© 2015 Michael Hanian
I would like to share with you the experience of our study group with Skype technology. As far as I know this is the first study group to use Skype on a weekly basis on a regular basis. After having briefly given the history of the group, I will speak to you about technology, that is to say the needs and technical specifications necessary for the conduct of such a study group, then I will identify the many advantages that can be draw after which I will turn to its implications for the study of The Urantia Book and its accompanying electronic works and other study aids.
Our study group was created three years ago to respond to a very strong need to communicate between readers in our native language: Russian.
This idea germinated in France, in a small provincial town, far from urban centers. It was illusory to find nearby readers and, after doing some research on the Internet, I had the confirmation: no study group in Russian language within a radius of several hundred km which, all in all, was predictable because globally there are about twenty study groups in the Russian language which function on a regular basis.
The next question was of course how to create a study group with companions thousands of miles away? The answer was: Skype.
After contacting the future participants, I invited them to open a Skype account http://www.skype.com/intl/fr/get-skype/
Creating such an account is simple and intuitive and I think each of you are familiar with the procedure so I won’t dwell on it.
The next step is to designate a competent person to administer the account. She starts by creating a Skype group in the “Contact” menu and then, by dragging and dropping, she inserts the individual contacts into the “Group” field and saves this group by giving it a specific name.
The administrator must initiate the call by clicking on the name of the group. He must also restore communication on the rare occasions when it is interrupted. The role of the administrator is also to help beginners by familiarizing them with how the tool works.
Some participants use headphones. Others use their computer’s microphone and speakers, still others prefer their laptop although the quality is lower and may cause an echo effect. Anyway, with a little experience there is no need to use professional equipment and with a few tens of euros you can buy the right equipment.
However, the bandwidth and the stability of the connection remain the most important criteria. This is why it is necessary to choose, as administrator, the best equipped person of the group in terms of parameters and network connection. When this person initiates the call, the connection is still stable. When it is absent and someone else establishes the connection, stability may be compromised.
All other things being equal, cutting the video increases the resources for the audio channel. So, to increase reliability and quality, we don’t use video. In fact, it has been of great benefit to us and I will explain why later.
With Skype, the microphone can be alternately opened or closed easily. This option has been improved in the current version. It has the shape of a microphone and is generally located next to the telephone handset which is used to call a correspondent. This option is very convenient because not only does it allow participants to mute the microphone when they need to cough up or clear their voices, but it is also important because it lowers the overall level of background noise. For example, we always mute the microphone when a participant has to read a short excerpt.
As for any audio communication, a good installation and good listening conditions are essential to enjoy the exchanges pleasantly. The system and Skype tools allow you to adjust the volume as well as on the audio headset. The purpose of this equipment and various settings is to establish an optimum level of comfort so that the participants can participate fully in the discussions.
Several simultaneous discussions overload the audio channel and annihilate each other. It is therefore important to establish the interventions in turn in a sequential manner. Thus, the role of the coordinator is decisive. With a little practice, speakers get into the habit of waiting their turn to speak and refrain from continually interrupting themselves. This necessity, imposed by the technique, is also beneficial since it teaches patience and develops a better ability to listen. Of course, from time to time, heated discussions break out but normally the participants respect their turn to speak. After all, mastery never hurt.
Skype also has a window where you can write messages that group members receive instantly. I’ll say more about that later.
Skype cancels distances. The members of our group reside in 4 different countries ─ Russia, Finland, Ukraine and France ─ with almost 4,500 km distance between the two furthest members. Coming to attend the study group is simply taking a seat at his desk. I know readers who live in remote areas and who have to travel hundreds of miles before they can meet other readers.
But for all that, time zones are important. We have agreed to have our study group on Saturday morning which means that we cannot invite someone who is on the other side of the Atlantic. In my opinion, this is the only significant constraint for Skype study groups.
Technology provides an additional advantage: the possibility of recording our debates thanks to a third-party application that you can find at the following address: http://www.commentcamarche.net/download/telecharger-34065238-skype-recorder.
Our administrator regularly records all our conversations. These files are available for download upon request for group members.
Another advantage is added by the fact that a virtual group means no physical contact. When a member has the flu he would normally refrain from attending the meeting for fear of contaminating the assembly. There he can attend the virtual session, wrapped in warm clothes, comfortably installed in an armchair in front of his computer without anyone being able to see his watery eyes or his flushed cheeks.
solely on the audio channel for communication restricts information to one medium. Superficially, one could believe that it is a deficiency. A closer look reveals hidden benefits.
We know that communication is a multi-faceted process. Normal dialogue in a spatial environment involves several parallel streams; sound, image, secondary influences, and unconscious flows. When we only reduce communication to the audio stream, we must be prepared to make an effort to stay “connected”. In a face-to-face meeting, we use facial expressions, body language, gestures, nods, etc. In an audio environment, we can only use our ears, which requires both personal discipline and the ability to present our point of view through this unique medium.
Our mind has to struggle with this limitation imposed when it can only use this means of communication. This struggle has an interesting creative aspect: what we cannot see we can imagine. So instead of seeing our fellow readers, we imagine them, even if we’ve never seen them before. We recreate, mentally, those nods, body language, and smiles. We can even add emoticons easily in the dialog box. But above all, this limitation allows us to better concentrate on the main object of our meeting, namely reading and understanding the text.
Internet is not only a means of communication, it is an opening on information.
Additional information is immediately available during a Skype study group. How many members did the Sanhedrin have? Is this quote from the New Testament? Was this particular paragraph changed from the previous version? Virtually any electronic study material can be accessed instantly.
Again, the dialog box is very convenient. Sometimes one of the members is asked to do research while the group continues to work. When the information becomes available it is copied into the dialog box and made available to all. If the information is intended for only one person, an individual dialog box is used instead of the group one. Similarly, when a member of the group has prepared a presentation on a given topic, the text or the main points of his presentation are published in the dialogue box. In our group, the chat box has become our group’s means of communication during a meeting as well as between meetings.
Members of our group use other electronic study aid programs. For example, a search engine found on the Urantia Foundation website as well as a bilingual version of The Urantia Book https://www.urantia.org/fr/le-livre-d-urantia/lire: (URL for French-speaking readers). 
the Paramony, an electronic dictionary etc. Using only electronic documents greatly facilitates the exchange of information since they can be copied and sent very quickly.
One of our members writes spiritual poetry. He uses the dialogue box to share his verses, nourish the soul and edify the minds of the participants.
I must also mention that our study group is becoming an invaluable resource for the revision of the Russian translation. Reading and listening to the text creates extra attention that helps reveal errors that otherwise would never have been noticed by a solitary reading. Discussing the Russian translation very often leads to a new understanding discovering subtleties and unsuspected meanings.
Where is the limit ? Skype, itself is the limit. Indeed, the size of the group is limited: beyond that, the connection becomes unstable due to saturation of the bandwidth. We worked at 8 without major difficulties. But, again, it depends mainly on the quality of the network and the time of day.
Our experience is limited but we would be happy if it can benefit those who, like our group members, are far from each other.