Teaching Needlework Using Skype

By Dawn Donnelly and Denise Beusen

This article first appeared in NANthology, the NAN newsletter, in fall 2014.

Recently, we had the chance to experiment with using Skype to pilot a needlepoint class. Denise’s Minnesota ANG Chapter piloted Dawn’s 2-day class, “Witch Hilda’s Tree”, which will be offered at Assembly 2015. The two of us saw this as an opportunity to investigate technology in teaching needlework.

We started with 2 laptops with Skype (free) software loaded onto them – Dawn’s, and Denise’s, the latter to be used in the classroom. Each was equipped with an internal camera and an internal microphone. Before the class, we had a couple of Skype sessions between us to make sure we knew how to use the software, and that the internal cameras, microphone, and speakers in our computers worked.

Denise visited the classroom – a conference room in a local business where one of the students works – a couple of weeks prior to the event to test the wireless connection to the company’s guest network, and to look at the configuration of the tables, chairs, and screen.

We let students know ahead of time that we’d be trying a new format, and asked that they be flexible. It helped to point out that this format made the class much cheaper, as there were no charges for teacher transportation and lodging.

On the day of the workshop, setup started ½ hour before class. We connected a digital projector to the classroom laptop so students could see a larger image of Dawn on a screen. We tested the Skype connection between us and waited for students to arrive.

The first thing we figured out was where to position the classroom laptop so Dawn could see the greatest number of students. The six 8 ft tables were set up in a closed rectangle (see photo), and by setting the laptop at the end of the table with the camera pointed towards us, Dawn could see most of the 11 students in the class.

While the laptop’s internal speaker and microphone were sufficient for one-on-one communication, we discovered that in the classroom they simply didn’t have enough range and volume to enable interaction between teacher and students. Dell USB speakers were available on site, so we connected them to the laptop and positioned them in the middle of our long rectangle; the improved quality of sound enabled students to hear Dawn easily.

After the first day, we purchased an inexpensive USB microphone (Samson “Go Mic”), connected it to the laptop, and positioned it in the middle of the tables. It was transformative! During the first day, Dawn couldn’t hear questions from students at all unless they spoke directly into the laptop; with the microphone students could stay in their seats and Dawn could hear them clearly.

The screen projection proved to be less useful than expected. Even with the blinds closed, without the lights almost off, we couldn’t see Dawn’s image that well. We ended up turning the projector off except for those times when Dawn was demonstrating something, and concluded that a better option would have been a 22” or larger monitor linked to the laptop by HDMI cable and elevated. That way students could have clustered around the monitor to view demonstrations with the overhead lights on. Although we didn’t pursue it, a USB camera could be useful as often these will give better field depth and a wider angle view.

Because we met on a weekend, interruptions in our wireless internet connection were moderate – perhaps once every 60 or 90 minutes. The causes for these interruptions varied. Sometimes it was a result of inactivity, with the local network cutting out automatically. Jiggling the mouse regularly addressed this issue. Causes of other interruptions were unknown, but may have been a result of momentary high traffic on the network. In these cases, the result was loss of video, and sometimes a dropped call. All of these required that the connection be re-established, and this usually took about 5 minutes. No doubt the interruptions would have been fewer with an Ethernet cable connection to the web.

We held a discussion with students to get feedback on the experience. All felt that there was no problem asking questions of the teacher and getting clear answers for this intermediate level project. Dawn had shipped the stitched model to us, and just as in a regular class, we consulted it frequently. At one point, Dawn held up a demonstration canvas to the camera and showed us a particular stitch placement.

One aspect missing was the teacher walking around the room, looking over students’ work and making course corrections as needed. They were unanimous in feeling that beginner-level students who need more individual attention from a teacher might have found the format challenging. There were several ideas about how to compensate for the absence of direct personal interaction, such as including step-by-photos for unusual or challenging techniques in the instructions, or recording a YouTube video that could be viewed during class (and potentially after class as well). All agreed that for an advanced level class or for less experienced students, explicit color-coded charts and detailed written instructions would be needed. Another suggestion was to supply a high resolution, actual size photo of the stitched work in the instructions.

At Dawn’s end, she determined some things the teacher may need to consider in using this technology:

  • Give yourself at least six weeks to get the supplies ordered, kitted and shipped.
  • Send swatches of some of the more difficult stitches.
  • There will be lots of downtime, so be prepared and use the time to updates your notes/ instructions. And, spend a bit of time stitching.
  • Make sure you are in a locked and quiet area of your home.
  • Lighting should not come from behind you, as the camera is pointing at you.

Overall, our experiment was a success, enjoyed by both teacher and students. The experience was such that we’re motivated to use the technology again, and to encourage others to give it a try. One doesn’t need a high level of technical expertise; in fact, it’s hardly more complicated than using a digital projector – which most of do regularly. Here’s a summary of our recommendations if you decide to try the experiment:

  1. Understand the equipment needed ahead of time, as well as the table configuration and internet connectivity.
  2. Practice ahead of time
  3. Set expectations with all involved.
  4. Have a backup plan for communication between teacher and class coordinator, such as cell phones.
  5. Have the stitched model in the classroom.
  6. If possible, all parties should connect directly to their networks through an Ethernet cable instead of by wireless.