If you were asked to give a talk halfway around the world, what would you say? It’s a simple answer: yes and when. Connecting to anyone around the world is now a routine, often daily, event with tools like Skype, WeChat and QQ international.

Museums are in the business of education and always on the lookout for ways to reach the public, both near and far. A few months ago, I was asked to give a lecture at Universitas Tadulako in Sulawesi, Indonesia, concerning the global footprint on conservation, preservation and biodiversity. There was one fundamental problem: I was 15 000 km away with no resources to travel to Indonesia.

After some discussions with Dean Tantu and Professor Nilawati, it was decided that I could give the lecture using Skype. With some success at group meetings and short talks using Skype across North America and Europe, the thought was Why wouldn’t it work in Indonesia? The Indonesian Internet infrastructure is not as good as the North American one, but we decided to give it a try.

View of the class and projection screen.
Thanks to new communication technologies, particularly Skype, I was able to give a lecture and talk with a class at Universitas Tadulako in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Professor Nilawati (seated at the front) acted as interpreter. Image: © Universitas Tadulako (reproduced with permission)

The next issue was the time. The third-year class was held at 11:00 a.m. every Wednesday, which translated into 11:00 p.m. on Tuesday for me. Indeed, an interesting time to be starting a talk. A compromise was reached whereby the class would start two hours earlier, so the talk would be at 9:00 p.m. for me on Tuesday evening.

Collage: The students in their classroom, Paul's computer screen during the talk, a laptop on a table.
Views of the students in the class, what they saw on the projection screen, and what I saw on my laptop screen. Images: © Universitas Tadulako (reproduced with permission), Paul Hamilton © Canadian Museum of Nature

So on May 6, 2015, at the set time, the initial Skype connection was made. It was successful for two minutes. This was not a good start. A reconnection was made, which lasted less than one minute. I started thinking about the number of failed attempts we experienced in connecting four or five people for a conference call in Canada…

Finally, after a few other attempts, a good connection was made. After a brief introduction by Professor Nilawati, the talk began. Although I’ve done it before with a small group, setting up a PowerPoint talk for a class and then talking at my computer screen was interesting. I could see the students in a small window at the top-right of my screen, but there was a time delay.

A woman holding a microphone stands in front of the projection screen in the classroom.
My presentation on-screen and Professor Nilawati acting as interpreter. Image: © Universitas Tadulako (reproduced with permission)

So, the talk proceeded at times with translation into Indonesian when required. I talked about the definitions of environmental protection and conservation. These are human-derived concepts and actions. There are natural disasters like fires, earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as human disturbances like pollution that are part of our protection and conservation initiatives. Throughout the talk, examples of conservation were given from research activities at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

At the end, there was a lengthy discussion that lasted another hour. This was by far the most important part of the event. The ability to have back-and-forth classroom conversations over the Internet was significant. Two deans from the university joined the classroom at that stage.

The range of topics varied from what is the significance of the global human footprint (including water footprint) to how we can further develop stronger educational links between Canada and Indonesia. I was impressed, and at 12:30 a.m., finished the lecture sitting alone in the algae lab at the museum.

The significance of this first connection was seen in the media coverage in Indonesia. This was a first for both the Universitas Tadulako and the Canadian Museum of Nature. News coverage in both the City of Palu and university newspapers indicates how important the university considers the event—a real-time educational initiative co-ordinated halfway around the world. Let’s hope we can develop stronger communications that make a global difference.

Collage: Several newspaper articles.
Images: © Universitas Tadulako (reproduced with permission)