be used by the teacher for the display of either text or image. These can be downloaded from a word-processing or photo file, or if it is text, it can be typed straight onto the board by means of a cursor function. The teacher or students place the text where they wish it to be on the whiteboard using their mouses (mice?), and a point-and-click menu on the side controls font type and size options and even a variety of features that allow for teacher or students to draw on the whiteboard as well. The teacher always has control over which students have access to the whiteboard at any time, just as he is also able to control which students have audio access to the classroom. If a student wishes to be called upon so that she may speak, she is able to activate a small “hand-raise” icon next to her name in a list of students attending the class that sits in the bottom-right corner of the WiZiQ window. Above this list, in the upper-right corner, is a rectangular space holding the live video feed. The video normally shows the instructor as he teaches the class, but if at any point a student who has a web cam set up is speaking, then the video switches to show the speaking student. Since my particular setup separates audio from video, the management of student feeds and the activation of their audio and video is somewhat more complicated because they have to be activated and deactivated by the instructor in two separate windows, but in time the instructor becomes so skilled in this that it ceases to be a nuisance.
Gratias tibi, amici, et valete.