The past four months have seen me working remotely and from home. Not only has it meant more time with the family but it’s meant the technology has been essential to my ability to work, and I’ve put it all to extremely good use. I think I ought to write an update to my EdTechRations … ?

One item I could not be without is a speakerphone for the daily Skype calls I have. I’ve got a Jabra Speak 410 speakerphone and it means I can be natural and comfortable on calls, even walk around the room as we talk. I don’t need a headset which doesn’t limit me to where I can be. It’s compact and light so easily transport where I need to be and it has excellent microphone with no feedback. I’m a convert!

Obviously it’s not practical in an open office where you probably don’t want everyone hearing your conversation, but you can plug in earphones if you want, so I still use a headset for that, but it is fantastic as a conference phone – place it in the middle of the group of you and it picks up your voices from a good distance away, from all angles. You have the ability to mute the microphone if you want to stop sharing your audio (always useful if you want to converse privately before being open), change the volume if it gets too loud or quite (all done through something called the ‘digital signal processing’ technology).

It’s USB based and works easily on my Windows laptop and Mac desktop, integrates seamlessly with both Skype and Skype for Business, as well as nicely for Facetime on the Mac. What’s not to like?

Image source: Jabra website

5 Creative Ways To Use Skype In The Classroom

Creative Ways To Use Skype In The Classroom

The answer: in more ways than you could imagine. While Skype was not designed as an educational tool, it’s quickly becoming one as teachers discover the many ways it enriches their lessons and the lives of their students. Even something as simple as hosting a guest speaker through a video call can add excitement to a lesson.

As with any tech tool, it can seem daunting to introduce this into your classroom at first. If you don’t know where to start, try one of these five creative ideas.

1. Mystery Skype 

Spin this lesson as a game and you’ll have students on board right away. The idea is simple: connect with a class from another city, state or country and assign your students with the task of figuring out where the Skype class is located.

This has become a popular way to use this tool—so much so that it even has a name now: Mystery Skype—because it challenges your students in a variety of ways.

Get started with these four simple steps from Nicole Long, a language arts teacher who has Mystery Skyped with students in France, the United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland and all across the United States.

  • Set up a Google Calendar to track you sessions.
  • Compile student resources. “For the first session I compiled a list of resources and added them to the sheet; these resources provide tips on how to navigate Google Maps, a World atlas and a map of different time zones, among other things,” said Long.
  • Create and practice with sample questions.
  • Remind students to establish order for their questions based on the real-time information they learn about the other class: “Questions are only as relevant as the information you have,” explains Long.

Check out Using Mystery Skype as a Classroom Tool to learn more about Long’s experience and find out where you can connect with participating classes.

2. Guest Speakers

Guest speakers enhance nearly any lesson. “Though I may be confident in my teaching, I know that someone with expertise in a particular area will be better at communicating the subtleties of the topic from a position of authority. A guest speaker conveys current, realistic information and a perspective on a subject that is not available from textbooks,” says Patricia A. Mullins, from University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Skype allows you to bring guest speakers into the classroom, no matter where they are in the world. Use it to give your students an experience they wouldn’t have otherwise while adding an exciting and educational element to your lesson. Popular Skype guests include:

  • Authors
  • Computer science professionals
  • College professors

3. Parent Readers 

Many children come from homes with two working parents, and neither parent has time to be present in the classroom on a weekday. With Skype, however, they can join the classroom from their work desk. Here are a few ways you can invite parents into the classroom:

  • Start a Parent Read Aloud series that allows them to read a book to the class via Skype.
  • Invite a few parents to connect during student presentations or for a classroom party.

Remember: If parents are connected to watch a performance or presentation, be sure their microphones are on mute so noises from their office won’t distract students.

4. Foreign Language Learning

There are few better ways to learn a new language than to hear it from the lips of someone who speaks in the native tongue. With Skype you can have these speakers address your class, regardless of where they are. The benefits of adding this feature to your language lesson are many. For example:

  • Skyping with a native speaker brings the language to life.
  • Practicing with a native speaker is not something many students could experience without Skype.
  • Students can learn about non-verbal aspects of different languages, like gestures in the Italian culture.
  • Students can become the teacher, helping the other person (or students) learn English as well.
  • Native speakers will talk in their natural dialect, which can’t be fully experienced with a textbook.

