Web Conferencing Finds Elementary School Niche

By Ian Quillen — April 20, 2010 7 min read

As Cherrie MacInnes’ 3rd graders have endeavored to have a Web conference with a class from each of the 50 states, they’ve unearthed surprises at each stop.

When the students at Washington Street School peered at the computer screen, they learned that while it was afternoon for them in Brewer, Maine, it was still morning in Anchorage, Alaska. They discovered that students in Paterson, N.J., boasted an accent very different from the well-known Maine dialect. And when they did a Web conference with Joan B. Bender’s class at Pleasant Hill Elementary School in Kissimmee, Fla., they learned that the nation’s southeastern-most state was discovered by Ponce de León.

But as her students research information, compile questions about each state, and follow up with supplemental writing, Ms. MacInnes is surprised not by what they are learning, but by how many teachers are willing to participate in the still-novel frontier of video-based Web conferencing.

“Not one [teacher in the challenge] has ever done this before,” said Ms. MacInnes, who introduced the “Web Chat Challenge” to thousands of teachers, principals, and school districts via a three-paragraph e-mail, beginning in February. “Maybe my letter made it sound doable. It didn’t sound overwhelming, because it was starting out as a one-time experiment.”

Because most of the focus on integrating Web technology into the classroom remains at the secondary school level, teachers say, projects such as this one are relatively uncommon. But with the advent of programs like Gmail and Skype, the increased prevalence of webcams and laptops in schools, and the freedom to teach multiple subjects at once, elementary school may be the ideal place to use Web conferencing in a way that has an impact, experts say.

“One of the reasons it’s hard for some [middle and high school] teachers to integrate technology is because they’re teaching a compartmentalized discipline,” said Terry Smith, who has done Web-conferencing projects for nearly a decade as a 4th grade teacher at Eugene Field Elementary School in Hannibal, Mo. “This is project-based learning. We connect up in math and social studies, and even foreign languages.”

Sense of Virtual Adventure

Conferencing by live video existed as early as the 1970s, and real-time Internet chat rooms have existed since the 1980s, though neither was very accessible to the general public at the time. The arrival of instant-messaging software in the 1990s brought real-time chat to the general public. And in the early 2000s came the rise of programs like Skype, a service that allows users to make phone calls over the Web free of charge to other users who download Skype software.

But it is the addition of more-sophisticated videoconferencing features to Skype in recent years, the inclusion of video features in Gmail chat—software that combines users’ e-mail accounts with a built-in instant messenger—and the growing prevalence of high-speed Internet access that have greatly broadened the use of video-based Web conferencing. Meetings via live Internet video are increasingly common in the corporate world, as are instructional webinars using video in higher education.

More elementary classrooms are now taking advantage of those technological advances.

Mr. Smith, who left his first career as a technical writer in the mid-1990s to become one of Austin, Texas’ most computer-savvy teachers, has held video Web conferences for most of his 10-year tenure in Missouri.

He says vocabulary-building, prealgebra riddles, and trivia games carried out through Web conferencing all boost his students’ understanding. Yet, he says, rarely do the few dozen colleagues at his school follow his lead.

“There’s a continuing fear of technology—a continuing fear of, ‘Can I even learn this?’ “ he said. “It shows a lot of teachers aren’t even willing to take the same risks as they ask of their students.”

Teachers who have answered Ms. MacInnes’ “chat challenge” e-mail report similar perceptions. Seldom do they have any more Web experience than their peers who are uninterested in the project, they insist; rather, they may simply have a greater sense of virtual adventure.

“As a novice, it challenges us to learn it,” said Ms. Bender, whose Pleasant Hill 3rd graders in Florida presented themselves as a “mystery state” to Ms. MacInnes’ students, giving clues about their state until the Washington Street School students solved the riddle.

“A lot of things we do as teachers are overly daunting,” she said. “But we just do it anyway.”

It’s possible to build similar lessons without the use of Skype or other Internet software. But Mr. Smith says that regular Web conferences with a class from Washington state—which could last more than an hour—and less frequent, shorter calls to other classrooms across the country, in the United Kingdom, and in Southeast Asia do more to captivate his students.

“I can take an impromptu call and do a 20-minute lesson and go right back to what we were doing,” Mr. Smith said. “The idea of a contained learning group is very different than understanding that we are connected to the world. You go beyond your walls, you increase the excitement, and you increase the engagement in the kid.”

Afghan Connection

Volunteers in Ms. MacInnes’ project say they’ve seen similar results and have continued with their own quests to speak with students from as many states as possible. The 1,700-student Brewer school system, where the Washington Street School is located, is also constructing a Web site to link other curious teachers.

Outside the Web Chat Challenge, other teachers have added Web conferencing to programs that already include communication with other countries. And where teachers either have the freedom or built-in curricular tie-ins, those connections have become an important learning tool.

Schools in various states are testing similar methods.

At the private Glenelg Country School in Ellicott City, Md., 4th and 5th grade teacher Linar Etemadi engages in regular Web conferencing with male high school students in Afghanistan to supplement the school’s participation in the Children Against Mines Program, or CHAMPS. The school, which has 800 students in grades 1-12, has sponsored a land-mine-detecting dog with fundraisers that have included traditional pre-Taliban Afghan cultural events.

Ms. Etemadi’s students use Skype to converse with their Afghan peers from Roshan High School, including land-mine survivors, once or twice monthly in early-morning sessions scheduled to fit an 8½-hour time difference. Ms. Etemadi then blends in reading about Afghan culture, geographical study of the region, physics and chemistry studies of the land mines themselves, and even a graphing project aimed at depicting the different types of damage different mines cause.

None of those exercises requires videoconferencing, but Ms. Etemadi, whose family emigrated from Afghanistan when she was 3, says Skype enhances the experience.

“We’re trying our hardest to really open their eyes to the real world,” she said of the Glenelg students. “It’s one thing to hear voices, but to see a smile and see those eyes looking back at you—it’s just priceless.”

Authors’ Video Visits

Not all teachers may have Ms. Etemadi’s curricular flexibility. But with a troubled economy that can result in cuts to activities like assemblies and field trips, some educators are using Web conferencing to replicate events as simple as an author’s visit.

Sarah Chauncey, a librarian at Grand View Elementary School in East Ramapo, N.Y., about 30 miles north of New York City, is the co-founder of the Skype an Author Network, which sets up video visits from authors often at the elementary and middle school levels.

In about 18 months, Ms. Chauncey and network co-founder and author Mona Kerby have seen more than 80 authors join the service, which provides free 10- to 15-minute meet-the-author chats, and longer discussions at a fee Ms. Chauncey said usually ranges from $200 to $300.

When it’s done right, Ms. Chauncey says, students can easily be captivated by a virtual visit from elementary-level author Martha D. Arnold or preteen writer Barbara A. Mahler.

“I’ve seen kids attend better to a Skype session than they do when they’re in a gym or auditorium,” Ms. Chauncey said. “Maybe it’s because they’re so used to looking at the [television or computer] screen.”

Web-conferencing visits from across national borders are also an intriguing possibility to teachers like Carlene Anderson, whose 3rd grade class at Paterson Public School 12 in New Jersey comprises African-American, West African, and Latino students. Ms. Anderson would like to build upon her class’s participation in the Web Chat Challenge to link students to their heritage in other countries.

“Reaching out to teachers in those countries would definitely help,” Ms. Anderson said, in “narrowing the gap for my students, making the world smaller and more acceptable for them.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2010 edition of Education Week as Web Conferencing Finds a Niche in the Elementary Grades


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