Bored in School: Why Not Skype?

No, I am not suggesting that students should get on Skype with their friends instead of listening to their teacher. What I am suggesting is that teachers should get their students on Skype for educational activities. Why? So as to get them even more used to communicating solely through screens and computers? Not quite…

Most people know Skype as a useful tool to make cheap long distance calls or simply to add a video dimension to traditional phones. And that is precisely what Skype is. What most people do not realize is to what extent this can enrich students’ school experiences. Here are a few ways to give Skype an educational twist.

The first aspect of Skype which can be useful is the fact that it gives an inexpensive access to any other Skype user worldwide. This comes in handy especially in language classrooms as it allows conversation between pupils form different countries. Thus, teachers in a francophone environment giving English class simply need to establish contact with an anglophone school giving French classes, and then set up online meetings between their students. This modern version of pen pals offers the huge advantage of practicing conversation skills instead of being limited to writing. This doesn’t mean that it limits the contact to conversation; students can also be made to exchange e-mails, for example. Suzi Bewell, a teacher who experienced this in her French class, gives a good summary of how positive these exchanges can be in her article on TES, a network for teachers (a similar article by Stephen Manning is also available).

Aside from language input, communicating with classes from other countries is a great way to  get students to understand more about other cultures and realities. It can be used to make students aware of a lot of  the world’s problems, and Skype was even a tool in some campaigns led by the organization Peace One Day

At more advanced levels, Skype can be a simple and cheap alternative for getting direct contact with experts in any domain. For example, a teacher who would like to get a conference from a foreign scholar but does not have sufficient funds to actually bring him to school may be able to afford a live videoconference from this scholar, and an expert who refuses invitations because he is too busy to visit schools may still find time for a 30 minute online questioning period with students. Skype is a means of communicating with anyone, anywhere, and at anytime, so the possibilities it offers to schools are extremely vast.

Of course, Skype does not have to be used only so as to communicate with people outside of the school’s walls; exchanges between students can easily be set up. An example of this, proposed by Katie Lepi in an article published on edudemic, is to set up fake job interviews for students through Skype as a preparation for real-life ones. Teachers can also record Skype conversations between students and refer to them when evaluating conversation skills. Although Skype does not record conversations, it is easy to download free complementary software so as to achieve this.

As proposed in an article from Educational Technology and Mobile Learning, Skype can also be a good substitute for traditional after school homework assistance; students can take their regular bus and log on so as to receive help from their teacher or peers at home.

Skype is a cheap and very wide-ranging tool which can be a huge advantage for teachers willing to implement it into their classrooms. Although it may occasionally  interrupt calls or momentarily lose the image, it generally has very good sound and image and rarely lets you down. My suggestion to more wary teachers is that they elaborate a plan B in case Skype is struggling when they want to use it.



Facebook for Education: Making the Best of Students’ Realities

“Let’s use Facebook in schools.” Such a short sentence, yet such long shivers going down so many spines upon the mere suggestion that this Internet Demon be used for educational purposes. Surely this is pure folly, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

For all the dangers and the pitholes of Facebook, this site can become an incredibly useful tool if it is used correctly. This website is an intricate part of most students’ lives, and it is something which they know and enjoy. Thus, as pointed out in The Ultimate Guide to the Use of Facebook in Education, using this social network in classrooms allows one to meet students in a space which makes them comfortable and more receptive. Moreover, it means that school is bound to follow those pupils at home, for they are regularly on Facebook. This double effect means that Facebook can be used to get school and everyday life closer to one another.

Facebook can be a brilliant way to hand out information to students; whereas they nearly systematically lose any paper communication given to them and often avoid going on any virtual school portal they might have, students are bound to go on Facebook, and so they will certainly be aware if any news is posted in a class group or fan page. Although groups and fan pages offer slightly different options, which are well explained on Ronnie Burt’s blog, they can both be used to share information with students, be it assignments, publicity for a school event or simply anything that might be pedagogically interesting. Facebook’s main objective, which is to share information between users, is in itself another very useful aspect of the website. Any research project, book review or creative writing made by students can be shared with classmates, who can then read them and learn from other students.

Facebook also has countless apps, and for all of the useless and derisory ones, plenty can be used for educational purposes. From the pages of museums or politicians to the simplest of learning games, plenty of educational material can be obtained easily through Facebook. A long yet far from exhaustive list of these possibilities can be found on Teachthought.

Being on Facebook with students is also a good way to teach them how to use this tool safely and responsibly. If they friend their teachers, which students are generally eager to do, they may soon realize that what they post on Facebook is not entirely appropriate, and they might understand the importance of being discreet and more regarding to what they make public with this site. Teachers can act as role models online and help students make their pages safer. An article by Cheri Lucas suggests that friending students might be a bad idea for teachers because they do not necessarily act in the same way whether they are in school or outside of it. However, nothing stops a teacher from having a professional page under his real name and a personal page under any other pseudonym.

Friending students on Facebook, for all of its advantages, is also a huge responsibility for teachers. First of all, they must be aware that anything they post, like or comment will be seen by their students, and must therefore be school appropriate. Moreover, it expands the teachers’ social responsibility towards their students; teachers who read threatening, worrying or incriminating posts cannot close their eyes on such things, they must act so as to help or reprimand the concerned students. The same thing goes for any e-conversation with students.

