There being no elephants available, let's talk about the iPad in the middle of the room...
Our Lenten study group includes 12 people, four of whom participate at a distance through Skype, hence the iPad in the middle of the room.
Eight from the immediate vicinity meet at the vicarage, setting up the iPad so that the other four can participate through an audio Skype call (we have not included video).
Two live in the city, 47km away, another lives at the eastern edge of the parish 28km away, and the fourth is over the Waimakariri river to the north, 31km away.
When planning our Lenten study group, one of the co-leaders asked: “How about if we try bringing in other people into the group via Skype this year?”
The group is reading Lynda Paterson and Peter Carrell's book, Being Disciples: Through Lent With Matthew.
The use of the iPad to include four others into the discussion takes some practice but everyone seems to have caught on quite quickly.
Those of us gathered in the vicarage have the advantage of taking visual cues from one another and can tell when someone has something to say. For the conversation to work when some of the group are not visible to us I’ve found that the group is most respectful and accommodating.
There is much more comfort with leaving gaps of silence as we make room for the online participants to come into the conversation. Likewise, we are listening more carefully to one another.
The end result is a method of meeting that is useful on many levels beyond the desire to meet for study, prayer and fellowship. It accommodates those who can’t drive after dark, It is green in that we’ve reduced the number of cars on the road, a sitter is not required for the children, and as one participant last night pointed out – we were spared from catching the oncoming cold virus she had acquired.
Oh, and most surprisingly of all, it is an interesting way of sharing good news as those in the background overhearing one side of the Skype conversation at the various locations have asked, ‘So what were you guys talking about in the study group?’
The Technical side of things: We are using Skype accounts to link together all the various participants at scattered locations. One person initiates the Skype call and contacts all the other participants, both remote and the vicarage, so we all end up on the same call.
The screen at the vicarage as well as the screens at the remote locations show the Skype photo for each of the participants. Skype lets each participant know who is talking, plus Skype has a “chat” function that lets the remote participants note questions or comments without interrupting the person talking.
The sound quality has been excellent so the remote participants feel like a vital part of the group discussions.
Like last year’s book, The Praying Life, Through Lent with Luke, this year’s Lenten study guide has proved very popular and is an excellent resource for parishes and small groups.
The Rev Susan Baldwin is Vicar of Malvern Parish in Mid-Canterbury.