5. Virtual Field Trip

Using Skype to take a virtual field trip is beneficial to your students in a two ways:

  • Many children will never make it to a foreign county in their life. This allows them to experience that without leaving town.
  • "Visiting” a place they’re learning about in class brings an entirely new perspective to the lesson and helps them get a feel for the culture.

Consider how these “field trips” can best enhance your lesson. For example, the cobblestone streets of Rome are much different from the streets most students walk in the United States. Skype lets them experience that.

Remember to do your research beforehand to find the location that best exemplifies the distinctive attributes of the location and go there. Visit Skype’s Cultural Exchange to find people who are willing to show you around these places.

Skype is quickly becoming a popular classroom tool, and for good reason: it’s a free tool with more uses than many premium programs. Consider where you can make space for this tool in your lessons and how it would be most beneficial to your students.

This post was first published on eLearning Industry.

Attendance vs Activity

The issue of teacher pay, pension, and working conditions is in the public arena again today as UK teachers go out on strike: “Thousands of pupils in England and Wales will miss lessons on Thursday as members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) walk out on strike.” – BBC News

And again the thorny issue of parents being fined when they take their children on holiday during term time is linked to the lost day(s) of teaching from the strike action -beautifully summed up in this News Thump (spoof news site) article: “As it is, when my child misses school I’m endangering their education and liable to a significant fine, but when they miss school due to a teacher’s strike it’s ‘in their best interests and helping their long-term future’.”

As someone who works in education, and a parent with children in early years schooling, I sympathise with both sides. But what I want to comment on is the issue of parents being able to take their children out of school for a family holiday during term time. I am sure that there are instances when it is not a good idea, e.g. before exams. But surely there’s something both the parents and the school can agree on for the benefit of the kids?  

If you look at it form the children’s perspective it’s more than likely an amazing opportunity for learning that the whole class can benefit from, not just the ones being taken out?

Here are some thought:

  • Mediterranean cruise

A two-week cruise around the Mediterranean? How amazing is that? With stops in different countries and cultures the kids could have a mini project to bring back to school and share/present. They could collect pictures, guides, etc. of famous places, learn 5 new words or a new phrase each day from the different languages they encounter, video themselves chatting with a local (buying bread, ordering lunch, etc.). Bring back a menu from a cafe from each place they visit and compare design, language, pictures, what people eat, what’s available, etc..

  • Road trip

Doesn’t matter where this is, Scotland or US Route 66, each town and district has it’s own tourist traps or local sites of interest. Different forms of transport and why – camper vans, UVs, motorbikes, buses, etc. What changes along the journey – between towns, districts, countries? Did you shop for food or catch your own (if so, how and what)?

Attendance vs Activity

  • Camping

Whether it’s at a New Forest campsite, the Australian Outback, the Grand Canyon, or deepest Mongolia, there is an experience for the children. Learning about fauna and flora, learning about what’s safe to eat / touch and what isn’t, learning about cooking and preparing food, learning about siting the tent and fire, etc. are all new experiences in a new location.

  • Beach holiday

Even a simple beach holiday has potential for children to learn about the culture and country they’ve travelled to. Package holidays will have day trips to local sites of interest … so go on them, work out what they are and what kind of activity can be used and brought back to the class when you return. Different beaches have different types of sand – why? Are there cliffs or a gentle slope to the beach – why? How did the beach / inlet / harbour form – and why?

Oh, and there’s nothing wrong with taking school work (books, activity sheets, homework, etc.) in your luggage for the evenings. It may not be popular with the kids but it’ll also make sure they keep up with what the kids would have doing if they’d still been in school.

You’ve probably noticed I hadn’t mentioned technology so far? If you go away you’ll probably have a camera with you, if not smart phone. You use them on holiday for family pictures and video so why not have a purpose for a learning or classroom activity? Film and document something, keep a video diary, etc. But what about if you have reliable Internet access? Oh, how amazing! Use Skype to call the class and show where you are, what you’re doing, who you’re with. Live blog the theatre. Upload pictures and video to your class blog and get students at home to direct you on what they want to see tomorrow. The possibilities here are endless.

Obviously these activities can be aimed at something that matches to the subjects or themes the children are working on at the time of the holiday, but instead of punishing parents why not engage with them to make the time away from the classroom better and more stimulating for the children by bringing the world to life around them. And when they return they can share their experiences with the whole class / school so it means something far more important to far more people.

