Thursday, June 11, 2009

Skype Author Chat at Discovery Middle School

Some of my author friends have already blogged about using Skype video conferencing software for author video chats. The software is downloadable for free here.
I was curious enough about it to download the software and do a couple of “trial runs” (video tour of my son’s apartment, video visit with my brother-in-law, who was ill in Atlanta). I was interested in giving it a try with an actual audience of readers, but could never seem to get around to it.
Then awesome librarian and Brain Lair book blogger Kathy Burnette asked me about the possibility of a video chat with her book club--middle school students from Discovery Middle School in Granger, IN. Most of the students had read one or more of my Heir fantasy books already.
See Kathy’s post about the Skype Chat from her perspective on her blog.

This was the perfect opportunity to give Skyping a whirl in low-stress circumstances. I wanted a system that would work for most schools and libraries with varying levels of technical expertise and equipment.
I wanted to use slides in my presentation—they are great for sharing book covers, art, and photographs, but I wanted to be visible to the students, too. And because I feed off the students’ enthusiasm, I wanted to be able to see them!
What Kathy needed: Two computers, two screens, two LCD projectors, Internet access and a webcam so I could see the students and they could see both me and my slides. I emailed Kathy my Powerpoint slides ahead of time.
What I needed: two computers, Internet access and a webcam so I could see what the kids were seeing and see them react to what I said. (I could have done with one computer using a split screen, with slides on one side and Skype showing on the other but I have both a Mac and a PC laptop on my desk.)
Here is how my setup looked:

A simple video chat would require only an LCD projector, screen, and computer with Webcam at the school or library, and a computer with Webcam at my end.
We scheduled our virtual visit for May. Kathy and I did a trial run earlier the same week. Kathy called me using the Skype system.
At first, I panicked, because when I turned on the video, this is what I saw:

The back of my display!
I soon realized that the video was feeding from the Webcam on my Macbook, behind my external monitor (which also has a Webcam). Once I made the switch, I saw this:

Much better! (I think!)
I went through a slightly abbreviated presentation, prompting Kathy to change the slides at her end. Our trial went very smoothly, except that Kathy realized she needed external speakers so that the book club could hear me.
The day of the chat arrived, and Kathy and I moved smoothly through my slides. Once I finished my presentation, it was their turn. They asked lots of good questions. I had a great time chatting with students at Discovery (except the visit was at lunchtime and I kept wishing they could share some virtual pizza with me!) The entire visit lasted about 45 minutes. The only problem that surfaced was that I sometimes had trouble hearing the students’ questions, so a microphone at their end would have been helpful, too!
Pros of Virtual Chats: This took only a few hours of my time, and would take less in the future, when I know what I’m doing! That is great for authors on deadline and those with day jobs who have trouble getting away for day-long school visits. This also enabled me to interact with a small but enthusiastic group as opposed to the auditorium sessions often scheduled at in-person school visits.
Authors should be able to offer them for a reduced fee, compared to in-person visits. And, of course, no travel expenses are involved.
Limitations of Virtual Chats: For me, in-person visits are like live theatre—they are lots of fun, even if they can be exhausting. I love meeting the kids one-on-one, and I often adapt my presentations on the fly, depending on the interests and needs of the audience. I also think it would be challenging to do a writing workshop via Skype.
Tips for Authors/Schools Considering Virtual Chats: I felt the need to trim down my usual presentation and rely more on question and answer. It just seemed longer over the Internet, and I wanted to make sure to hold the teens’ attention. Many authors will opt to choose the simpler path of a question and answer session, rather than using slides. But I love the visual punch of art!
Kathy's students had lots of questions because they had already read the books. Chats probably work best with an audience that is already familiar with the authors’ books, which will automatically generate questions and interest in the presentation. School personnel may need to do more prep work up front to make sure the students are engaged and everyone benefits from the experience.
Future Plans
Watch this blog and my Website for news about scheduling Skype visits with me in the future. If you are a school or library interested in pursuing a Skype visit, email me at cinda at cindachima dot com.
Other Links About Skype Visits:
Elizabeth Dulemba, an author-illustrator, described her trial-run Skype visit here

Author-teacher Kate Messner described her experience hosting YA author/goddess Laurie Halse Anderson for a Skype question-and-answer session here.

Laurie shared her insights on her blog as well.

Author Mona Kirby and Library Media Specialist Sarah Chauncey have founded a site for authors who Skype. I have a brand new page there! Visit me here!

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