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Technology links students with classrooms on East Coast

March 15, 2013

Imran Malik has something to say. He hasn't raised his hand, but he's leaning forward in his seat, a thoughtful expression on his face. Professor Dean Spade notices, and calls on him.

The thing is, Spade isn't in the same room. Or even the same time zone.

Professor Dean SpadeThe Seattle University School of Law professor is co-teaching this Occupation Law and Politics class from New York City, where he is completing a two-year fellowship with Columbia University's Center for Gender and Sexuality.  He and Columbia Professor Katherine Franke sit in a small seminar room with a group of Columbia students; Malik and his classmates are gathered around a table in Seattle's law school annex, teacherless other than the Skype connection projected on a 52-inch LCD screen in front of them.

Professor Margaret ChonSpade's class is one of two Spring 2013 classes in which the law school is taking advantage of technology to enhance students' academic experience, using Skype every week to link up with a classroom on the East Coast. Professor Margaret Chon has the other, co-teaching an advanced intellectual property class with Professor Mary Wong of University of New Hampshire School of Law.

Both classes are small seminars, with fewer than 20 students each — east and west coasts combined.

The two classes are using the same technology, but in different ways. Chon, the Donald and Lynda Horowitz Professor for the Pursuit of Justice, includes prestigious guest speakers from across the country and features shared Powerpoint presentations, while Spade uses the connection to encourage cross-coastal discussions.

"Both Professor Wong and I thought it would be an interesting experiment to have an online colloquium, and invite nationally and internationally known IP experts to our class," Chon said, adding that they had both been guest speakers at similar forums held at other schools.

Spade said he welcomed the chance to stay in touch with Seattle students, and have the two schools learn from each other.

"Each law school I've taught at has its own particular culture and areas of emphasis," Spade said. For example, Seattle students might have more to share about Federal Indian Law, since it's on the state bar exam and they've studied it, while the Columbia group includes students from Argentina, Italy and the United Kingdom, who can offer their perspectives on international law.

Malik agreed. "Part of the appeal in taking this class was the opportunity to interact with students from a different law school," he said, adding that he's been impressed with the quality of the Columbia students' questions as well as the seriousness with which they approach their work.

Later in the semester, Seattle and New York students will meet outside of class — via Skype or phone — to collaborate on class presentations.

For students like Stacy Smith, who's taking Chon's intellectual property class, the access to guest experts has been invaluable. "My first impression — and this has proven true as the class goes along — was that this was an excellent use of tuition dollars," she said. "You get to hear from all these people who are experts in a specific area, and all you have to pay for is Skype."

The law school regularly uses Skype for job interviews and meetings, and has used dedicated, point-to-point video conferencing for major events. But this is the first time classes have incorporated Skype every week, a more cost-effective option for routine use.

The School of Law invested in a high-end web camera that the two classes share, allowing the whole classroom to be captured on screen. The camera plugs into a laptop running Skype, which is then projected onto a larger screen (the LCD for Spade's class, and an 8-foot pull-down screen for Chon's). Chon's class uses the web camera for audio as well, but Spade's class found that there was too much of a lag between the video and audio, so they switched to voice conferencing over a phone line.

(All classrooms at Seattle University School of Law have two-way telephone conferencing capability, with ceiling microphones, podium touchscreens to dial phone numbers and echo-cancelling digital audio processors.)

Remarkably, technical glitches have been minimal. The quality of the Skype connection can vary, depending on Internet traffic at the time of class. In Chon's class, one guest speaker from Hawai'i faded in and out during his talk. A support person from the law school's Instructional Technology department sets up the equipment and does any necessary troubleshooting before each class.

In Spade's class, 40 percent of each student's grade is based on class participation, but Malik says that hasn't been a concern, even though half of his class is 2,400 miles away.

"You get more individual attention in this class than in a large lecture class," he said. "We just have to lean forward or backwards sometimes, to make sure we aren't blocking someone else from the camera."