Thursday, 9 September 2010

Skype "visits" - the future?

Last week I was contacted, via my website, by a school in Texas at short notice, to see if I would agree to a Skype "visit" with the Grade Three class taught by my correspondent. I had said on my site that I was open to such suggestions.

So we managed to find a time that worked for us both - 5pm for me and 11am for them - and tackled the technology.

They wanted me to read Amazing Grace and answer a few questions, which didn't sound too hard. I have only the camera on my Apple Mac - no webcam as yet - so the image is not wonderful but of course the user can see only a tiny square in the left corner; it's much bigger for the viewers at the other end.

There were some introductions and then I read the story, without any problems. The children were all very quiet and attentive and gave me a big clap at the end. It was only when the first child got up to ask a question that our problems began. I could see and hear them but they could only see me.

We re-connected several times but always the same problem. So I started to Skype-text them. (I'm a very experienced Skype-texter because I do it with one of my daughters almost every day). The children asked their questions and I answered them by text. They could see it scrolling as I wrote and corrected, though it was a bit of a pain because I had to switch away from the main image while I was writing and couldn't see them.

This is what their nice teacher wrote: "Thank you so much! The kids LOVED their experience, even if we had technical difficulties.  It was probably on our end, except I'm not computer-savvy enough to know what caused it. So no apology needed.  I thought it was so neat for them to hear you read your own story. They loved your accent.
Again, the kids LOVED it, and I know they will be talking about it all year long.  :)

Thank you, thank you, thank you!  You have inspired our kids to love stories as much as you do!"

So  a high score on the warm glow front but the technical problems were frustrating. I did a test-call afterwards, which was fine on sound so I expect the problem developed at their end but this is something we need to be aware could happen.

The whole business calls into question what author visits of the future might be like.

On the plus side, a half hour visit without any travel fatigue or problems, no question that the school wouldn't know you were coming, good interaction with kids and teachers, enhanced librarian awareness of other titles and obviously distance no object.

On the minus, no book sales on the day (though maybe later) no possibility of signing books unless you possess Margaret Attwood's Long Pen, no close eye contact, no ability to stroll up and down when talking or to show pictures clearly as you read.

There are probably others I haven't thought of.

I didn't charge for this visit, as it was experimental, but was the first question I was asked by another author and we've been having a bit of a debate about it on my writers' forum. "Is this a way of getting cheap visits" and "won't it undercut other authors who don't (want to) Skype?" being considerations. I haven't been in touch with the Society of Authors about it yet but would be interested to hear others' experience of this new technology.


  1. Very interesting, Mary - maybe it can be seen as an addition to traditional school visits? Obviously people are restricted by time and expense as to how far they can travel in the flesh, so it seems a good way of getting exposure in more far flung places.

    Payment is a question, though - obviously you had to do some preparation, supply and support the technical side, as well as your time spent doing the actual "visit". There is a limit as to how much of this stuff authors can do for free. We already too much for nothing - at least I do!

  2. I thought it was OK not to charge for the first one but I will in future.