How Skype in the Classroom Is Helping Teachers

Cecily Healy

It's hard to believe, but school is almost back in session. Teachers around the country are getting back into the grind and looking for new methods to engage their students. One virtual learning tool that is transforming schools across the nation is Skype in the classroom.

I had the opportunity to sit in on a live demo a few months back and was blown away. It was amazing to see how technology is changing the way children think. Skype in the classroom (the capitalization is theirs) includes 400,000 educators and reaches 3-5 million people worldwide. I interviewed Wendy Norman, Head of Skype Social Good at Microsoft, on how Skype in the classroom is improving how teachers engage with their students.

What is Skype in the classroom? "Skype in the classroom is a free worldwide network connecting teachers and their classrooms with other classrooms around the globe and hundreds of guest speakers and field trips from every continent via Skype. And it's quick and easy to search for the perfect 'virtual resource' for a lesson," says Wendy.

"The network launched in 2011 after the Skype for Good team heard stories of teachers using Skype in their classrooms to travel thousands of virtual miles to meet a group of African penguins, see the view from the top of Mt. Everest, learn how math is taught in rural India vs. upstate New York, and foster year-long Skype Pals to facilitate project based learning initiatives with schools in other countries. We originally created it with a group of teachers and to this day all development and innovation are co-designed with educators around the globe," says Wendy.

How can teachers use this tool in their own classrooms? According to Wendy, teachers only need an internet connection, a webcam and a computer/smart board. "We find that even in the most rural or economically challenged communities, with just these three things, teachers have endless opportunity. For example, from just a single PC in the rural town of Mondamin, Iowa, which is an hour away from the nearest grocery store, teacher Gina Felton's class completed 100 Skype calls with other classrooms in North America to play a game called Mystery Skype and guess the location of their classrooms. Her students became global travelers, expert researchers and inquirers, and never left their classroom. Mystery Skype links two geographically distant classrooms. Each must guess the other's location by asking questions about culture, climate and customs," says Wendy.

Ready to take a virtual field trip? Budget cuts are a constant struggle for teachers, according to Wendy. "Virtual field trips are now viewed as the most efficient and impactful way to complement units about places and things that still exist or can be experienced in real time. Students can experience a guided tour over Skype of a museum, a national park or monument, a famous landmark, a concert or live performance," says Wendy. Wendy shares examples of how two teachers in remote school districts use the tool to connect their students with issues from around the world.

Gina Felton, a teacher based in Mondamin, IA, is the only fifth grade teacher at West Harrison Community School, a school that covers a landmass of 247 square miles with 329 students ranging from pre-K-12th grade. Before using Skype, Gina's students' only opportunity to get out of the classroom for a field trip was a nature hike at a local reserve. To date, her class has played Mystery Skype with over 100 classrooms in North America, connected with published authors living in NYC, and learned about the Holocaust from the creators of the Paper Clip Project.

Dyane Smokorowski, a teacher based in Andover Kansas, plans a virtual class visit to a high school in Tasmania, Australia to learn about their culture and collaborate on lessons covering geography, economics and mathematics this upcoming school year. After reading Treasure Island Dyane's students developed an interest in piracy, so she used Skype to develop a 10-week program highlighting intellectual property and piracy. Her students then had the opportunity to engage with guest speakers like the CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America to enhance the lesson.

How will Skype in the classroom enable teachers to do their job better and also have an impact on students? "Teachers can build whole units around Skype conversations with other classrooms or experts, designing projects they can collaborate on together for weeks at a time. Allowing for this kind of real-time, global expertise to come into the classroom, helps build more sensitive and aware global citizens. They are learning in the way they are living. A 24/7, real-time, constantly updated environment of social media and access to almost any piece of information in real time," says Wendy.

Wendy gives us an example of Boston-based social studies and global history teacher Kader Adjout.
"[Adjout] emphasizes the importance of exploring history from multiple perspective by using Skype with people from areas around the globe including Afghanistan, Germany, Israel, Egypt and more. His students learned about the Egyptian electoral system during that country's election, while a class of Egyptian students learned about the American system, and then they discussed the best electoral system. His students even debated with a classroom in Pakistan after the assassination of Osama bin Laden and discussed the right a country has to national sovereignty, and learned the perspectives that the Pakistani students had about the U.S. government." You certainly can't get that out of a classic textbook.

How is technology changing teaching careers? Teacher Mike Soskil, a Newfoundland, PA teacher who won the 2012 Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, says, "Using Skype in the classroom to forge global connections does more than just engage and motivate students who are growing up in this digital age. It inspires and reinvigorates teachers by reminding them of the very reasons they entered the profession - to make positive changes in the world and impact future generations. The power to easily connect students, teachers, experts, and amazing people from around the globe has revolutionized what a classroom can be in today's world."

What is the number one challenge teacher's face? Educator Dyane Smokorowski, 2013 Kansas Teacher of the Year and Instructional Technology Coach in Andover, KS says, "By using the Skype in the classroom community, I can now connect my students to expert scientists, authors, students in other countries, social activists, national park rangers, and more at absolutely no cost to me, and I can schedule those experiences to work just within the time frame of my class. Now students' questions are answered by experts in real time while building excitement and passion for the curriculum content. My students are becoming more curious, asking more challenging questions, and showing a love of learning that is contagious."

Skype helps working parents. "Teachers like Amy Rosenstein in Ardsley, NY use Skype for guest speakers, Mystery Skype and virtual field trips, but also use the platform to keep working and busy parents engaged in the classroom. Often times, only one parent can make it to parent-teacher conference night because the other is stuck at work. Some of her parents have opted to join 'in person' over Skype. She also encourages parents to visit the classroom over Skype as a modern take on Bring Your Parent to Work Day," says Wendy.

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