Using videoconferencing to connect your class to the world
Videoconferencing in the classroom opens up all kinds of opportunities for students to become engaged in learning. This article explores the use of videoconferencing to build cultural understanding, learn from outside experts, and reach homebound students.
When Tim Berners-Lee first set out to create the World Wide Web in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he had no real intention of changing the way that the world interacts with information and individuals. His goal was simply to give the multinational scientists that he was working with at CERN — a physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland — an opportunity to easily communicate regardless of the types of operating systems and computers that they were using in their home countries.1
It wasn’t long, however, before he realized that his invention had the potential to break down the kinds of barriers — geographic borders, time and place, cultural misunderstandings — that have always kept the world separated. As he imagined in a 2005 interview, “I’d like to see [the World Wide Web] building links between families in different countries… to allow us to browse people’s websites in different languages so you can see how they live in different countries.”2
For many tech-savvy teachers, using digital tools to give students opportunities to learn with — rather than simply about — the world is slowly becoming a reality. They’re pairing students with digital partners or recognized experts in different countries to learn together. While there are a range of products and services that can make this kind of cross-border learning possible, videoconferencing applications are one of the most popular because they require nothing more than a computer, a webcam, and an Internet connection to create real-time interactions between connected classrooms — opportunities that are highly motivating for students of any age.
The work being done with videoconferencing in education is as diverse as the teachers who have embraced synchronous learning opportunities as a way to break down the walls of their schools. Here are three examples of school-based videoconferencing worth exploring:
Connecting students to build cultural understanding
Michael Kaechele and his colleagues at Valleywood Middle School in Michigan had an all-too-common challenge. They were responsible for teaching students about world religions including Judaism, but they lived in a homogenous community with little cultural diversity. Recognizing that shared experiences are a critical first step towards building understanding between children of different religions, Kaechele turned to Silvia Tolisano — a technology integration specialist with connections to the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School in Florida — for help.
Together, they arranged an innovative project where Michael’s students in Michigan crafted a series of questions about Judaism that Sylvia’s students answered during the course of a videoconference using Skype, one of the most popular free videoconferencing applications available. The project was a huge success, giving students in both classrooms the chance to have honest conversations about religion — and to build genuine relationships with people of different faiths. Without videoconferencing, Michael’s students may never have had the chance to “get to know” a person who actively practiced Judaism.
Introducing students to recognized experts
Karl Fisch — the Director of Technology at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado — is one of the foremost experts on using synchronous conversations to change teaching and learning in the traditional classroom. As his blog posts illustrate, not only do his students use videoconferences to connect to other classes, they use videoconferences to learn from recognized experts in diverse fields.
With Karl’s help, the students of Arapahoe have learned about Creative Commons content — a new form of licensing that allows artists to share their work freely — from Cory Doctorow, one of the founders of the Creative Commons movement. They’ve also learned about entrepreneurism from Jason Shellen — a digital pioneer who has developed products like Blogger — and about the changing nature of the work world from Daniel Pink — one of today’s most prominent thinkers.
Reaching homebound students
One of the most inspirational examples of the role that videoconferencing can play in your classroom comes from Brian Crosby, a fourth grade teacher at the Agnes Risley School in Sparks, Nevada. Several years ago, Brian had a student named Celest assigned to his classroom. While Celest was a typical fourth-grade girl in nearly every way, she was suffering from leukemia and regular chemotherapy treatments were leaving her too immunocompromised to come to school each day.
Crosby — who has always built welcoming classroom communities — worked diligently to keep Celest involved by using Skype to “bring” her to school every day. At the beginning of each class period, Brian would use his classroom webcam and high-speed Internet connection to call Celest, who had the same tools available at home. Celest could see and hear everything that was going on in class and participated just like any other child. She asked and answered questions, joined in shared readings, and completed projects with small groups of peers — a process that involved placing Crosby’s computer at the table where Celest’s partners were working.
