Unless you work in a Waldorf school where smartphones are banned, chances are you’ve seen your students video chat with friends when their time might be better spent working on homework. Video chat can, however, support classroom learning. It’s not impossible.
Video technology has changed quite a bit in the past 10 years. When my father taught video production at the high school level, he used custom-built desktop computers and always was struggling with the technology. Now every student has a video camera on their smartphone, they can edit video from an app, and video chat is a commonplace activity enabled by Facebook, Skype or other services.
My father needed technical skill when he used video in his classroom, but now the game has changed. Every teacher can take advantage of video, even those who are not technologically savvy. Students are using video for social purposes, and teachers should be using it for instructional gain in the classroom, too.
Here are five ideas for making video chat an educational aid, not just a distraction.
1. Collaborative Learning with Other Schools
Students love socialization, and they love video. We know this. As teachers, we can harness these twin loves by using video chat to connect our classrooms with students and classrooms in other parts of the world for collaborative learning.
Connecting with classrooms in other parts of the world brings excitement to the classroom activity and engages students with other cultures. For instance, St. Thomas the Apostle, a West Hempstead, N.Y. private school, worked with the nonprofit Global Nomads Group to connect its students with a classroom in Ghana. The students in the U.S. talked about what it meant in the U.S. for the country to have its first African-American president, and the Ghanaian students talked about their country’s first democratic election and what that meant to them. This made discussion much more lively for St. Thomas students.
2. Frequent and Higher-Profile Guest Speakers
Inviting guest speakers into the classroom is rewarding but challenging; scheduling can be tricky, and snagging the right person for the lesson at hand isn’t always possible. Video chat can make it easy to both secure and schedule guests for the classroom.
Enterprising teachers can use the flexibility of video chat to invite high-profile speakers such as NASA astronauts or international guests such as K-Pop celebrities into the classroom for a wow factor and new perspectives. They also can partner with organizations such as the Museum of Tolerance to coordinate guest lectures.
A word of caution, though: Make sure you factor in network connectivity so your guest doesn’t get interrupted by a bad video signal.
“Connecting with speakers on the other side of the world is one of the best classroom opportunities today,” noted Tony Zhao CEO of video communications company Agora. “But make sure you are prepared for weak connections in areas that don’t have reliable internet infrastructure.”
Connectivity issues can be an issue, especially if you’re using video chat software that relies solely on the public internet, where network issues can result in video that is blurry, choppy or just doesn’t work correctly when speaking with an international guest. Have a conversation with your school’s admin about trying new software solutions that were made to deal with these connectivity issues, such as Agora.io’s managed video chat network that routes around bottlenecks. These conversations should center around the value and prestige that high profile speakers can bring to the school.
3. Virtual Field Trips
Showing is always better than telling, and video chat can be used for taking students on field trips without the hassle of dealing with parent permissions, transportation and meal costs, or safety issues.
There are many virtual field trip opportunities for classrooms today. One example is the Ohio’s Center of Science and Industry videoconferencing program that allows classrooms to sit in on real, live surgeries. Studying how the human knee works from a book can be dry, but opening the door for students to watch a knee replacement surgery is anything but boring.
Another example is the Smithsonian’s free videoconferencing program. Field trips to the preeminent museum in our nation’s capital are popular but involved, making it feel like more than a virtual field trip.
4. Connecting with Parents
Outside the classroom, video chat also can assist teachers by making it easier to connect with parents.
As we all know, parent involvement is critical but also a challenge. Busy schedules plague even well-intentioned parents, and getting involvement from them and time to address student issues can be hard. Video chat can enable a more convenient and ongoing connection with parents.
While parents can plausibly claim that it is hard to make it to a parent-teacher conference, there’s a lot less room for excuses when video can bridge the gap no matter the time or place.
So video chat isn’t all bad. Yes, it can be a student distraction of much distinction. But it also can be a great resource for improving education.
Are you using video chat in your classroom, and does your school support it with the right resources? If not, make the case with your school’s administration. Every administrator wants to look good, and technology initiatives are a good way to show that a school is cutting edge and making a difference. In the case of video chat technology, this actually is true.
5. Enhancing Safety
Not only is student safety a priority for educators, it also is a necessary ingredient for good learning environments.
One innovative use for video chat is using it as a reporting mechanism for when students feel unsafe or want assistance. While students usually are not far from supervision, a school video chat system can serve as a less obtrusive way that students can connect with faculty and staff when there is a problem.
Similarly, video chat can enhance safety during field trips and events outside of school by enabling teachers and chaperones to check in with individual students who may get separated from the group. “Where’s Johnny?” becomes a less critical situation when the student can be called up on chat for an update on his location at an event.
There is a fine line between appropriate technology use and complicating the classroom with technology that distracts from the learning at hand, of course. But if teachers thoughtfully apply video chat, it can prove a valuable educational aid.