Far-Flung Faculty Workshop Papers with Google+ Hangouts

Professor Randy Picker is an expert in copyright law, and so are some of his colleagues at the Law School. But when he wants to talk about copyright with several experts at once, he’s got to travel. Sometimes these workshops and conferences are across the country, or even across the ocean, which means these meetings are a once-in-a-while treat, not a common occurrence.  

At least, that’s how it’s always been. But Picker may have found another way. He’s using Google+ Hangouts, a free, web-based video conferencing application, to bring together scholars in far-flung places. Most recently, Picker hosted a Hangout on November 22 with 11 participants, spread from California to Quebec to England. It was the third he’s done so far.

Just like in an in-person workshop, someone presents a paper, and the others ask questions, suggest ideas, and poke holes in the work.

The Hangouts allow for this interaction across space and time zones. “It enables a much more natural interaction very easily, and it gives us a chance to exchange ideas with our peers who are also deeply involved in the same subject matter,” Picker said.

At the last Hangout, copyright scholars participated from Berkeley Law, the New York University School of Law, Loyola University School of Law, the University of Cambridge, Notre Dame Law School, Georgetown Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law, Northwestern University School of Law, and McGill University in Quebec. Picker’s Chicago Law colleagues Saul Levmore and Jonathan Masur sat with him in a seminar room with a large TV. The group discussed an upcoming paper by Pamela Samuelson, the co-director for the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology. Her paper is titled, “Are Gardens, Synthetic DNA, Yoga Sequences, and Fashions Copyrightable?”

Later, Samuelson said that “to get a dozen of the top people in your field to both have read your paper and then to spend an hour talking about it was an invaluable resource.” She was also surprised, she added, about how engaged she felt with the other participants. “I felt like I could maintain eye contact with people, which I didn’t think I could do. I’ve been talking to other people about it, how I had this experience and it was so much fun. I took pages of notes on the observations people made, and then I can go back later and replay it, if I missed anything.”

Samuelson can replay the chat because she has a private link, but Picker isn’t making the archived talks public yet. He is concerned about maintaining a free-flowing conversation without participants worrying about what they’re saying on a public forum. Eventually, he may release edited versions of the Hangouts to the public, he said.

Picker was encouraged by the Samuelson session because the technology largely cooperated; one drawback of the Hangouts is that sometimes a faulty Internet connection or too much background noise can disrupt the conversation. Law School Lab Manager David Blood sits with Picker during the sessions to troubleshoot.

The last Hangout was Picker’s largest so far, and while he considered it a success, he acknowledged afterward that the group may have been too large. For the most part, everyone only spoke once, and there was less back-and-forth conversation than a regular workshop. Picker is working on figuring out the ideal number of participants for future Hangouts. 

Levmore pointed out that sizing is tricky. “In the absence of interactive conversation, these workshops are not all that different from receiving a colleague's draft and offering some suggestions in writing,” he said. “I think they would probably be better with five participants or so, in order to enable conversation. On the other hand, that would probably mean that people who already knew each other's work would simply hear from familiar voices.”

Masur thinks that as technology like Hangouts becomes more popular, participants will develop their own ways to facilitate interactive dialogue. Just as people signal with body language and cues in live conversation, the scholars will figure out how to do that online, Masur predicted. A paper of his on intellectual property and criminal law was the first to be workshopped via Hangouts, on October 4. He called the Hangouts a “terrific idea” and said he’d like to see them grow in popularity.

That’s already happening, said Lisa Jiang, a spokeswoman for Google. Academics are using Hangouts to workshop papers, discuss their books, host office hours, and present guest speakers. Administrators have used it to answer questions for prospective students and give campus tours.  

Fred von Lohmann, Legal Director of Copyright at Google, participated in Picker’s first session. He said Google doesn’t have a way of knowing how many academics are workshopping papers like Picker, but that a major advantage of Hangouts is that it’s available to all. “It’s a lot easier now that these tools are free and easy to access, unlike the old days when video conferencing was the exclusive province of corporations with expensive installed equipment.”

Picker has two workshops tentatively scheduled for winter quarter. Ariel Katz, part of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, will present on copyright and antitrust, and Paul Ohm at the University of Colorado Law School will present on privacy.