Classroom Technology

Using Video Conferencing Technology for Collaborative Learning

June 5, 2015         Updated June 4, 2015

Students Looking at a Tablet
I'm a San Marino High School (CA) social studies teacher who has increasingly sought to connect students in my US Government, World History, and US History classes with the “world-at-large” using video conference technology.

Over the past twenty-four months of experimentation, I have learned that video conferencing technology can provide any/all students with a highly rewarding, innovative, and engaging experience that empowers them to connect to their own learning process. My students connected via video conference with:

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  • People in the news
  • People discussed in our textbook
  • Book authors and/or journalists
  • Museum curators and/or staff
  • Subject matter experts
  • Students from other schools
  • Adults willing to hear student end-of-term presentations

Also, this technology is not just for the benefit of the high school social studies student. It spans across all all grade levels and all subject areas, including science, math, etc. It is also conducive to the special education classroom. All benefit from this.

For best results, I suggest using the video conferencing technology listed below:

  • A computer or laptop (rather than a tablet, ipad or iphone)
  • A monitor (preferably a projector and large screen)
  • A webcam (preferably an external, wide angle camera)
  • A microphone (preferably a tabletop microphone)
  • External speakers
  • Google+ Hangouts, Zoom, or Skype
  • Good bandwidth (DSL and cable connections as well as T1 lines are excellent options for video-conferencing connections, though fiber-based connections to the internet will significantly improve the quality of the interactions.)
  • Cabling to the Internet (rather than connecting wirelessly)

I also suggest formatting the video conference similar to that of a television talk show where:

  • The host, preferably a student, opens the video conference by asking a number of introductory questions of the guest(s) before giving the students in the host’s class a chance to ask questions of their own.
  • The video conference should last no more than a hour, as most individuals are willing to commit to a one hour time frame. (If you teach multiple periods of the same course, you can simply brief the other classes on the details or alternately, you could videotape the video conference and then share it with your other periods.)

To ensure that the host and audience members ask the guest(s) high quality questions during the video conference, teachers should do the following:

  • Conduct internet research to learn as much as possible about your guest, then draft a number of questions for students to ask based on what you learned on the internet and what was covered in class.
  • Share the questions you’ve drafted with your students, soliciting student volunteers to ask one or more of the questions.
  • Give your students the opportunity to create questions of their own. I prefer to have students show me their questions to be cleared for approval (this is just a personal preference and subject to your discretion).

Above all, I highly suggest working with your school's technology staff well ahead of the scheduled video conference to ensure that all the technology works as it should. The SMHS/SMUSD technology staff has provided immeasurable support in this regard.

For a brief description of the video conferences my social studies students have benefited from over the past two years, please see the examples below.

Names in the News

Patrick Paschall - the Hyattsville, Maryland City Council member mentioned in a 2015 Washington Post article entitled "Hyattsville Becomes Second U.S. Municipality to Lower Voting Age to 16". Mr. Paschall described the Hyattsville City Council decision in detail and - in response to a question - helped my students strategize how best to convince the San Marino City Council to adopt a similar measure.

Names in our Textbook

Mary Beth Tinker - the petitioner in the 1969 Supreme Court case of Tinker v. Des Moines, a case in which the court ruled that Warren Harding Junior High School could not punish Ms. Tinker for wearing a black armband in school in support of a truce in the Vietnam War. The case - which is mentioned in most US Government textbooks - set a precedent for student speech in schools. Aside from describing the case, Ms. Tinker answered questions such as:

  1. Did you ever receive any hate mail for having had your name connected to the case?
  2. To what extent do you think schools should be able to punish high school students for their off campus, online speech?
  3. We read online about something called Tinker Tour USA. What’s that?

Book Authors and/or Journalists

Jonathan Eig - Jonathan Eig is the author of “Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season.” Mr. Eig not only told the students about his book, but also addressed questions such as:

  1. What was the hardest and the best part about writing this book?
  2. If your book were to be turned into a movie, who would you want to see cast in the main role?
  3. What’s the title of your next book?

Subject Matter Experts

Christina Fahad - a Burbank High School mock trial teacher-coach, who’s especially known for her ability to teach the 'hearsay rule'. She teaches it in such a direct way so the students grasp the concept. The goal of this video conference was to give my school’s mock trial team, - which I coach - a chance to learn the 'hearsay rule' from Ms. Fahad’s perspective as an addition to my instruction on this topic.

Museum Curators and/or Staff

Susana Bautista - the Director of Public Engagement at USC Pacific Asia Museum (Pasadena, CA). For this video conference, Ms. Bautista provided my students with a tour of the museum’s 'Ikko Style Exhibit', which highlights the work of master Japanese graphic designer Tanaka Ikko from the postwar period. It reflects on how Japan was changing during this critical time and how Ikko was central to helping form that new image.

Students From Other Schools

Students from CAMS (California Academy of Mathematics and Science) - For this video conference, students enrolled in one of the Academy’s US Government courses (taught by Mr. Gene Almeida) and took on the role of the US Congress. The students in my US Government class took on the role of citizens wanting to amend the US Constitution. The goal of the students in my class - to convince 2/3rds or more of the students in the CAMS US Government course to vote in favor of the proposed amendment.

Adults Willing to Hear Student End-of-Term Presentations

Judith McConnell - a California Appellate Court Administrative Presiding Justice for the 4th District. For the sake of this end-of-term (video conference) presentation, Justice McConnell presided over a mock US Supreme Court hearing with one student in my class serving in the role of petitioner and another student in my class serving in the role of respondent.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.