Video Conferencing in the classroom

Age Range: 5 - 11

I have become extremely impressed with the educational potential of video conferencing, and I'm really keen to expand its use even further across the school in the future.

As far as I am aware, video conferencing can fall into two categories:

  • ISDN / IP video conferencing, where a dedicated machine handles the incoming and outgoing audio / video feeds, connecting the users directly.
  • Web conferencing, where users can connect using a webcam online, using a site such as Flashmeeting or software like Skype.

Our main video conferencing (VC) equipment is ISDN / IP based, and we used a service called Global-Leap. Unfortunately, since this article was written, Global-Leap has closed down.

Global-Leap also offer free 'My First Video-conferences', allowing classes to have their first VC connection with one of the members of the team. This is quite informal, and is usually a chance to talk about your class / school, and share digital photos from both ends of the connection. These are also great opportunities for class teachers to have their first conference, allowing them to see how the technology works and to think about practical arrangements for video-conferencing in their classroom.

In the past, I've also given an introductory session, before the 'My First VC', where we talk about the equipment, what it does, and how it works. The children all see themselves on screen (waving their hands frantically as they appear on the whiteboard!), and we make sure that everyone can be seen. We also talk about how to behave during a video conference, i.e:

  • Listen carefully to information, instructions and questions that are given,
  • Try to sit still, as it can be distracting if people are fidgeting!
  • If you have an answer to a question, put up your hand and wait for the teacher to say your name (if everyone calls out, it's impossible for the person at the other end to hear anything).
  • When you speak, talk loudly (not shouting) and clearly (especially if they are not sitting directly next to the mic). I often explain how the children's voices have to travel into the microphone, down the little wire, into the VC equipment, down the network cable, through our school's network, then down the broadband line to London / Scotland / Australia...). To test the audio levels, I sometimes use the VC kit to dial a mobile phone. Somebody then goes outside of the classroom with the mobile and tries to ask / answer questions to see if the children are speaking clearly enough.

Over the past year, we have had some fantastic video conferences, with a number of museums. These have included the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms (who offer some really interesting conferences where the children explore an evacuee's suitcase and talk about the things that are found inside it), the National Portrait Gallery (looking at real pieces of artwork, with discussions linked to different curriculum areas) and a number of others. Our VCs have mainly been based on History topics, but I'm keen to expand this to other subject areas in the future.

We've also used Flashmeeting to video conference with an author, who was able to answer children's questions, share advice about their work, and give them feedback about what they had written. This was a really useful experience, and I noticed the children using a number of the tips and techniques that he had shared with them, within their writing many months later.

Lots of the museums are now offering conferences which involve talking to a character in role from the past. This year, some of our younger children are hoping to travel back in time to interview a Roman soldier via VC. I wish that I was involved in that one!

Video-conferencing has a number of benefits that I have seen from my use so far:

  • It brings an expert into your classroom. As a primary teacher, it's impossible to know everything there is to know about all of the subjects and topics that we have to teach. By video conferencing with a member of staff at a museum / gallery, the children can ask them any question, and will usually receive an extremely knowledgeable reply (also great for boosting the teacher's subject knowledge!). Of course, this can be achieved with a real trip to a museum, but this can sometimes be prohibitively expensive and time consuming if the museum isn't close to home.
  • Children are able to see real artefacts, which they might not otherwise be able to see. In our World War 2 video conferences, the children looked at clothing from the past, as well as toys and games, and also real ration books.
  • The museums usually offer resources and activities to try before and after the video conferencing, allowing the teacher to build the VC into a longer unit of work, rather than it simple being a 'one-off'.
  • It also allows all members of the class to take part in things they might not otherwise get to experience. One of the video conferences available on Global-Leap allows the children to 'dive' with someone at the Great Barrier Reef, asking the diver questions about the things they can see underwater. I'd love to try that one day, in real life or via VC!

Of course, there is no substitute for hands-on experience, going to museums and exploring things practically, but video conferencing is another tool in the teacher's collection, and an extremely valuable one in my opinion.

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Jeff Page

Video conferencing can be used in the classroom using tools such as R-HUB 1080p HD telepresence video with on-premises security and support to all platforms such as PC/Mac/Mobiles with access to unlimited users.

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