In these days of rising travel costs in relation to school trips, video conferencing can be a great way of connecting to classrooms across the world – or even just the school down the road.
Video conferencing brings the world into your classroom in real time. It can give children in different parts of the world to a glimpse of what life is like elsewhere, or facilitate collaboration on research projects with children thousands of miles away. Alternatively, it can be used to organise lively conversations with authors, where they can chat to the children about his or her latest book, and answer questions.
A Strategic approach
If you believe that video conferencing would be beneficial for your school, then before getting down to the specifics of what equipment to use, you should first build it into your school’s education technology strategy by addressing the following questions:
- How might video-conferencing enable us to achieve our vision for the children?
- How can we embed it into our curriculum? (It’ll likely never take off if it’s just seen as a ‘bolt-on’)
- How can we make it straightforward for everyone to use?
Identifying where in the curriculum video conferencing can be used isn’t difficult, but instead of looking at it through the frame of different subjects, view it instead as an opportunity for exchanging ideas, learning about other people’s cultures and collaborating with other children your class may never get to meet in person.
Ideas for inter-class conversations can include even seemingly mundane topics, such as having the children tell each other about their everyday lives. In one example we came across, the children in a school hundreds of miles from the sea were spellbound by the other class telling them about a beached whale they saw on their way to school.
Other topics could include local dishes, national dances or even historical events seen from a different perspective. Older children can collaborate with their distant classmates on mini research projects.
Still not convinced? Then check out the case studies of how thoughtful video conferencing benefited an elementary school in Texas and St Coleman’s Primary School in Northern Ireland, or the work undertaken in this area by Rotherham CLC and its local authority.
You could, if you wish, simply set up a computer or laptop with a webcam and a built-in or connected microphone, and access one of the communication services discussed below. This sort of arrangement is fine for one-to-one conversations and at a pinch, workable for limited one-to-many conversations – if you’ve asked a poet to address a small group of children, for example. However, if you want to create an experience whereby the children get to collectively ask questions from peers in a remote classroom, while ensuring the members of both classes can see everyone, then you’ll need to look into other solutions.
If you’re looking for something considerably more ‘high-end’, there are some wonderful possibilities out there. There’s Nureva), for example, which sells a speaker and microphone bar that can be used in conjunction with whiteboards and webcams to provide a very rich video conferencing experience. Why? Because the bar contains over 8,000 virtual microphones, enabling it to pick up sound from anywhere in the classroom. That way, even the children right at the back of the room will be able to contribute to the discussion.
Alternatively, there are the TruTouch screens produced by Genee World, which come with two wide-angle, high definition cameras that allow everyone in the classroom to be seen. The screens also feature a built-in omnidirectional microphone and front-facing speaker, and can be supplied with a pre-configured Genee PICO Mini PC to help you get up and running quickly. While all this comes at a price, it does provide you with a solution that should work out of the box and deliver great results.
Alternatively, if you belong to an organisation such as the London Grid for Learning, you’ll aleady have access to technical advice and supporting resources to help with video conferencing projects. It might also be worth checking with your LA or MAT to see what support they can provide.
You can use whichever video conferencing application you wish, of course, but non-educational platforms and applications tend to be costly, lack a community of educators who can help you, or both. Here are what will probably be the most practical choices:
Skype’s owner, Microsoft, maintains a thriving online community of educators dubbed ‘Skype in the Classroom’. You can find some interesting ideas for using Skype in your classroom at teachthought.com/the-future-of-learning/50-ideas-for-using-skype-in-your-classroom – some of the links may no longer work, but the ideas themselves are still valid.
A free video conferencing tool from Google that’s a good choice if your school uses Chromebooks, and one used by many educators looking to partner up with others. Look out for the Mystery Hangout community, where you can organise fun ‘guess where we are’ games that play in a similar way to Battleships.
If you’re an Apple school, and if your video conferencing partner is an Apple school too, then the iMac/iPad/iPhone supporting Facetime will likely be your best means of connecting with them.
If your school allows Facebook to be used, then the social media service’s Facebook Live video facility is very good. There’s a helpful post on using it in the classroom at Neil Jarrett’s EdTech 4 Beginners blog.
When it comes to finding partner schools, you have several options. The easiest way is to join an educational community associated with your platform of choice, such as this one in the case of Google Hangouts. Alternatively, you can try getting in touch with online education organisations such iEarn.
“Hello, can you hear us?”
Make the most of your school’s video conferencing with these guides, ideas and activities
- Redbridge Networked Learning Communities has developed a useful ‘video conferencing for learning’ matrix that can be downloaded as a PDF.
- A productive class video conferencing session will involve more than simply pointing a camera at your pupils and hoping for the best. This guide to classroom layouts from Jisc is worth a read.
- Why not organise a game of charades, or even mount your own theatrical production? You’ll find details of these and plenty of other ideas in this list of engaging video-conferencing activities.
Terry Freedman is an independent education technology consultant and writer.