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Skype 'rescues' professor stranded in Europe by volcano

How Columbia Law School's tech team built an ad hoc Skype system to let professor Tim Wu teach classes

By Brad Reed, Network World
April 22, 2010 03:02 PM ET
Tim Wu

Network World - When professors "phone it in," it usually means they're being lazy or dispassionate about the lessons they're teaching. But for Columbia University Law professor Tim Wu, phoning it in was the only way he could teach his classes this week.

Skype and LifeSize may have HD video compatibility soon

Wu, who is best known in tech circles for his long-standing advocacy of network neutrality principles, first flew to Germany last week to deliver a speech on net neutrality and Internet freedom at the Re:Publica conference. But after a volcanic eruption in Iceland grounded flights throughout the continent, Wu found himself stuck in Berlin with no way to make it back to the States in time for his classes.

Tony McLeod, the assistant director for the Department of Educational Technology at Columbia Law, received an e-mail from one of Wu's colleagues on Tuesday morning and invited him to come up with creative ways to stream Wu into Columbia classrooms in time for Wu's afternoon classes.

McLeod decided to use Skype since it didn't require Wu or the university to buy any new equipment or download any new software. Rather, Wu could simply fire up the Web camera on his laptop and use Skype to hold a videoconference call with Columbia. From there, the school would project a video of the call onto two 14-foot screens in the classroom in the classrooms to make it seem as though Wu – or, more accurately, a giant projection of his disembodied head – was in the classroom giving his usual lessons.

While the Skype setup was easy to put together, McLeod had concerns about Skype's overall quality. The university had used Skype the year before to teleconference in a lecturer from the United Kingdom and had found the video and audio quality to be somewhat dodgy.

This time, McLeod found the audio on Skype to be vastly improved and that the video only needed some minor reconfiguring to get a strong picture. After ensuring that Wu was seated in an area with plenty of light and after increasing the contrast ratio on the video project, Wu was ready to teach. And because the classroom's chairs were already hooked up with push-to-talk buttons beforehand, students were able to directly ask Wu questions throughout the lecture without going through any complicated procedures.

"We've used Skype in the past and it wasn't the best quality," explains McLeod. "But it's amazing how things have changed for the better in the course of a year."

Wu described the experience of teaching over Skype as " strange" and "draining."

"It reminded me of doing cable TV," he says. " If I did it again, I'd make sure [the students] didn't have computers. We tried google moderator for questions but it was a total failure. Video triumphs over text when the two are together."

Brian Donnelly, the director of educational technology at Columbia Law, says the school has typically relied upon video conferencing services in the past that require their own native software as well as their own equipment. But now he says the school is relying more upon web-based systems that let anyone with a Web camera and an account log onto a videoconference.

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