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Videoconferencing | Q&A

When Social Networking Goes 'Live'

An English teacher in Iowa talks about how she parlayed Twitter interactions into a class trip halfway around the world.

One doesn't immediately connect the country of Sweden with the Midwestern state of Iowa, but for five students in Shaelynn Farnsworth's senior English class, those ties are very strong and very recent. After connecting with a teacher at the International School of Helsingborg via Twitter, Farnsworth, a freshman and senior teacher at the BCLUW Community School District in Conrad, turned online social networking interactions into a trip of a lifetime for her students.

Here, Farnsworth discusses how social networking in the classroom came full circle and resulted in hands-on learning for her students.

Bridget McCrea: When and how did you start integrating social networking into your classroom?

Shaelynn Farnsworth: Two years ago our school went 1:1, so all of our students have MacBooks. The first year we basically spent learning about the devices and getting familiar with applications like iMovie, iPhoto, and Photo Booth. The following year my goal was to get my students connected with peers who were outside of our building's four walls. I signed up for a Twitter account and started making connections online with other teachers in Iowa. We started a blogging community and began collaborating with other classrooms using applications like Google Docs. It kind of just grew from there.

McCrea: How does the social networking tie into your English classes?

Farnsworth: Every year I teach The Stranger by Albert Camus, a book that deals with existentialism. This past school year I started looking around for an expert who could guest lecture about the topic for my senior AP literature students. I connected with philosophy instructor John Noonan of the International School of Helsingborg through Twitter. His philosophy students were learning about existentialism and he agreed to teach a lesson on existentialism to my class. Using Skype, we connected our classrooms and got them involved in a collaborative project. It basically snowballed after that, and we both wound up teaching back and forth between the two classes.

McCrea: What other technology tools did you use?

Farnsworth: We used Skype's videoconferencing capabilities and augmented them with Gmail chat and TodaysMeet. Either John or I would be lecturing via Skype while students were back channeling on TodaysMeet. The other teacher would monitor TodaysMeet in real-time--to see the activity and address student questions and issues--and we could have private discussions between the instructors using Gmail chat. It sounds kind of complicated, but it went very smoothly. We went with the three-pronged approach because TodaysMeet was too hard for us to keep up with while we were lecturing; that's why we threw in the Gmail chat.

McCrea: How did these long-distance interactions progress?

Farnsworth: It got to the point where our students who had met each other on Skype in the classroom were connecting with one another outside of school. They wanted to more than just talk to each other once in a while in class, and became friends on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. John and I were pleasantly surprised at this development, and as a result decided to prolong the project and put our students in collaborative groups. Together, they answered questions like, "How would living forward add meaning to life?" We asked students to create a presentation using Google Docs, Twitter, Facebook, Gmail chat and/or Skype, and to support their answers with existentialism and other theories.

McCrea: How did this turn into a trip to Sweden for your students?

Farnsworth: Students on both sides of the connection began realizing that they were more alike than different, despite the geographic divide that lies between them. Friendships grew and turned into off-the-cuff remarks like, "Hey, we want you guys to come here," from the Swedish students. I approached our school board, got approval for the trip and started raising funds. John did an excellent job of lining up host families for our students to stay with, in order to make things affordable for everyone. We traveled there in March, resided with the host families, and took trips to places like Hamlet's castle. Hamlet just happened to be the first book we read in that literature class--who would have guessed we'd be there in person just a few months later?

McCrea: Did you run into any challenges on the technology side?

Farnsworth: We didn't run into any technology glitches. The students are so used to social media platforms that it was easy for them to navigate pretty much any platform that we decided to use. We were surprised with the results of this project, and in particular with the way that students wanted to connect outside of class. We thought a Skype lecture would be the end of it. The fact that students used technology and social networking to connect on their own was definitely unexpected.

McCrea: Can you share any advice with K-12 educators that are looking to cultivate similar connections online?

Farnsworth: There are many simple ways to get your students connected and engaged with other pupils and teachers from around your state, country and world. It doesn't have to be a huge operation or an expensive initiative.  Social networking sites and other online tools provide an easy way to make content more meaningful, widen your students' audience, and broaden their horizons.

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