EDTECH CHALLENGE | by Jesse M. Langley
Months before Skype in the Classroom became a regular, endorsed tool— teachers were flocking to the video calling program. Teachers, like the innovators they are, set up websites where they could connect with other teachers and post the projects they’re working on. The problems, of course, were security concerns and the fact that there weren’t always enough people interested in the project.
As teachers became more aware of what was happening, Skype caught on to the project, too. It doesn’t take much of a history lesson to figure out why: Skype is trying to catch a second wind. It’s never done poorly, but competitors are flooding the market and they need to stay relevant. The company has changed very little since it debuted in 2006. Since its sale to Microsoft, emoticons have been updated, a stabilizer has been added, and the interface has been changed to work seamlessly with Facebook.
Function, however, remains the same. You can video chat, send files and send SMS texts. There isn’t much in the way of actual computing. Of technologies, it’s a blank whiteboard instead of a worksheet. The magic happens because of users, not because of the program.
The question, then, is why Skype in the Classroom is so important. If Skype isn’t actually offering anything to facilitate educating children, why have 17,351 teachers flocked to it since its December premier?
The answer, of course, is as simple as the question. They’re joining it to connect. They’re connecting their classrooms, and they’re connecting to each other. Like the best of answers, though, there’s more beyond the surface.
Skype in the Classroom highlights flaws in the education system by giving teachers a way to work around them. Teachers aren’t embracing technology because schools don’t have the resources to train them.
One of the worst things a teacher can do is lose control of a classroom, and that happens far too often when teachers are fiddling with remotes and trying to figure out unfamiliar interfaces. Skype is prone to technical errors due to connection speeds, but it’s nothing that requires a teacher to spend precious classroom moments to fix it. In addition to that, the network that began on Skype can easily be used as a sort of overnight help desk. Teachers are in a tough position since their equipment is often field-specific, and the only person they can get help from is the one systems admin their school may or may not have, or a fellow teacher who may be too busy to explain things. Add to that the political situations that crop up in schools, and you may have a teacher who feels too isolated to ask for help. Thus, expensive programs go unused and kids are staring at a projector screen and blackboard.
The network itself holds so much potential if more teachers join it. There has never been a teachers-only social network. There has never been a way for a teacher in Minnesota to talk to a teacher in Wales with a certain amount of assurance that neither party was lying. There has never been a way for teachers to collaborate on projects.
The projects tab is huge. Schools in one area are slow to collaborate because they’re competing. We don’t like to think of it that way, but in many areas, asking schools to collaborate is like asking the manager of Dunkin’ Donuts to go have a nice chat with the guy from Starbucks about company policies. Because the funding all comes from the same place, it isn’t quite as aggressive as a retail market, but the competitive spirit is still very much alive. With Skype, teachers can collaborate without defecting. They can do what Kara did and get information on the weather from around the world. The possibilities are endless. Instead of trying projects to fit across grade levels, schools can reach out and work with peers.
Another part of it is that teachers can get inspiration from other teachers. A symbiotic relationship among teachers is rare. The job market isn’t good enough to give someone else your ideas, and the structure doesn’t really support it, anyway. What someone does in a third grade class can’t exactly be repeated in sixth grade. In addition to that, teaching is stressful. Many teachers are dealing with children in bad home environments, struggling with how to best help students with learning disabilities and they may even not know how to challenge gifted kids.
Having the Skype network as a place where they can go for ideas and create relationships with other teachers is incredibly vital to their work. For something that has been so difficult before, it’s completely necessary for teachers to have. The Department of Education and state/federal grants mandate standards, but there is no one telling teachers how to do their incredibly difficult jobs. There is a four-year degree, but there is no instruction manual. Teachers need to be able to reach out and talk to other teachers for support and ideas.
Skype is also the ultimate leveler when it comes to education. The technology itself is free and can work on anything from a smartphone to a netbook to an expensive laptop. The network is providing the same huge advantage to every single teacher in the world. It’s technology like this that will change the face of education and online training. It’s the free, easy-to-use, intuitive technology that will help us shape our children’s’ future. When we continue to innovate with free technologies, we’re building up the entire education system to where it needs to be.
Schools are going to benefit from iPads and apps and interactive white boards. But not every school will. Any teacher with a single computer can use Skype for their lesson planning and to expose their students to different cultures, and that’s the beauty of it.
Jesse M. Langley is a contributor for EdTech Digest covering challenges educators face integrating technology into education and solutions that make sense. Write to: [email protected]