“This was a very special experience and my students — all of whom are very at risk — sensed that, I think,” writes Crosby.3
Getting started with videoconferencing
Regardless of whether you choose to pair your classes with peers living in other places, to bring recognized experts into your classroom, or to embrace homebound students, videoconferencing can easily become a very special experience for your students as well. To begin using videoconferencing in your classroom, answer the following five questions:
- What rules—if any—does your school or district already have in place for videoconferencing?
- Unlike asynchronous conversation tools — which put few demands on a school’s digital infrastructure — synchronous conversations can be demanding. They simply require more bandwidth than many school networks can handle. What’s more, technical changes are often required in order to let streaming video through district firewalls. As a result, many schools have clearly defined procedures for conducting any kind of videoconference. Taking the time to speak to your district’s technology staff about your plans before jumping in feet first will help you to avoid potential digital disasters!
- What rules — if any — does your district have for inviting guest speakers into your classroom?
- Because there are so few teachers currently using videoconferences to bring speakers into their classrooms, many districts haven’t yet decided how to treat digital experts. As a result, digital experts are often treated just like any outside expert that you might consider bringing in to your room — and in most districts, there are procedures that must be followed before guest speakers are allowed to present to students.
- What videoconferencing application are you planning on using?
- Most videoconferencing services offer nearly identical features. All will allow you to use nothing more than a webcam and an Internet connection to see peers in other places. Most will allow you to carry on text-based conversations during your videoconference through instant-messaging windows. Some will allow you to connect to multiple computers or to upload documents to reflect on during the course of your conversation.
- Deciding which videoconferencing application is right for you should start by deciding what exactly you want your students to do during the course of your synchronous conversation. If it is important that students be able to conduct videoconferences without any guidance from you, then simple applications like Tinychat may be your best choice.
- If reliable connections and whole class conversations are critical to you, then established videoconferencing tools like Skype or Google Video Chat are good options. Finally, if you want your students to make sophisticated presentations to one another or to reflect around shared content, then you should explore full-featured web-conferencing applications like Wiggio. Over time, you may even find that each of these applications can play a role in your classroom depending on the range of projects that you introduce your students to.
- What other skills do your students need to learn in order to make videoconferencing a productive learning experience?
- No matter which videoconferencing application you select, it is important to remember that tools do little more than enable users to connect with one another. The quality of those connections — like any traditional learning experience — is dependent on preparing your students to have productive conversations with one another. That’s why experiences with videoconferencing have to be carefully structured.
- Consider crafting handouts that force students to think through their videoconference before they are allowed to connect. What kinds of questions are they planning to ask? What kinds of answers do they think they’ll receive? How will those answers change the work that they are doing or the way that they look at the issues they are studying? Where will there be areas of agreement between your students and their digital partners? Disagreement? What kinds of tasks need to be completed? How will students report on what they’ve learned?
- The more structures that you put in place before your students start videoconferencing, the more likely you are to be proud of the learning that they are doing beyond the walls of your classroom.
- How will you go about finding partners to work with?
- Teachers new to videoconferencing are often unsure of where to go to find sister classes to partner with. While this process is definitely essential to ensuring that videoconferencing plays an important role in your instruction, it shouldn’t be intimidating primarily because there are literally thousands of teachers who are willing to connect with your classes.
- Before making a choice, however, think through the learning outcomes that you have in mind for your videoconferences. If you’re hoping to open the eyes of your children to the challenges of life in the developing world, it’s likely that you’ll want to find a class in South America, Africa, or Southeast Asia to collaborate with. If you’re hoping to force your children to think about the differences between life in capitalist and socialist countries, a class in Europe would be a better choice.
- Once you’ve thought through the intended outcomes for your digital project, spend some time looking through the “Skype in Schools” wiki, the ePals website, or the International Education Resource Network to find potential partners for your students. Be resilient, however! Contact information in each of these sources may be out of date — or the first few teachers you contact may already have established strong relationships with other classes.
The lesson to be learned from this column is a simple one: With little more than a bit of determination, pairing your classes with international peers, bringing outside experts into your school, and engaging homebound students is no longer impossible. Instead, synchronous conversations with anyone anywhere can happen in any school, anytime. How are you taking advantage of this opportunity?