Over the past decade, high speed internet connectivity and local area networks (LANs) have become available at the institutions our members work in. This internet capability has allowed a number of technologies to flourish and support the educational process and the students we serve. Older technologies that were expensive and complicated have been replaced by newer internet based tools that can be used cheaply and easily.
One such technology is video conferencing – also known as video chat. In the past, expensive systems were installed in specialized rooms to allow students to communicate via sight and sound with other students and resources in distant locations. Many schools utilized this form of “distance learning” to allow students to take courses with low enrollments in a cooperative fashion. For example, if only a handful of students wanted to take a foreign language class a school could not offer, they could attend a virtual class with other students from other schools to create a full class with a remote teacher. This was especially prevalent in smaller schools – especially rural ones. NYSUT currently uses this technology to connect with new members across the state to help them navigate the teacher certification process.
By now you’ve probably seen Cisco commercial featuring actress Ellen Page. In this ad she visits a classroom that is going on a virtual field trip to visit students in China – courtesy expensive video conferencing equipment from Cisco. This type of equipment is amazing, but not necessary. You may already have the tools you need to allow the same type of video conferencing from your workplace, or can obtain them for very low cost.
If you have access to a computer and an inexpensive webcam ($30 – $100 for the HD version) you can connect with other computers around the world. Many newer laptops have this camera built in. The Apple MacBook Pro models come with these cameras, as do many Dell PC’s and computers from other vendors. Software is available for free, and many educators are using Skype on their Windows and Macintosh computers to provide this learning tool. Educators are using Skype many ways, including allowing students to video chat with book authors, go on virtual field trips, practice language skills with native language speakers, learn from guest lecturers, and demonstrate science experiments. Check out this article to get some ideas on the many ways teachers are using Skype in the classroom.
Many of the educators using Skype are creating online communities so they can connect with each other to work together in their classrooms. Various websites and services exist to make the task of finding other teachers and classrooms easy. One such company, called ePals (http://www.epals.com/) has listings from all over the world and includes a profile on each classroom that wants to connect so you can find a match.
Using Skype is not difficult, and it does not require a special room, only a computer connected to high speed internet, a webcam, and speakers and a microphone. There are many training videos and other online resources available to show you how to get started with Skype and use it in your educational setting.
If you are using Skype, please comment on this article online so we can learn more about how you use it!