Saturday, November 19, 2011

Remote Lectures

Here's an all-too-common lament from teachers who aren't located in a game development hub like San Francisco:
"I'd love to have some guest speakers from industry in my class, but none of them live here. Occasionally I can snag one if they're in town to see family or something, but it's not anything I can count on. And I don't have the budget to fly people in regularly."

There's a better solution out there, and it's so simple that I'm amazed this doesn't happen routinely. It's called Skype. (Okay, technically any videoconferencing software will work. But an awful lot of professional game developers use Skype already. For those who don't, it's shockingly easy to download, install and use.)

The setup is incredibly cheap. At minimum, you need:
  • A computer in your classroom and a computer at the guest lecturer's desk. You can pretty much count on any game developer to have a computer, and it's honestly been awhile since I've stepped into a classroom at any school that didn't have at least a computer at the podium and overhead projector.
  • Audio and video in the classroom. Again, most classrooms these days come wired for it. Absolute worst case, bring your own laptop. Most laptops these days have speakers, mic and webcam built-in; if not, you can get cheap-but-passable for $20 or less each.
  • Some way for the guest lecturer to speak to you: speakers and mic (or headset) and webcam on their end. Many developers have this already. If not, spend $50 or so to order some basic equipment on Amazon and ship to them directly; it's a nice way to say thank-you if you're not paying an honorarium, it's a whole lot cheaper than covering travel expenses, and a gesture like this drastically increases the chance they'll do it again next year.
  • A willing guest lecturer. Often the easiest part, since there are so many to choose from. Just make sure your social network is up to date.
Then you just have to set up a time, videoconference them in, have them give their lecture and take some questions, thank them for their time, and you're done. (Strictly speaking, you don't even need video; you could get away with just having a normal phone call, connected to a loudspeaker in your room. But I've found that being able to actually see the other person adds a quality that's worth taking the extra steps.)

Hints and tips to make things easier:
  • Sometimes I find that a speakers + microphone combo leads to echoing, when the microphone picks up the sound from the speakers. To avoid this in your classroom, keep the mic turned off except when speaking. To avoid this from the guest's side, suggest a headset instead.
  • Run a test call beforehand to do a sound/video check, maybe a few days in advance, just to get the bugs worked out of the system. If possible, do your test using the exact same setup/location where the actual call will take place.
  • Have the guest's phone number, in case the internet picks a bad time to go down, just so you have some way to get in touch with them in an emergency.
  • Make sure the guest knows how to use whatever videoconferencing software you're using, and walk them through it if not. If they have slides, make sure they know how to share their screen.
  • Set this up in advance. Check in a few days in advance, and a few hours on the same day, just to make sure you're still on. Sometimes developer schedules can suddenly shift last-minute, so if you have the occasional cancellation, better to find that out before your class starts.
  • When looking for guest speakers, don't limit yourself to your home country. In fact, it may be more convenient for people who are at a time zone that's a few hours apart from you; spending an hour doing a guest lecture from home is sometimes easier and less disruptive than doing so from the office in the middle of a work day. (That said, if you can set up a virtual "studio tour" with the developer walking a wireless webcam through their office, it can be all kinds of awesome.)
  • If the speaker is in a different time zone than you, make sure you know the difference, and specify time zone in every email and other contact you have to make sure there's no confusion. To make it the most error-proof, give both times, yours and theirs ("So, we're still on for tonight, 3pm ET / 8pm GMT?").
  • Lastly and perhaps most obviously, be respectful. While many developers are happy to get involved with education and share their knowledge with your class, remember that they are still volunteering their time for your benefit. You need them more than they need you. So be sure to treat your guests well, whether they are connecting to you virtually or in person. Do this right and they may even recommend other speakers for your class. Treat a speaker poorly, and maybe they'll tell their friends to avoid you in the future, and suddenly you'll have a much harder time with this. It's a small industry, after all...
  • Conferences like GDC are a great place to meet potential guest speakers. Bring up the subject gently, then follow up a week or two later to those who expressed interest.
If you've done this a lot, feel free to post any additional tips (or traps to avoid) in the comments.


Scott Grant said...

We actually use this exact approach with the Queen's Game Developers Club in Kingston, Canada. Kingston isn't home to any large game studios, and it's not feasible to bring people in on our shoestring budget. That said, we've still been able to host some great talks for members of the club who want to hear about game development.

And funny you should post this, we were just tossing around your name as a potential speaker in the upcoming term.. ;)

Ian Schreiber said...

Yeah, I saw it coming that this was essentially an open invite for anyone reading to ask me. Send me an email and we can talk about scheduling :)

Jeff Brain said...

We just started using Collaborate (formerly Elluminate, but now owned by Blackboard, a Learning Management System) at San Francisco State. I could see this as an inexpensive way to do this with more screen space than Skype. Steve Hargadon and Classroom 2.0 use this very successfully as well.