I know that in the coming years I will want to take my boys on holiday and, with finances very tight, doing this during term time is the only way to get somewhere different and far away. I will be open with the school and I will tell them what I’m doing. I will also expect them to help me utilise this experience so both my boys, in their different classes and at different ages, benefit from the time away. If possible I’ll also love the idea and opportunity of doing something to enhance the class they leave behind for the week or two.

In short … parents should not be fined or punished for taking their kids away during term time. Every journey those children take has something that could be used in a learning experience, we just need to work together (parents, schools, education authorities) to find it and make the most of it!

Please let me know what you think, what you’ve done, and how you did it, below.

Update: It seems there are two barriers to this ‘approved absence’ I have talked about – school attendance records and school league tables / Ofsted inspections. Children are either marked as in attendance or absent from school. These figures are used in the school league tables and as part of the Ofsted report. If, and this is a big if, the attendance record could be updated to include, say, up to 10 days per year approved absence (for medical appointments, holidays, etc.) without impacting the league tables and Ofsted reports then could this work? If there is a way to not necessarily encourage absence but not punish it either, and a way that includes the school in the activities and helps build community spirit around the school (let’s face it, if the school is going to fine or punish parents it’s not going to create a caring or giving community is it?) then would it work?

Image source: Death Valley Camping (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

‘Anyone who doesn’t love Twitter is an idiot’

These are not my words (although I may agree with them)!

In February I wrote about my experience of Twitter and how it has changed the way I work, think, and look at myself – Where would I be without Twitter. In it I looked back over 5 years, 24,000 tweets, +7000 followers, etc. I acknowledge it’s impact on my personal and professional outlook, some good and some not so good.

Dan Snow, the presenter and historian has gone further than me and pinned his thoughts on the use of Twitter in The Guardian article
‘Anyone who doesn’t love Twitter is an idiot’. Dan explains that, for him, the use of the Internet (including Twitter and other social tools) has brought otherwise lengthy or geographically inaccessible primary sources into easy access:

“Digitisation of archives means we can search records and primary source material from the comfort of our own offices … a perk of the job used to be that you could travel abroad and work in an archive somewhere quite glamorous for weeks on end. Now we stay at home and do it online. For me, though, even more exciting is how it has allowed us to reach out to people. It’s made history collaborative and accessible. I can tweet about what I’m working on, and people will suggest ideas or come up with documents. It has opened a pipeline between geeky history people like me and the rest of the world. We used to just publish in academic journals, now we can share our research with huge numbers of people.”

Our ability, through Twitter and other social networks, to connect quickly and easily is a game changer (as they say). For teachers this is bringing the subject not only to life but breathing authenticity and originality into subjects that has just not been possible before …  connecting children from different sides of the world through tools like blogs, wikis, messenger, Skype, etc. to learn about and from each other about their different cultures, background, religions, abilities, etc. as well as the similarities of their likes, hopes, dreams! It is a power we’ve never had,.

“Anyone who doesn’t love Twitter is an idiot. They’re being a ridiculous Luddite or taking a stance. Twitter is a way of filtering the news. You tailor your own timeline so who you follow reflects your interests. Mine is populated by politics and history. It’s a phenomenal news service, far better for me than any conventional news outlet because I built it myself. I’ve made new friends on Twitter, interacted with some incredible people, had some of my most satisfying professional experiences and found out lots of fascinating things about the world. It’s been a hugely enriching experience.”

I, like many, have the same discussions with academics about Twitter … “it’s all about coffee and celebrities!” is the common theme I hear. Trying to explain that it is what you want it to be is hard to do. Even going online and getting interactions going and showing the power of Twitter live and in the raw only goes some way to showing and highlighting the power of the network. It is only over time and with prolonged use that the real power can be seen and felt.

I am a huge fan of the 10 Days of Twitter programme from Helen Webster, and am really pleased to see so many other institutions implement and explore this as an approach to informing and engaging enthusiastic and reluctant academics in the advantages (and considerations and disadvantages) of using Twitter for research, connections, teaching, etc.

What are your thoughts about Twitter (and other networks)? Has it opened your eyes to possibilities otherwise unobtainable, or has it proved too much of a distraction?

Image source: Necklace (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)