A simulpost with the TechLearning Blog
The CEO sits down at his desk, slides a few reports into his top desk drawer and straightens pictures on the wall behind his head. Today, he's volunteering at a middle school and he never has to leave his desk.
Businesses bemoan the state of education and rightly so: they need a well-educated, capable, responsible work force able to solve problems and connect with the right people within their company to get things done.
Well, now, virtual tools are getting rid of their excuses for not volunteering. With free Skype, a webcam, and a headset, everyone from the CEO to the intern could potentially volunteer at almost any school around the world with a common language.
Well, I've seen the beginnings of "YouTeach" last week as my class interviewed nanotechnology expert, Earl Boysen.
I have a first cousin in college who is majoring in nanotechnology and I found nothing in our very up to date textbooks. So, after completing a chapter on computer hardware, my class researched and created a nanotechnology wiki for 70 minutes of class time. Then, using Skype, our class speakers, webcam, and a microphone, my rural Georgia USA classroom dialed up Mr. Boysen in California. (See more about my lesson plan.)
What resulted was an interesting discussion about their future which includes microscopic robotics and particles that could potentially be ingrained in everything from their clothing to their toothpaste. (Listen to the discussion.)
Then, Earl wrote a well researched article in his NanoTechnology now column where he states:
"I hope that other teachers who can make time in their class schedule and master some simple-to-use technologies will consider calling in outside experts via the Internet as one way around current limitations of textbooks and curricula."
It was an "ah-ha" moment of sorts that turned the wheels of my mind in a new direction. When I worked in corporate America, "the company" was always encouraging us to participate in the community, but then, we didn't really have the opportunity because it would usually take 2-3 hours out of our day to head down to a local school to speak. We didn't have the time to really volunteer.
Goodbye excuse, hello kiddies!
What if a visionary company decided to have each of their employees "volunteer" at a variety of schools around the world for 30 minutes once a month?
After the initial set up, it would be just 30 minutes, no more. And that area could be around the corner or in any remote place with Internet access and less than $2500 worth of equipment on site. (A PC, skype, mike, webcam, projector, and speakers.)
Knowledgeable experts in every field can now stop complaining about education and start contributing to education via these inexpensive, easy, connections.
Can we do this now? How can this happen?
Yes, you can volunteer now but I am not aware of any formal programs as of yet.
(There are some that use the expensive virtual conferencing set ups that are being used in many schools. We cannot afford it so we have to use the free VOIP software, Skype. But in many ways, Skype is better because I can stay in my classroom. I am sure there are other VOIP type programs out there that would also work, but Skype is what I use.)
So how will virtual volunteer connections be made?
These virtual volunteer connections are going to be made by the classroom teacher talking about butterflies who has a brother who is an entomologist across the country or the history teacher who has a buddy from college who works at the Smithsonian.
It is going to be some visionary CEO's who set the precedent and encourage their employees to "virtually volunteer" in their area of expertise. It is going to be visionary administrators who allow the installation of free services like Skype in their classrooms and set up methodologies to allow their classes to communicate and share with experts around the world. (We have designated places in each area of our technology curriculum for "state-of-the-art technologies." We should do the same for every subject and allow for "state-of-the-art information exchange" with experts and other classrooms.)
Here is what has to happen in the classroom to make such connections:
1 - Plan ahead, identify upcoming areas in your curriculum that could use augmentation and experts that you already know.
Do not be afraid of areas where you have no expertise, as in the case of my nanotechnology interview, I selected something I knew literally nothing about.
2 - Learn to use Skype
3 - Locate or connect with experts and teach them to use Skype.
Start by e-mailing them and start with people you know that will be patient with you while you work out the kinks.
4 - Prepare your class.
Make sure they have a basic subject knowledge which can be done easily with Internet research and an exploratory wiki where students post their findings. The expert can then review what students already know and see where they need to fill in the gaps. Don't expect the expert to "hold the class," after all they are not there, and it is your job. You should prepare the students for the information exchange and have them formulate questions in advance. Formulating critical questions requires them to grapple with the subject at hand and have understanding that can truly be built upon by an expert.
5 - Test the class Skype connection with a teacher in another classroom at your school.
Here is how I set up the hardware in my classroom:
There is a big difference between skyping individually and skyping in a classroom because of the potential enemy of any open mike -- Feedback. Feedback is the result of an "infinite loop" when a live microphone is put in front of its own speakers. It is that squeal that we hate. I tested a variety of methods but ended up having the classroom speakers turned up to full volume and had a handheld microphone that I held behind the speakers except for asking questions from the students. When the students asked questions, I set up the speakers so that their voices did not go through the speakers. When they finished, I took the mike back and our speaker answered the question.
I set up the webcam and pointed it at the class, not at me, and had the student asking the questions move up towards the webcam so our speaker could see them. The speaker's video was shown on the board via my projector so that the students could see his facial expressions and mannerisms. It was a very powerful experience.
6 - Do a test call with your expert.
Earl and I did this several days ahead of time. This is VERY important especially if they are just setting up skype. Working with the sound settings can be kind of tricky so you need time for that. (I recommend NOT letting Skype handle your sound settings automatically. You should both do it manually.)
If you're going to record with software like Pretty may, test that when you make the call.
7 - Conduct the Interview
Start promptly. End promptly, they are busy people. If you waste their time, they won't do it again. Remember the time zone differences, you may have to work with administration to have your class at an odd time to make the interview happen. (I had to switch my planning period for the student's Spanish class which was later in the day.)
8 - Follow up After the Interview
Business people like being thanked and an e-mail is great. But, if you have their permission, you should definitely write about the experience and post any media that you had permission ahead of time to record. Sometimes they may want to listen to it or have you edit it, work with them. Again, a bad experience will make them not want to work with you next year.
I even posted the interview on our school news blog so that our parents could listen to it. It is important to share information with the community at large, particularly information that is as cutting edge as nanotechnology -- they need to know about it too and you can become recognized for the cutting edge work that you are doing in the classroom.
Bring on the Army of Virtual Volunteers
We have a way to go before this is possible. Many bandwidth guardians are fighting skype because of the potential bandwidth drain (although if you look at the facts, it is less than many other services.) Some are afraid because teachers can make internet phone calls. (I use it to call parents.) As with any medium, Skype or any VOIP (voice over internet protocol) software can be used for good or for bad and schools must update acceptable use policies and antivirus protection to facilitate its use.
I believe that with the support of good administration and IT departments, responsible educators can use this for great good in their classroom. I believe that responsible businesses can help their employees have a rewarding experience that does not significantly impact their productivity but provides great rewards. (Not to mention the publicity of their company that comes from their employees popping up in virtual "youmercials" via class podcasts/videos around the world.) Just look at my husband wearing his business' name in the Flat Classroom video that won the best best video award. Actually, it wasn't intentional that he wore that shirt, he was on the way to work at 6 a.m. and it was urgent to get the video that morning! And no, I didn't pick the awards!
As educators, let's work together to augment our textbooks with appropriate ways to connect with experts in the subject area we teach. As a former president of my local chamber of commerce, I encourage business people to unite to positively impact the education systems you so desperately want to improve. Virtual volunteers unite!
"These are the best of times. These are the worst of times."
Dickens would again pen these words if he looked at education today.
For those willing to innovate, do the right thing, hire the best teachers and empower them, change their policies and IT support, and lobby for change at the highest levels of government, it is a rich, rewarding, exciting time of change. For those who hate change and want things to stay the same, the worst of times have only begun.
Miguel is encouraging his teachers to, are you?