Making Video-Conferencing More Than Just Cool

If you are going to use video-conferencing in your classroom, it can’t just be to chat with someone. Back when Christian Long was an active Twitterer he said it like this:

“It is NOT good enough to simply say, “My 2nd graders in Anytown, USA Skyped a classroom in 4CornersOfGlobe.” That’s cliche, NOT innovative.”

I agreed then, but have recently modified my thinking somewhat.

First,  Skyping for a few minutes or so to get your “feet wet” and making sure the connection works and everyone knows how things work has always been a good idea. I still do that especially if the other person / classroom has never Skyped before. Sometimes just the other teacher and I, but sometimes the class will touch base for a few minutes. It builds confidence in the technology and gets that initial experience out of the way. Think of it as passing out the math manipulatives and allowing students to play with them a few minutes before actually using them in the lesson.

Typically when we video-conference I know about it days or more ahead of time. We are usually Skyping to share info about a topic  we’ve been studying or to work on a project so students are engaged in learning activities before the conference that include speaking up, practicing their parts, and editing material beyond just the content we’ve been learning. This is akin to having students give oral reports and I’ve learned the hard way that students don’t come knowing how to do that well. So we practice small excerpts of their presentations and critique them.

This is the kind of work that adds to the time it takes to do project based work and puts many off doing project based work. If you skip these important parts it is like doing a class play by going over things once and then putting on the play in front of a large audience … how comfortable would you feel doing that? I find incredible value for my students though in practicing  language skills that are actually  based on the skills they will use the most later in school and in life.

During these preparation periods students often find that they have left gaps in their explanations that would make it impossible for others to understand … by hearing each other you are able to note those gaps and students get better and better at making their writing more informative. It also teaches them to read that way –  When students are language deficient they often don’t understand that they are suppose to piece all the information they read together to make sense.

Video-conferencing sessions are fantastic experiences for them because those issues come up often and they get tons of practice clarifying and writing for understanding which means as a teacher you can use that experience to teach them about READING for understanding the same way.

Depending on the exact reason for and nature of the video-conference we are doing then, we use some or all of these techniques to get ready. This sets the students up to learn not just content, but the language skills they tend to be so lacking in, as well as 21st century learning skills we are all getting used to.

Last, but not least, I have students take notes, and formulate questions to ask to clarify what they are hearing. Finally when the video-conference is over I often have students write about what they learned or what happened.

So what does this have to do with the original topic of this post … the Skyping a classroom just to share a bit of information? If when it is done students are debriefed and information is archived somehow – notes, class brainstorm, class discussion – and especially if students share about places or events common to their area during the conference I think it is a valuable use of time. Students are learning to communicate effectively while learning about a different geographic area and culture.

From a teacher’s point of view your are not having to arrange transportation, or take time to travel even to another class in your own building (5 minutes or so), there is little set-up, Skype is an easy download and install, and making the connection is as easy as making a regular phone call. So as with the use of any classroom manipulative, video-conferencing is valuable when students are briefed and debriefed and then something constructive is done with the learning so students process it at some level.

Learning is messy!

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