The Idiot’s Guide to Bearable Computing

The Idiot’s Guide to Bearable Computing

Bearable ComputingFacetime. Skype. Google Hangouts. WebRTC. Telepresence. Teleconference. Whatevs.

Real-time video communication is – literally – in our faces at every turn.

Well then – why is so much of it so horrifically terrible to participate in?

You know what I’m talking about.

You schedule an interview with a prospective employee, who dials in from a crowded Starbucks (check). You connect with an important and hard-to-get guest lecturer, who has the camera pointed at the top of his head the entire lecture (check). You can’t hear other participants because of the horrible echo coming from one of the dialed in members in the call (check). You sit for an hour in front of an unmoderated webinar, wishing you could get that hour of your life back (check, check, check).

It doesn’t have to be this bad. Truly.

In fact, I have a little side career mission to promote what I call Bearable Computing (see what I did there?) – a mission to promote responsible technology use, that isn’t distracting, idiotic, or simply indigestible.

Let’s start with first principles, regarding videoconferencing.

  • Before you schedule a webinar or videoconference, be 100% certain you have something important and interesting to share or say. If you don’t have an agenda, a moderator, or a topic, you should bail. Now.
  • You should NEVER participate in a video call without headphones. Ever.  Echo cancellation has gotten tons better over the years, but is still imperfect. Please. Think of the children. Wear headphones.
  • You should try your utmost to connect via a wired, rather than a wireless, internet connection. Why? Because if I’m fixated on your pixelated and broken signal trying to come across whatever bogus hotspot you’re leaching down at your favorite watering hole, I’m NOT concentrating on the content of the conversation. Iffy wifi / bandwidth is the death of most video calls. Get a wire.
  • Buy a good microphone. The difference between good sound and great sound is the difference between lightning and lightning bug (with apologies to Mark Twain). Do it.
  • Use the best camera you can afford. Built in cameras, even for Macs, are OK in a pinch… but if you can splurge for a really good camera, it’ll change your videoconferencing life. And while I’m talking cameras, if you DO use your built in laptop’s camera, at least raise the camera to be at your eye level. Looking up your nose for an hour is not where it’s at. At. All. Take the time to frame your video. For the love of Pete.
  • Have good lighting. You’re going to the trouble to do a video call. What good is a video call, if no one can see you? Corollary: DON’T sit with a huge window at your back – silhouettes really aren’t that interesting…  unless you’re going for some “All the President’s Men” effect. Then, by all means. Otherwise – no. No. No.
  • Avoid dead air. Dead air is death to an otherwise interesting video call. In a hangout, sometimes it’s unavoidable. In a presentation? Inexcusable. The best way to solve this is to have a designated meeting convener who acts as the moderator for EVERY video call. Every. One. Always.

A few final notes: at our school, we record about 1TB plus worth of video in our media center each year. We see a lot of video. Some good. Some double-plus ungood. The common theme of bad video? It’s unwatchable. Bad lighting. Terrible framing. Horrible sound. Bad content. The same is true of unbearable teleconferencing: bad content, horrible framing, terrible video quality, spotty sound.

In short, before you sit down to participate in a video call, ask yourself: would / could I watch this video call, again, without being bored to tears? Is what I’m presenting watchable, in the least?

By using the right tools, and finding a good internet connection in a quiet distraction-free spot, you’ll greatly improve your chances of having a truly positive video experience.

We don’t all have to be consummate media professionals in order to effectively communicate via video.

But neither do we have to phone it in (Really. I’m stopping now).



Fish Where The Fish Are

Fish Where The Fish Are

You know the old Sales saw: “if you want to catch fish, fish where the fish are.”

I’ve been thinking about this quote quite a bit this past year, as our school implements telepresence on campus.

Traditionally, when one envisions telepresence or teleconferencing, one tends to think of tricked-out conference rooms, with large flat screen TVs and HD cameras, and everyone sitting at a long table.

In the college classroom, that setup is a total non-starter. Except for the smallest of seminars, college classrooms don’t look that way, and faculty don’t teach that way.

Yet, still today, when you do happen to stumble across teleconferencing at many schools, the “classrooms” are really very specialized, high value conference rooms that wind up being virtually (no pun intended) unused. (Saying to myself “we had one of those”).

So – what’s the solution?

Fish Where The Fish Are.

Put your telepresence / teleconferencing dollars where teaching happens – in actual classrooms.

Telepresence at Hendrix
Telepresence at Hendrix

Your faculty is not going to invest time in learning how to work technology in a room that they never visit, is halfway across campus, and is controlled by one or more other departments. But, if telepresence is in the places where your faculty lives, inside their classrooms, you stand a fighting chance of actually doing what you want to do in the first place with the technology – enable highly engaged students to learn, because now the technology is a part of their day to day experience and ecosystem.

There are plenty of challenges to effectively implement and support telepresence at any school (not the least of which are funding, developing great relationships with teleconferencing vendors and channel partners, and developing support staff who understand the technology).

Improve your chances of teleconferencing teaching success by putting the tech in the classroom, not the board room.

Fish where the fish are.