Virtual Author Visit

I did something interesting yesterday. As my friend Philip Lee puts it, I had the experience of being a pioneer.

I know of many schools that would love to arrange an author visit but just don’t have the funding. I sympathize completely with the desperate circumstances they’re in. When you’re fighting to keep your programs and trying to avoid laying off teachers, it’s hard to justify spending a lot of money on a one-time visit, no matter how successful or beneficial.

On the other hand, authors are feeling the crunch, too. It’s equally hard to justify taking a day or more from your writing to visit a school if you’re not going to be paid. So I’ve been thinking about other alternatives.

One idea has intrigued me. What about doing virtual author visits online? I have Skype. There’s a video camera on my computer. If I can talk with friends of mine across the country, why can’t I talk with children in a school or library? And since I don’t have to travel or stay overnight, I can afford to do it for a lot less.

Since the fall, whenever I’ve been approached by a school with a tight budget, I’ve offered them the option of setting up a virtual author visit. One local school, Skyline, finally took me up on it. “Let’s try out the idea of an online visit,” I said. “This will be an experiment to see if it works. There won’t be a charge because you’ll be helping me out.”

Melissa Ritter, the librarian, and Ben Keefer, the principal worked hard to set up the hardware at their end. More goes into a virtual visit than I suspected. Many districts have a firewall in place that limits outside computer access to school facilities. Ben had to arrange to open the firewall for a few hours on the day we scheduled the visit. We all had to rethink what an author visit involved. I wasn’t going to be physically in front of the children, moving about, speaking directly to them. Would they pay attention to a face on a screen? Would my usual program work?

I decided to talk about my books and show the children around my office, the place where I work. Melissa had the children think of questions they wanted to ask me.

Ben called me in the morning just to make sure everything worked. Skype was humming. All systems were go. I was sitting at my desk at 2:00 when the call from Skyline came in. Hit a few buttons, a couple of clicks, and I was talking to the children at Skyline.

How did the experiment go? I think it went well. I was pleased with the results. I shared Anansi’s Party Time, played a tune on my banjo, showed them odds and ends from the clutter on my desk and on top of my bookshelves. This includes the paper maché Mexican spider with six legs that is the size of a small dog. The children wanted to see my fish, so I turned my computer around to let them see my aquarium. I heard “ooohs!” and “aaahhhh!” I never thought my fishtank was so special. There’s nothing exotic in there. I stock it with the cheapest, hardiest fish I can find.

The children had lots of questions for me. They enjoyed coming up to the microphone and talking directly with the person on the screen. Before I knew it, an hour had gone by. Melissa had to call for an end. The buses were coming and the children had to get home.

How did we do? Ben, Melissa, and I both thought it was fairly successful for an experiment. Melissa tells me the children certainly enjoyed it. What impressed them most was the fact that they were actually talking to someone who was miles away. From my point of view, their questions were excellent. Melissa had done a lot of preparation. The children asked thoughtful questions. I could tell that they knew who I was.

I think the main flaws were with the technology. The video images were fuzzy on my computer. I doubt they were much better on the other end. The sound came through okay, although I had to learn to work around the delay. Toward the end of the visit I began hearing the feedback from my own voice. I don’t know why that suddenly started or what was doing it. I wonder if a better video camera would do a better job of transmitting sound and images. Something to look into for the future.

Thanks, Skyline! We’ve proved it can be done. Now I have to figure out a way to do it better.

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