The Disembodied Teacher: How to Lecture via Skype

6 February 2017 | 17 Comments

If you’ve run a successful crowdfunding campaign, there’s a pretty good chance that a teacher will ask you to speak for his/her class. There’s also a good chance that the class will be in a different city than you, so you’ll need to teach over Skype or Google Hangouts.

At least, that’s a hunch based on my experience. I’m asked to teach in this capacity every 2-3 months, either about crowdfunding or about game design/publisher. I’ve learned a few things along the way about teaching via Skype, and I have a solution for the problems presented by remote teaching.

The Opportunity

I’m flattered by the opportunity to share my experiences, mistakes, and insights with students. I want to be very clear about this, as the “Challenges” section below may make it sound like I’m not happy about these opportunities. I don’t take them for granted.

Also, I relish the chance to teach more than one person at once–it’s the same philosophy for which I always encourage people to ask me questions in the comments on this blog, not through private message where only one person benefits from the conversation. You may feel the same way as more and more people contact you for advice.

Will teaching increase your backer total? Probably not. So if you’re prioritizing outreach opportunities during a busy campaign, teaching is at the bottom of the list.

The Challenges

A few months ago, I spoke to a middle school class over Skype about game design. I’m sure it’s hard enough for teachers to capture and retain the attention of middle school students in person, much less over Skype.

Skype is a wonderful tool, but there are too many layers of technology between me and the students. I’m trying to talk to the students and connect with them, but really I’m just talking to a camera and a microphone. It’s really hard to pick up signals from the students, and it’s even more difficult to get them to participate when I’m hundreds of miles away.

It’s tough for the students too. I’m asking them to engage with someone who isn’t there. Plus, they don’t know me, nor did they select me–the teacher did.

Last, if a teacher asks you to lecture for their class, unless you’re a truly gifted speaker, you’re going to have to prepare in advance. Your time is precious and limited, and for every 20 minutes you lecture, you’re probably going to spend about 1 hour preparing the presentation (if not more). That may be more time than you were hoping to commit.

The Solution

Soon after I spoke for the middle school class, I was asked to speak for some elementary students. I wanted to try something different, so I proposed a new method to the teacher, and apparently it went over quite well.

I say “apparently” because we didn’t actually Skype at all. Instead, I asked the teacher to gather questions from her students (and augment them with some of her own) and send them to me over e-mail. Then I filmed a video just for her class in which I answered all of the questions, and I uploaded it as an unlisted video on YouTube. The teacher played it for her class a few days later.

Here’s why I much prefer this method:

  • Engagement: The students are asked to think of questions in advance, so they’re actually invested in what you’re going to say. Even if they don’t care, they’re going to pay attention to see if you answer their question (ask the teacher to give you the first names of the students who asked the questions).
  • Time: It still takes time to think about what I’m going to say in a video, as I want to give good answers to the questions. But it’s much faster than preparing a lecture.
  • Timing: I don’t have to coordinate my schedule with the class. I can film the video whenever I want, and the teacher can play it whenever they want.
  • Visuals: Since I know the questions in advance, I can have visuals on hand during the recording. I used a bunch of different games and components for the elementary video.
  • Preparation: The teacher can watch the video in advance (if they want) so they can be prepared for the material I’m presenting.
  • Flexibility: A teacher can’t press pause when I’m live on Skype. But they can pause a pre-recorded video and questions to their class.
  • Permanence: There are ways to record Skype videos, but I don’t think most people do it. You teach the class, and then that information is gone forever. It’s really handy to have a permanent video that I can share on my YouTube channel as I wish.

Granted, there is one big loss when using this method: If students think of questions while watching the video, they can’t ask me. But in my experience, students very rarely ask questions over Skype.

Also, there are exceptions to this method. I recently spoke for Jay Little’s game design class. Jay does an amazing job at hosting the discussion, as he asks questions and is super engaged. A great teacher like Jay can bridge the gap in technology between you and the class.

The next time I film a video like this, I’d like to end it with a few discussion questions for the class. Also, thanks to film student Erin D. at Webster, I now know that solid-colored shirts with collars in the following colors work best on camera:

Have you ever lectured or learned over Skype? If so, do you have any tips or techniques to suggest? What do you think of this pre-recorded method?


Leave a Comment

17 Comments on “The Disembodied Teacher: How to Lecture via Skype

  1. A week ago a former professor who knew about my board game design pursuits asked if I could come in for a Q&A session with his class; unfortunately I am no longer in the area so had to initially decline, but after I read this post I immediately shared it with him as an alternative and it sounds like I’ll be recording something in the next month or so!

    Without a proper camera, I might try recording myself on my phone, maybe even via Facebook Live. Thank you for the constant inspiration, Jamey, and I hope this year sees you continued learning (and teaching) opportunities.

  2. For me, on the other side (not a presenter, just a consumer), I value the archival nature of these things which is why I tend to like video-on-demand and podcasts for this reason.

    Have you considered making some (assuming you think the content is appropriate and have been screened) of these videos public?

    As a producer, these types of contents is scalable, and if you do it enough times, work as a form of FAQ that you can refer it to others instead of re-recording it from scratch.

    1. Charles: Absolutely! That’s what I love about pre-recorded videos–I can use them in the future if they apply, and/or I can share them with others. I’m still learning this method, so I haven’t made many such videos, but there are a few available on my YouTube channel.

