Communities for Learning

Web 2.0: Maine School Inspires Global Online Collaboration

Videoconferencing in education settings often involves pricey, state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment with eye-level cameras, sound reinforcement, specific seating structures, and an expert AV tech just a call away. Cherrie MacInnes had no such setup when she started a new and different way of connecting her students to others.

MacInnes, a third grade teacher at Washington Street School in Brewer, ME, said she wanted to reunite her class to a classmate who had moved to Minnesota the year before. She fired up her Mac laptop, turned on the built-in Webcam, and conducted a Maine-to-Minnesota video conference via Skype, the free video chat software. Thus began "Chatting Across the USA," an open invite to other third grade classes from around the country and beyond to get into Web chats to enhance learning.

"Bringing their community into our classroom, sharing information about each others' states, and experiencing the joy of instant feedback brought a positive, enthusiastic energy to the classroom that I didn't want to let end," said MacInnes. The Maine third graders were so inspired by the experience they began the "Web Chat Challenge," which is the mission of the teacher and her students to conference with third grade classes from all 50 states by the end of the year. "Because Google, Skype, and iChat provide a chat format free to users, schools with Webcams are able to participate in this great learning experience at no cost to school districts," she said.

MacInnes said it took only four weeks for classrooms from all 50 states to respond to her invitation. "Not one teacher from any of the states had ever done this before," she said. "All who have participated in their conference with my classroom have shared an enthusiasm that is fresh and exciting."

The goal of each of the Web chats is for students to share facts and insights about their states. "Students are learning a lot about the USA and meeting many great third graders along the way!" said MacInnes.

First, her students learned about the state of Maine, its mammals, birds, geography, and more. "Being able to take what they've learned and teach it to others is a great way to demonstrate mastery," said MacInnes. She added that the project exceeds expectations for mapping skills. "Speaking with other children from across the country brings so much more meaning and connection to the lesson. The students really are understanding directions, borders, regions, and time zones."

Students improve their writing skills via journal entries they write after each conference, and communications skills are honed as well. Important to MacInnes is the students learn how diverse the country is, "and, at the same time, realizing how much we have in common."

Students in partnering states benefit from learning about their own states as well as about Maine. "There's a real sense of pride when these children teach us about where they live. I'm using the word enthusiastic redundantly, but it truly is a word that describes the looks on the faces of the children and teachers who have participated. Also, with budget constraints being experienced in the field of education, this is a great way to make up for cuts that have been made to field trip-type experiences."

The class is halfway to its goal of 50 states, having completed Web-based chats with 25 as of this writing. The students are engaged in ways she never expected at the onset, MacInnes said. "Students are remembering information in a way that they never would from just a textbook and a map. They're going home and sharing what they've learned with their parents with such excitement that parents are coming in to watch when we conference," said MacInnes.

Web Chats Are Not Without Their Challenges
MacInnes is still experimenting with how to seat the students for best projection to the other class. During a recent Web chat with Oklahoma, she tried having the students sit farther from the camera, but it didn't have the desired result.

"It's a challenge to try to get all 24 in the video chat at once using the camera on my laptop." She currently uses her MacBook, a projector displaying the image of the remote class onto a whiteboard, some old speakers, and a small microphone she borrowed from another teacher. The technology challenge will be somewhat relieved soon, owing to donations from the Bangor Savings Bank and Weekly Reader. The plans are to acquire a wireless microphone, upgraded speakers, and a new projector. "We're so excited to get our new equipment. Right now there are 11 classrooms in my building sharing one projector, and, as you can imagine, I've been a bit of a projector hog with this project. The sound quality is very scratchy with our speakers, so the new ones should make a big difference in how well we hear," she said.

MacInnes said another challenge is the 30-minute time limit; many conferences could go on much longer. Additionally, some schools requested meeting a second time with the Brewer third graders, but MacInnes had to decline in order to arrange meetings with states not yet marked on their U.S. map in hopes of meeting the goal of 50 states by year's end. Eventually, there were so many requests for Web chats with Brewer that MacInnes realized they were on to something big.

Mark Jenkins, technology director for the Brewer school district, learned of the enthusiasm that MacInnes was generating and decided to apply his Web development skills to help. "When this video chat thing first took off, Cherrie was getting more requests than she needed," said Jenkins. "Teresa Dore, Berry Meherg, and [the Brewer school district technology staff] decided to create a Web site where other educators could find and connect with each other and conduct their own Web chats."

The result was ClassChats.com, which Jenkins described as a sort of Facebook for educators; but ClassChats.com provides much more than just video collaboration.

"The site has within it video chat capability, shared whiteboard, shared sites, forums, blogs, and more," said Jenkins. He said an unusual feature of the site is the multi-user video chat. Rather than just two endpoints, several schools could collaborate at once, each with video, audio, and text chat.  

In its first month (March of this year), ClassChats.com grew to more than 100 members, with new people joining every day.  Many teachers joining the community are elementary teachers from across the United States that Jenkins said likely heard about MacInnes and her 'Chatting Across the USA' project. Classchats.com is also beginning to welcome a more diverse group of instructors. "We have some high school and middle school teachers as well," he said. "There are also members from India, China, Italy, Canada, and other countries, which is great to see."

MacInnes said she's as excited to see other teachers benefitting from Web chats as she is about her own experiences. "The enthusiasm from the teaching community has been overwhelming," she said. "Teachers who have conferenced with me are now conferencing with each other. We've created a support system where teachers feel comfortable to try something new and are now sharing ideas to take the experience to another level. It's been a great opportunity for professional growth."

Jenkins said he's such a fan of these Web chats that he hosts ClassChats.com on his personal hosting account, and he and the two other techs are doing this on a volunteer basis. "I can tell you that watching her students during a chat session is quite a sight," he said. "They are all very well prepared; they know their material; and they ask great questions.  Students are also documenting information that is being delivered from the students on the other end of the chat session. These students know a lot about each state and they know Maine inside and out at this point."

Future Plans for ClassChats.com
Jenkins said that while the number of teachers joining ClassChats.com is exciting, and they are using the forum to connect with each other, they are not yet using most of what the Web site offers. There are shared resources such as videos, audio files, and more. Jenkins said he's planning additional features for the future, including video tutorials, such as one about how to use ClassChats.com and instructions for uploading YouTube videos. "Most schools block YouTube," he said, "and this will provide a work-around for teachers who want to make educational videos available to their students.

"There is an interactive whiteboard, and we have plans to create overlays for it, such as maps, diagrams, etc.  A teacher can create a board and allow her students to access it without having them log in, so this might be a neat feature as we develop it. "

How To Participate
"Go to ClassChats.com, create a free account, check it out, including checking out how other teachers are using it, and then post to the forum," suggested Jenkins. "There is no cost, and any teacher can always contact us if they're not sure how to do something.  We try to welcome every user personally; Teresa has been great about that."

"Teachers can join ClassChats.com to connect with teachers from not only the United States, but the world," said MacInnes. "I'm also willing to help any teacher who wants to give Web conferencing a try. Having support makes trying something new so much more doable!"

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