Of course, using Facebook in classrooms is filled with potential traps and loopholes, and any teacher willing to go forth with this must be careful and well prepared. However, if he is, both him and his students will benefit greatly from the multiple facets of this worldwide social network.


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Interactive Whiteboards; A Quick Look at How They Can Change Schools

Relative newcomers to North American schools, Interactive Whiteboards are seen by many as revolutionary tools, as a salutary innovation for modern-day teaching. Others, however, are left wondering what exactly makes those boards so much better than a plain old whiteboard and a projector. This blog is an attempt to answer this question with a quick, simple dive into the realm of possibilities offered by IWBs.

Before even considering the interactive powers of such technology, one must consider how they make it easier for teachers to write more clearly on the board, as pointed out by R J Tolley in his article. Math teachers can make any geometrical shape appear, or create any graph  from their computer instead of drawing them with overly approximative lines and measures, while history teachers can create a clear and clean timeline and annotate it directly on the board. Those possibilities, along with mind-mapping, drawing tools, built-in maps and countless other applications, allow teachers to present well structured and designed material to their students directly on the board.

Moreover, IWBs offer the advantage of easily combining slides, videos and audio material and of allowing students to participate to problem solving directly on the board. This means that they make it easy for teachers to create hands-on, multisensory lessons, which, as pointed out by Annie Teich in her article on IWBs, is the best way to get students to learn. Things like interactive problem solving or virtual trips naturally tend to make the students more involved, more interested.

IWBs can also be used by teachers to save everything they write on the board. This way, a student missing class could easily be sent all of the examples or notes that were presented by the teacher. These notes can also be reused in a revision class, during which they can be annotated or modified, without any of these alterations being permanent. These possibilities are part of a long list presented in the following article.

Now amidst all this wonderfully positive information about IWBs I managed to gather, I happened  to stumble across an interesting blog article in which it was explained how a school in the U.S. was actually getting rid of its IWBs because they were not any use. This article explains that such boards are good for a “teacher speaks in front of the class” format, which must disappear from our schools, and that iPads or other such tablets are much more useful as they can be used by each student and can still be linked to an Apple TV when needed. This option may indeed seem good, but for schools which do not have the luxury of equipping each student with his personal tablet, my feeling is that IWBs are probably the best option available.

Of course, like any other innovative technology, Interactive Whiteboards have to be used wisely and to their full potential if they are to improve education in a significative manner. If they are used as mere projectors, then that is what they will remain, and the simple fact that they are new won’t do anything to get students more involved in their classes.

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iPads in school: Somewhere Between a Huge Leap and a Bad Drop

Three years ago, I finally graduated out of high school, a high school filled with incredibly heavy backpacks, belatedly printed reports cards and inexplicably long lunch breaks spent talking about every imaginable pointless subject with my classmates. This year, as a student teacher, I became one of those few people who decide to return to high school after those five rollercoaster years. What I found was quite different from what I had left; report cards are sent to parents via internet, and backpacks, along with lunchtime conversations, have been replaced by iPads. Good? Bad? Somewhere between those two, though exactly where depends on who you are talking to.

High school students generally aren’t the most academically motivated species one can find on this planet. Thus, seeing students eager to WORK on their iPads struck me as something very positive. Taking notes, drawing, reading, making a research, all of these activities seem to gain entertainment value when done on an iPad; the infamous “do we have to write this down?” has been replaced by the much less infuriating “can we take these notes on our iPad?” . As Ryan Faas wrote on (ok, this may sound biased, but he still has a point), “the iPad engages students in ways that no piece of school or classroom technology has ever done before.”

Aside from their motivating aspect, which is in itself a gigantic push towards the “Good” end of the scale, iPads are a very good tool for teachers who know how to use them; tons of educative apps are now available, and possibilities are endless. David Andrews, in an article published by The Guardian, gives a few examples of what can be achieved with iPads: creating comic strips with Strip Designer, preparing interactive lessons with Explain Everything, editing books with Creative Book Builder, the list goes on and on. And on again.

The size of iPads is also an important factor. As student Emily Winder very nicely pointed out, “I don’t have to lug around all my textbooks, I can take notes on it, I can do all my classes with one, size of a notebook”. There go the backbreaking backpacks, the overcrowded lockers and the ever-beloved “I left my book at home” excuse. However, this format also has its problems: while it is possible to have many printed books open at the same time, the iPad does not allow users to browse the internet, to read a textbook and to write a text simultaneously, which makes some types of projects more complicated.

From an academic perspective, the iPad is overall a great big plus. It motivates students and gives teachers some very useful tools. However, schools are not limited to academic objectives; somehow, somewhere within those walls, teachers are supposed to be taking children and modelling them into responsible, conscious and open-minded adults (or something along those lines, anyway). This year, upon returning to high school, I saw students that were much calmer than those I had known when  I was a student: no running, no shouting, no fighting. Just kids seated alongside one another, focused on their iPads all day long. And somehow, I wondered whether we really were doing them a favour. Whether running and shouting aren’t part of what a teenager has to go through.

One of schools’ biggest challenges is to keep up with society, to avoid being dropped behind between a dusty textbook and an antique blackboard. Another of those challenges is however to react to society’s misjudgments, to spot what goes wrong in the world and to teach students how to correct it. And the big question now has to be whether all this technology is not killing what Aristotle described as being a “social animal”. Technology is useful, and it must be used. But we must be careful how we used it.

As Albert Einstein once said, “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world”… well, you know how this ends.


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