  3. I teach Critical Game Analysis at a STEM University, and have done some remote lecturing, and it’s HARD! I like to be the “guide on the side” not the “sage on the stage” when I can and that’s tough without solid interaction.

    When I do paid talks for organizations, I can’t do questions during so I prepare down to the syllable (about an hour of prep for every minute of talking), but I almost always then hold a workshop with break out groups afterwards to reinforce the learning.

    When I’ve tried to lecture remotely, I feel like I’m floundering the whole time. The only ones that I’ve liked have been interview-style. I did one that worked well with a boy scout troupe that way – every student had to have a question ready before the talk started, and then the teacher called on students for me.

    Apparently, I now need to buy a new shirt. Thanks!

  4. Jay: Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I agree that it’s tough for Skype to capture a physical presence. You can’t walk around or move very much at all.

    Any teacher could learn a ton from watching you as a moderator.

  5. Hey Jamey – I love the idea of creating a video to share. You’ve got a larger canvas to work with (zooming in or out, edits and cuts, props, etc) and I think it may be a better way to capture some of those intangibles. I’m a dynamic talker who gestures a lot and am always on the move — which Skype can’t handle. I feel like I’m extremely “watered down” when I present via a live Skype video call… but a video recording may be one way to feel more genuine and authentic.

    Also, thanks for the shout out to my board game class and moderating — it’s a skill I’ve worked at considerably over the years, born partly out of my own experiences with the pros and cons of live-casting. And I know time is precious for both parties, so preparing as both the speaker and the moderator can help get the most out of this resource.

  6. I’ve conducted interviews, given lectures/presentations, even taught lessons (music) over Skype. For me, it’s a great tool when it’s needed for distance or other such considerations, but I completely agree that you have a dramatic drop-off in interactivity with your audience (not to mention potential annoying or debilitating technological issues on either end!). I far prefer to, when at all possible, do such things in person.

    I also agree that it’s something you need to prepare for, especially if you aren’t normally comfortable with public speaking. In a way, it’s more daunting because you don’t have the luxury of presence, eye contact, etc. Being literally boxed in limits how engaging you can be to any audience. It’s one thing to put forth a video that’s meant to convey a message (a review, or whatever) but by their very nature, presentations like you’re talking about are meant to connect more personally. Mira, my flutist wife, tells a story about a famous flute professor who was invited to present at a conference. She went, pushed “play” on a dvd of her teaching a masterclass, left the room, came back after the dvd finished, and that was that! I like your idea of personalized questions, but, yeah…there’s something to be said for the rawness and honesty of live Q & A.

    The biggest thing I have for Skype…ALWAYS do a test run. Gotta love technology…

    1. I like the way you put this, Jeff: You’re literally boxed in!

      I totally agree that the nature of a live Q&A has the potential to connect more with people simply because of the live nature of it.

    2. I agree, If at all possible, ask to do a test connection ahead of time. If possible, the day before, giving the instructor time to work with a tech person to work out any issues.

  7. The main reason for not hearing the students is that 9 times out of 10 the instructor will just have a webcam hooked up to the computer in the classroom with a very limited mic range.

    I know quite a bit about educational videos that colleges purchase for classroom use, I’ve even filmed many of them. It’s just a thought here, but you could create a DVD/Bluray with like 8-12 lessons that schools/instructors could purchase and use for even more of an extended training or resource for their students. Having your first video from a YouTube link or skype call to start it off. Or even having them start their training with the DVD/Bluray and then at the end of the week or said given time then do a call in or Skype session to answer any additional questions and thank them for going through the training lessons. It’s just an idea like I said, but I could see how it could lead to some valuable ongoing training you could be giving to multiple locations then at the same time, with minimal effort besides the upfront production part making the videos.

  8. Jamey,
    Good post! I think engagement is key as it helps students think more then about how the information you are providing can benefit them in their personal situations, so I like your idea about having them think of questions ahead of time. I work in a college on the Media team and one of the things I do is actually help instructors set up skype calls in their classrooms off and on. One thing to keep in mind is the tech is different in just about every school/classroom you would call into. So even if it sounds good on your end, it may sound crappy coming through into the class sometimes. I really like your idea to create the videos ahead of time. That way you can have better lighting and create a nicer looking video with a better mic even to look and sound better for the class.

    I was thinking it may even work to do a combination of the two. Where you would send a nicely edited video in for the class to watch and then do a quick call in for any additional questions at the end to give it a more personal touch still. Because there is still something exciting for students to know they are listening to the real person LIVE instead of a prerecorded video. A good key to this is having a nice mic, there is nothing worse than terrible audio. The Company “Blue” makes an amazing “Yeti” mic that works great.

    1. Jer: Thanks for your comment! That’s a great point about different setups. With most of the classes I’ve spoken to, I can hear the teacher but not the students, so the teacher has to repeat their questions into the mic (yet another degree of separation). I have a Yeti mic, so I’m good from my end. :)

      I like your hybrid idea of a pre-recorded video plus a quick question-and-answer session after it airs.

  9. Jamey,

    One of the national programs aimed at teaching critical languages at all levels (K-16) is STARTALK, supported by NSA with oversight by Congress. The programs, throughout he country, have begun incorporating more-and-more technology into classrooms, including Skype. One such example, which I saw last summer during the Russian program, was a daily 45-min session with a student (of the same age) in Moscow (or St. Petersburg) in which the students could interact by asking and answering questions. I have to say that you discovered (maybe by trial and error) the best way to maintain that engagement level by having the questions in advance.


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