Of course the first suggestion volunteered to me was, "Can't we just Skype the student in?" Our classes are not standard university undergraduate lectures. Our instructors are typically modelling the K-12 classroom. They move around quite a bit, and the students participate in small group activities. Skype running on a stationary device was not going to work.
I had a pretty good idea that what I really wanted was a VGo, but there was no way we were getting the funds for that. Even if, by some miracle, we managed to convince "the powers" to buy a VGo, it was virtually impossible that the convincing, purchasing, delivery, and setup would happen before Monday morning.
A couple of years ago I discovered Swivl at an Ed Tech conference (I honestly can't remember which one). I encouraged our Instructional Resource Centre to purchase a couple of them for use by our students for their micro-teaching videos. The students record themselves delivering a lesson activity, and then review it to evaluate and adjust their teaching methods. The students would often setup cameras on tripods, or ask another student to do the recording. Neither method was ideal. A tripod did not allow the student to move around, and audio was troublesome in both scenarios.
With Swivl, the "teacher" wears a wireless tracker (with integrated microphone), and the Swivl base turns and pivots to follow the tracker. The recording device (typically a smartphone or tablet) sits on the base. A single, short audio cable connects the base to the device to record the audio from the mic integrated into the tracker. It really is impressive in its simplicity, and works quite well.
The problem is that Swivl's primary use and design is around recording lesson activities, not video conferencing. The Swivl base connects to the recording device using a male-to-male, 4-segment 3.5mm cable. This is a fairly standard plug found in pretty much every smartphone and tablet. It carries both the mic-in and audio out. Unfortunately, this cable runs directly from the Swivl base to the device, with no splitter or plug in the base for the audio out.
Our initial tests using Lifesize Video (the standard video conferencing solution used by our university) and an iPad confirmed that audio was being recorded from the mic in the tracker, but no audio would play back unless the base from the cable was unplugged from the iPad.
We decided to try a 3.5mm 4-segment to 2 x 3.5mm 3-segment splitter.
|Adapter to break out the mic in and audio out connections|
|Our Swivl telepresence setup|
With everything plugged in, we started a Lifesize Video session and everything worked! The final bit was putting everything on a cart that could be easily moved between classes, taping together some of the cabling (to try to prevent instructors/students from unplugging cables from splitters), zip-tying some of the cables to tidy it up, and labeling plugs that couldn't easily be taped in place ("to iPad").
It would be nice to have the cart completely wireless, but we settled on a single power cord. The Swivl has a 4-hour battery life (estimate), and the student has back-to-back classes that total 5 hours. We also didn't have battery-powered speakers.
It would also be better if the remote student could control the direction of the Swivl rather than relying on the tracker, especially during the small group sessions. This is a feature of Swivl Cloud Live. Swivl Cloud Live is in beta, and I did submit the form to sign up. I see more experimenting in the next couple of weeks.
Friday morning we conducted a test session with the student and all went well. The first class is Monday morning. Fingers crossed.