An easy call: Classrooms connecting worldwide with Skype

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Victor Villegas is a fifth-grade teacher in Irving, Texas. His 22 students mostly come from poor, struggling families whose first language is Spanish and whose way forward to college or careers is not certain or easy.

But Villegas sees technology as a great equalizer: with only an Internet connection, a very wide world is within his kids’ reach.

“I love everything about technology,” says Villegas, who’s in his mid-30s. “I love learning about it and incorporating it into my life.”

In October, he got on a teacher-exchange board called Skype In The Classroom and posted a message proposing a collaborative math project: His students were learning division and problem-solving skills. Were any other teachers out there interested in having their students join in?

There were.

He soon heard from elementary-school teachers in Tampa, Mexico City, and London.

Since then, he’s been in touch with all of them by email, working out details of connections and time zones. The first collaborative class will meet via computer video hookup, Villegas hopes, before winter break.

Making this possible is a remarkable initiative from Skype, the Luxembourg-based company that provides inexpensive computer-based phone calls and video communications. Having learned that teachers around the world were improvising with Skype to expand the world for their students, the company launched Skype In The Classroom in March 2011 to make it easier for teachers to link up with one another and with experts who could conduct virtual field trips or virtual career days.

“We heard they were doing amazing and interesting things,” Andrew Schmidt, Skype’s director of social good, said by telephone, “and we wanted to make it easy for them to find other teachers.”

A year and a half later, more than 43,000 teachers have signed on in more than 200 countries, their largest numbers in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil and India. They’re proposing collaborations like Villegas’, but also offering 3,600 live lessons in 66 languages.

A quick look around the site gives an idea of the range.

Heidi Hutchinson, who teaches fourth grade in Baltimore, wants her class to discuss tolerance and understanding of other cultures with three other classes from around the world. Hanaa Khamis, an English teacher in Egypt, wants her adult students to discuss food with students from other countries. The Cotswold School in England wants its 11- to 13-year-olds to discuss the different ways that Christmas is celebrated around the globe.

On a video on Skype’s website, Kara Cornejo, a fifth-grade teacher from St. Louis, tells how she used Skype to find classes from far-flung places to talk about weather around the world.

“You know, not everyone has tornados like we do,” she says on tape.

It only took a minute to hear from another teacher after she posted her request for a collaboration, she continues. And she soon found four more teachers to join in. Skype, she concludes, “was an amazing resource” for bringing people “into your classroom that you never would have been able to bring in.”

In Norway, a teacher named Ann tells on video how her 11th-graders answered questions about the Vikings from a fifth-grade class from Kansas.

“My students were so excited,” she says, “and afterwards, the teacher wrote back and said that it was the neatest thing ever. They were so excited and they would never forget that experience. That was really fun for us.”

In rural Lodi, north of Madison, Wis., high school students are taking an accredited Asian cultural studies course with a Thai teacher, Karnteera Ingkhaninan, who speaks to them over Skype from Thailand. In exchange, Thai students are learning about U.S. history from a retired Lodi teacher.

“We’ve learned a lot about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, political organizations and government structures,” Garit Schmidt, 16, a junior, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Schmidt, the executive in charge of Skype In The Classroom, said the platform has expanded to include experts who have some special knowledge they offer for free. And 13 “partners” — organizations that have opened their virtual doors to interested students.

Thus, kids can speak Mark Wood, a British explorer, about his travels to the North and South Poles and what those tell us about climate change. Or Yellowstone National Park rangers. One day in October, Shaquille O’Neal, the NBA superstar center, spoke to 600 Indiana students about the importance of reading.

Guides from the Royal Naval Museum will a guided tour. Children’s authors from Penguin Books will talk about their works. NASA scientists offer lessons in aeronautics and pulsar algebra.

“I’ve sat in as a fly on the wall for some of these lessons,” Schmidt said. “It’s amazing, the learning experiences the students are having. It makes me want to go to school again.”

Unlike watching an instructional video, students get the chance to see and hear someone speaking to them live and to ask questions. In turn, the speakers can see the students they’re addressing.

“I’ve been quite impressed by the level of the questions, the curiosity,” Schmidt said.

Skype has no idea how much larger the teacher network might get, but the attitude is: the bigger the better. “We believe we’re right at the start of this,” Schmidt said.

It’s branching into education in other ways as well. This week, it’s offering $10,000 in technology products from Microsoft (Skype’s parent company, since 2011) to a teacher who writes the most impressive short essay on how they’d use the gift certificate to help their classrooms. (Deadline for entries: Midnight, Dec. 9)  Oh, the winning classroom also gets a phone call from Santa.

For Villegas, turning to Skype was an easy call. He’d used the technology in his own life for conference calls. When his school district required him to create a computer-based lesson for his fifth-graders, he naturally wondered if the same distance-conquering properties could help his students.

Hence, the plan to hook up classes to learn math together. His idea is for teachers to set things up, but let the kids teach each other. “When kids explain things to each other, it’s the best,” he said by telephone the other day. “One, they have understand it. Two, they retain it longer.”

“I talked to some of the kids about it,” he said, “and they got really excited. They wondered if they could get their own Skype accounts.” They couldn’t, but their parents could. And now four of his fifth-graders have their “own” Skype accounts,

“So now they’re getting on Skype after school and doing their homework together,” said Villegas, who’s in his fourth year of teaching.

What’s more, they’re inviting classmates who lack computers at home to come over to their houses to join in the video sessions. Which, from his viewpoint, is great. One, they’re getting their homework done. Two, they’re teaching one another.

“As a teacher, I asked myself: What more could I ask of my students?” Villegas marveled.

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Posted on December 4, 2012, in Innovation, Philanthropy, Teaching, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Wendy Castillo-Garza

    I know Victor Villegas and he loves being a teacher and do anything to get the children a better learning experience. He brings hope to all the children that come into his classroom.

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