Tech for Teachers
Skyping Is the Next Best Thing to Being There
ASCD Express's Tech for Teachers column, by guest columnist Jason Bedell, uses both text and a tutorial video to encourage teachers to bring web technology into their practice in simple but meaningful ways that can contribute to student engagement and learning.
Over the last few years, Skype has become one of those indispensable apps I install on every computer, smartphone, and tablet that I use, because it lets me easily communicate with people all over the world. Accessed on the web, the free Skype program allows you to make video or voice calls to other Skype users—no matter where they are located.
Skype can be installed on pretty much everything. It is available for Mac, Windows, and Linux desktops as well as iOS, Android, BlackBerry, and WebOS; and in the near future, it will be available for Windows Phone 7.
Guest Speakers for Professional Development
Skype's video and audio call feature allows students and educators to connect with classrooms and experts around the world.
There are numerous ways you can integrate Skype to support and enhance classroom learning. I particularly like using Skype to bring in experts to talk to students. Although having a guest speaker at a school is not anything revolutionary, finding high-quality guest speakers on a variety of topics can be difficult. Often they need to be local, but using Skype increases your options.
To locate guest speakers, I generally use Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media outlets. For example, I might ask people in my social networks if anyone knows an engineer who might be willing to talk with students working on a physics project at my school. Once I've found a candidate, it's usually just a matter of setting up a mutually convenient time to Skype.
Two years ago, I used social media to invite guest speakers when I was organizing TeachMeet Nashville, a free conference for educators with volunteer presenters. I was having some difficulty finding local speakers on some topics, so I used my network of educators on Twitter to find qualified speakers further afield.
During our social networking panel discussion, Tom Whitby, a respected education professor at St. Joseph's College in New York and an active social media user in education, participated via Skype as one of the four panel members. Six other educators from different states were also able to lead sessions virtually, using Skype to share their experiences and interact with educators. Without the Skype technology, attendees at the conference would have missed out on valuable expertise from these distant participants.
Also, as a librarian I plan to use the Skype an Author Network, which is a website that lists authors who are willing to virtually meet with students and take their questions through Skype.
Unlocking Skype's Potential in the Classroom
This same model is easy to apply in classrooms. For example, using Skype, Australian educator Tomaz Lasic hosted a discussion between his students and Ira Socol, an education doctoral student in Michigan. Socol talked about his career experiences, which ranged from being a New York City police officer, to an editorial page editor, to a teacher and technology consultant.
The result was a powerful conversation that seemed to really make students think. Coming from his background with dyslexia and as someone who had immense trouble with traditional schooling, Socol has a critical eye turned toward making sure people are not being discriminated against.
Soon I will be planning with one of the social studies teachers to connect our 6th grade students with other students around the world, and this is a prime opportunity to make use of Skype. Instead of only reading about Spain, for example, we are going to find classes in Spain that we can speak with to find out what life is really like there. It lets the students start to build international relationships and learn in an authentic way.
We hope to find classes in each of the different countries that the students will be studying. To see what schools and resources are already out there, first we'll look to Skype in the Classroom, which currently includes more than 21,000 teachers and more than 1,500 projects. On that network, educators post Skype-based project proposals and invite other classrooms to join them.
For example, this project is similar to one our 6th grade social studies teacher and I would like to do: A U.S-based 6th and 8th grade social studies teacher whose course covers Europe, Latin America, Canada, and Australia is looking to connect with a class in a Latin American country to discuss its "culture, traditions, environmental issues, government, and/or any other interesting facts." Such an exchange of student and educator experiences and conversation can, at its best, become the foundation of a relationship between two classes that can continue to call on and help each other.
After teaching students how to use social networks and practice online safety, teachers can empower them to reach out and make their own connections online. Going this route will depend on the maturity of the students, but it opens up a world of potential learning and connections that would not otherwise be available. Whether students make connections through Skype networks or through Twitter, class blogs, or in professional settings, these introductions can develop into relationships where people feel comfortable conversing on Skype. Most of the people I talk to on Skype, I met first on Twitter, on LinkedIn, or at professional conferences.
I often hear the phrase "Technology is just a tool" and what effect it has depends simply on how you use it. To an extent, I agree. However, the other side is that technology can often make learning possible in new ways. The scope of knowledge and experience that becomes available to our students when we allow them to connect with people—both experts and other students—anywhere in the world is immense, especially when you're using Skype, which offers a real-time visual and audio interaction. Anyone with an Internet connection can potentially help our students.
As educators, we just need to open the doors for students and guide them in the technology and protocols so that they'll learn how to use technology tools responsibly and safely when they make them their own.
Jason T. Bedell is an instructional technology consultant and library media specialist at Belmar Elementary School in New Jersey. He explores how effective technology integration can deepen student learning and make the school environment more student-centered.
ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 12. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.