Webcameras that Facilitate Better Conversations Virtual Guests: Perhaps “OWL” Being See You…??

by Nathan Loewen, Department of Religious Studies

What is this?

Have you tried using a basic computer web camera to capture conversations in a classroom? Prof. Loewen has experimented with dozens of methods since 2009. With the arrival of the REL digital lab at UA’s Department of Religious Studies in 2021, things have changed.

Among the digital tools being collected by Prof. Jeri Wieringa is the OWL Pro, which is a 360-degree camera, mic, and speaker combined into one device. Joe Defrank, an REL graduate student in Loewen’s seminar REL522, brought the OWL to Loewen’s attention. The seminar course schedule involved seven virtual class visits from contributors to a forthcoming volume being edited by Prof Loewen.

Using the OWL camera was easy! (which is likely related to its cost…!) The OWL camera was placed in the middle of the seminar table and plugged into the classroom computer via USB cable. After starting the classroom computer’s videoconferencing program, the program’s camera and mic options were set to the OWL camera and microphone. That’s it (assuming the virtual guest has a link to the videoconference!)

The unique feature of the device is that it does the following simultaneously:

  1. Shows a panoramic view of the entire room to others on the call.
  2. Detects who is speaking in the room, and shows images of them to those on the call.
  3. Focuses the mic to deliver only the audio of whoever is speaking in the room.
  4. Delivers high-quality audio of the other person to the entire room.

Why have virtual guests?

Prof. Loewen has a long-standing interest in using online tools as portals to open classrooms to worlds outside their walls in real-time. Making these connections seemed relevant for teaching the fall 2021 seminar “Power and Persuasion,” which aims to examine how institutional and academic politics are shaping social forces in the production of scholarship.

Since he just submitted an edited volume manuscript on these issues to an academic publisher, Loewen focused the seminar on examples drawn from issues concerning the philosophy of religion. How does “philosophy of religion” take shape as a field of scholarly inquiry? How do institutional and academic structures maintain the field’s status quo? What are the possibilities for constructive, scholarly responses to critiques of the field? To add a contemporary dimension to the seminar, Loewen combined the conventional, text-based approach of reading with virtual visits from scholars actively engaged with these questions.

For seven weeks in the semester, students read published and unpublished texts from seven scholars who participate in the Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion project. In the week prior to each visit, the class commented on the texts inside Blackboard Learn using Hypothesis to collectively identify questions and concepts for discussion. For 30 minutes prior to the visitor’s “arrival,” the seminar focused on prioritizing the questions and issues for discussion, after which the students engaged in a deliberate, yet free-flowing discussion with a contemporary philosopher.

The guest list included the following:

The vast generosity and goodwill of these scholars to spend yet another hour online cannot be underestimated. The OWL camera certainly brings some relief to the exhaustion of videoconferencing, if not only because it enables people to converse with a room of people rather than squares on the screen.