Children are almost always inspired when they meet a real life author or illustrator, but it may not always be possible to have an author visit your school. Virtual visits are a great way for you to expose your students to the minds behind the books without breaking your budget! The visit can be conducted with large groups in a library or hall or with individual classes. You can arrange a virtual author visit via video using Skype, but whilst this is perhaps the best-known program, it is certainly not the only option. Apple’s iChat and FaceTime and Google’s Video and Voice also offer free video-conferencing capabilities. Just make sure you and your chosen author use the same platform!
How do you find an author willing to make a virtual visit
Online you will find several networks of authors who advertise their willingness to participate in Skype conversations e.g.
Virtual Authors UK is a directory of children’s authors and illustrators who offer Skype visits to UK schools and libraries. Most offer a limited time period of typically 15-20 minutes of readings and chats for completely NO CHARGE! But they do expect children to be familiar with their books. To arrange a virtual visit, click on an author’s name and this will take you through to their website where you will find the relevant contact details. Virtual Authors does offer advice too on setting up the visit for both speaker and listeners. This includes not only the technical details but suggestions that ensure the children are well prepared and that books are sold before or after the event. Searching is via key stage and the site offers a good range of speakers.
Schools need not restrict these virtual visits to authors just from the UK they can obviously set up visits with authors from all over the world just as long as a mutually convenient time is agreed! It might take a little bit of effort but you can probably get almost any author these days to agree to Skype. Most have an online presence with websites and email links, so it’s easy to send a quick note to inquire. expect to pay a fee in these instance though as although they are not travelling, their time is money!
By the way Chris Bradford of Young Samurai fame, is one UK author that does offer virtual visits! You can contact him here http://www.virtualvisit.youngsamurai.com/VirtualYS1/Home.html
Once you’ve decided on your book and contacted the author, you don’t need to be a technological genius to set up, but you will need some basic software and hardware, as well as a plan for your virtual visit. Don’t underestimate the time it will take to set up one of these visits. Its important that it goes as smoothly as if you were receiving the author at school!
Here’s a checklist to help you prepare:
1. A computer equipped with the internet (preferably via high-speed modem) a web camera and speakers (most new computers have these built in)
2. Skype software. This is FREE and only takes a few minutes to download from this website http://www.skype.com/
3. If you can, it is best to project the computer’s video display onto a large screen with a data projector. This will enable more students to participate in the session.
Before the visit
Careful preparation is the key to a successful virtual author visit and do ensure your pupils are already familiar with the author and his works before your proceed with the following:
1. Download Skype (or the video-conferencing software of your choice) at home and try it out with someone you know. You’ll want to make sure you’re comfortable using it before you set up a visit.
2. Contact your IT coordinator to see how you easy it will be to use Skype at school. Hopefully he/she will wave a magic wand, adjust bandwidth restrictions and unblock things so you can pull it off.
3. Contact the author to arrange your virtual visit. Set a date and time, decide who will initiate the call, how long it will take and the fee.
4. Once you’ve set up a date and time (morning may be best to avoid high usage Internet times), reserve the space where you’ll be having your virtual visit. Make sure the equipment you’ll need is available and working. If you’re not good with technology, enlist the help of someone who is.
5. Plan your meeting carefully to ensure you make the most of the discussion time. How long will it last? (30-45 minutes seems ideal). Will members gather around a computer or will the author be projected on a big screen? Where will the children stand or sit so they can be seen and heard? Pre-select the students who will ask the questions during the visit. Where will they stand? Where do they go when they’re done? Have their questions written on index cards in advance and number the cards in the order they are to be asked to keep things moving. You will probably need 10-15 prepared questions. Sometimes authors like to receive some of the questions in advance, as it helps them tailor their presentation to the needs of the group.
6. Talk to your students about the etiquette required for a virtual author visit. In many ways, it’s just like having any other guest speaker in your library or classroom, and the children need to know that all the same rules about courteous behaviour apply. Make sure they understand that your connection may be lost temporarily during the chat. It helps to have a plan in place for when that happens. Perhaps they could bring their novels with them, with the understanding that a lost connection is their signal to start reading whilst things are fixed.
7. Test Skype at school. It doesn’t matter if you’ve tested it at home; things are different on school networks, and you don’t want to discover a problem when it’s time for your virtual visit.
On the day of the virtual visit,
1.Power up your computer and test your microphone and camera at least 20 minutes before you’re scheduled to contact the author. That will give you time to solve any last-minute problems.
2. Launch Skype and either call the author or wait for him/her to call you – whatever you agreed upon in advance.
3. Once your connection is established, introduce everyone who will be speaking. If the children seem reticent, you might start things off with a question or two to prompt discussion.
4. If your connection is lost, don’t panic. Just call the author back. It may take a few tries before you establish a good connection.
5. Keep an eye on the clock, and let the children know when it’s almost time to wrap up the discussion.
Common problems encountered
Sometimes, it is hard for an auditorium audience to hear the questions being asked. Remind the children about the need to speak up, try to get a microphone set up, or perhaps ask if the author might be willing to repeat questions before answering.
Skype is wonderful and magical and free. It is also subject to the whims of all sorts of Internet bandwidth, firewall, and other technological issues. As a result, you can loose the connection. Overall, the interruptions are annoying but manageable. However, if you have real trouble reconnecting, authors will always reschedule for another time, usually within a week or two of the attempted visit. No matter what, you will get the visit you paid for eventually!
It is still possible for this to take place. Books can be obtained from your nearby bookstore, or ordered directly from the publishers and signed book plates can be emailed to you by the author.
How to pay for a virtual visit from an overseas author
Payment for overseas authors can be made via Paypal. Alternatively an invoice can be provided with international transfer payment details or a cheque sent (this may incur bank charges). Please note that payment should be made, and cleared before the date of the virtual author visit.
If your school does not have the required equipment or technical know-how to set up a virtual author visit then why not consider author webcasts? A webcast is a broadcast of a live event which is viewed simultaneously by many people over the internet. All you need is an internet connection and you can view the webcast as it happens in ‘real time’ or access it after the event at a time and in a location that is entirely suitable to you. Increasingly events such as World Book Day and Roald Dahl Day offer webcasts of interviews with famous authors which pupils may view live or on-demand. They usually last about 45minutes
Puffin Books Virtually Live is a series of free interactive webcasts from Puffin’s bestselling authors. Click on the link to find a list of previous webcasts which you can watch on-demand, as well as details of forthcoming webcasts. Puffin offers some technical help by providing a test video and tips and also an email address specifically for this so even schools who are new to screening webcasts can do so with ease.
Children’s Authors Live is the home of Hachette Children’s Group Live Interactive Webcasts and features webcasts of many of their most popular authors. All their live stream events are free to access and are advertised in advance in the ‘Next Event’ section of their website. Past events can be found in the ‘Watch Again’ section. They too have a test video available and a FAQ to ensure schools can access their webcast
Scottish Book Trust – Authors Live The Scottish Book Trust and BBC Scotland are partners in Author Live. Each event has learning resources attached for use in the classroom or the library and if watching live listeners can tweet in. Despite the name not all are Scottish authors. This is one of the most comprehensive sites available and is very easy to navigate. You can search via age range or by clicking on the video stills.