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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How Are You Connecting Your Students with the World? Skype in the Classroom

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Nothing terribly earth-shattering happened the first time elementary teacher

Nonetheless, she knew she had found a digital tool she would use again and again to take learning deeper in her inquiry-based classroom. "When we hung up, my students said, wow --we just talked with kids in another state. And I realized, here was a way to open our classroom to the world," she recalls thinking.

Ever since, Venosdale and her students have continued bringing the world -- virtually -- to bringing their small community south of St. Louis. Through a project called KnowGlobe, they regularly talk with students on other continents, learning in the process about time zones, cultural differences, global weather patterns, and the state of education worldwide. If they come up with a project question that requires the expertise of an astronaut, space engineer, or Egyptologist, they ask their teacher to "tweet it out" and track down an expert for a Skype interview.

What caught my attention was the election project that Venosdale's students organized in November (with some artful facilitation by their teacher). Using Skype, Twitter, blogs, Google docs, and other digital tools, they coordinated a mock presidential election (#KidVote) that involved 30,000 students from all 50 states.

Timely Strategies

Venosdale's strategies for learning in the digital age are especially timely, with Digital Learning coming up on February 6. Here are a few highlights from our conversation -- via Skype, of course.

"Let kids lead." Venosdale uses an inquiry-driven, project-based approach for working with gifted students in third to sixth grade. "My kids are used to that sense of exploring. They want to know. They want to ask. They're constantly thinking," she says. "I'm careful to step back and listen to what they have to say. It sounds simple," she adds, "but it's not always easy for a teacher to do."

A student question was the spark for the #KidVote project. "People don't believe me that an idea from a student turned into this big thing," she says, but that's what happened. Her district has run its own mock presidential elections in the past, but a student suggested going bigger in 2012. "My students already think in a global way. They're used to connecting with other classes. It was natural for them to want to know how students in other states were voting."

Students set a goal of recruiting schools from every state to simulate the Electoral College. "I said OK," Venosdale recalls, "but it was a moment as a teacher when you think, I hope we can pull that off. I don't want to let them down." She got busy spreading the word on Twitter (via her own handle @ktvee), and using the project hashtag #KidVote. As teachers signed up their classes on a Google doc, Venosdale's students tracked where they were from and which states were missing from the list. Meanwhile, students connected with their peers in other states via Skype to talk about how election plans were unfolding in different communities. Schools also shared their election news on a project blog.

On election day, Venosdale's students operated as Election Central as schools from across the country reported their results. "They were like CNN reporters," Venosdale says. And just like the pros, they couldn't wait to dive into real-time data and crunch the numbers.

"Teach the right use of digital tools." Seeing how much her students learn with the help of technology, Venosdale admits she "cringes" when she hears about schools that block access to digital tools. "If we don't teach our students the proper way to use these tools, we're missing part of our job as educators," she insists. When her students were new to using Skype, for example, they came up with their own list of etiquette tips for how to handle themselves on a call. Venosdale says, "It covered the same things you would expect to see a person in business follow on an international call."

Start small. To help colleagues get started using a tool like Skype, Venosdale often steers them to #MysterySkype. It's a simple but powerful activity: Classes from two different locations ask each other questions to identify where their mystery partners are located. The simple framework for the activity "gives kids a purpose for what to discuss" during a Skype call. For teachers new to global classroom experiences, "it's a great way to get your feet wet."

Venosdale also encourages teachers to post projects on Skype in the Classroom and invite collaborators to join. More than 48,000 teachers are registered, and the number continues to grow. Teachers also can use the site to post requests for content experts from partner organizations to Skype into their classes.

Finally, Venosdale advises colleagues to use their own digital networks to reach out to potential collaborators. ("And don't get frustrated if nobody responds at first," she adds. "Be persistent!") It may take multiple tweets and outreach efforts to connect your kids with someone like Dr. Anita Sengupta, a NASA engineer who designs entry systems to land on Mars. Venosdale was lucky enough to arrange a Skype interview with her, and she knows it made for an out-of-this-world learning experience for her students. The day after their Skype call, a third-grader stopped into Venosdale's room to thank her for providing the chance to meet a real space scientist. As usual, she was listening carefully to what her student had to say. "To him, he had really met this scientist, even though they were never in the same room. That's pretty cool."

How do you connect your students with the world? What barriers have you faced when it comes to making the most of online tools for collaborative learning? Please share your experiences in the comments.

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