Videoconferencing | Feature

Creating Global Connections

A middle school teacher connects geographically dispersed students through online video and audio chats using Skype.

When Betsy Sawyer was looking for a way to give students in her after-school "Bookmakers and Dreamers" club an inside glimpse at how children in Afghanistan study and live, she looked into several different technology applications that could facilitate both online audio and video calls between the two groups.

Sawyer, a language arts and social studies teacher at Groton Middle School in Groton, MA, said she's been using Skype for the "virtual pen pal" program, which currently comprises about 125 students ranging in age from 10 to 17.

Using the software application, a desktop or laptop, Webcam, speakers, microphones, and (in some cases) a large screen that allows students to participate as a group, pupils ask their pen pals questions about life in Afghanistan and also share their own experiences.

Skyping for Peace
The group meets after school on a weekly basis to work on its "big book project for peace," according to Sawyer. "We're working together to build the largest book in the world on the topic of peace." Notable figures that have contributed to the project and/or provided feedback on its progress include the Dali Lama, Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu. The project includes children from countries like Uganda, Iraq, France and Italy, all of whom contribute content in their respective languages.

Using online video calls, Sawyer's students have connected with Afghan teens, who give their thoughts on the war, peace and activities taking place in their countries and in their individual lives. The initial call was led by a volunteer in Afghanistan who had gathered a small group of boys who reside in a mountainous village about seven hours outside Kabul.

"It was a very moving and informative call," said Sawyer. "The students that participated were very surprised at how close they felt to the Afghan teens." She said the connection helped open up an entirely new world for the American students, who live in a small town that has never experienced war firsthand.

"There is not much diversity in our town or school, so for students to be able to speak live with people from a completely different country is pretty amazing," said Sawyer, who added she sees the initiative expanding beyond its current state to include virtual pen pals in Africa. "There is so much my social studies pupils could learn about the world and current events by simply reaching out and connecting one-on-one--or in a group--with foreign children."

Getting Connected
Those connections take some effort to set up and maintain. The software has to be downloaded to an individual computer, which must be equipped with a Webcam, speakers and microphone. In some instances, Sawyer said, the sound quality has been "a bit crackly," and required replacement speakers and setups to run smoothly.

Coordinating across time zones is also an issue. With Afghanistan currently 8.5 hours ahead of Eastern Time, Sawyer and her students have to get creative when it comes to scheduling their calls. "When you only have limited club time after school, it can get pretty tricky," said Sawyer. "On occasion we've asked the students overseas to wait up for us a few hours in order for everyone to be able to participate."

Already convinced of the value of the online communications for her after-school club, Sawyer is now campaigning for its use in the classrooms at Groton Middle School. It's a pretty tall order, considering the fact that the institution doesn't currently allow individual students to access the Internet during school hours; nor does it have a campus-wide WiFi setup.

While teachers do have Internet connections in their classrooms, only a few are currently using Skype. "Hopefully, we'll all be using it in our classrooms for the next school year," said Sawyer. To get there, the school would need permission from the vendor to use the application in a group setting, and it would have to upgrade its Internet accessibility.

Sawyer said the Groton-Dunstable School District's new superintendent, John Lutz, and the head of the district's IT department, both of whom are "advanced when it comes to technology," support her mission.

"Now we have to work together to convince the school board that this would be a fantastic thing for all students," said Sawyer. "I've been saying that for years, but with the new superintendent in place, we're going to start lobbying a little harder in that direction."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].