Skype in the Classroom: Where Can You Take Your Students?
“Can I buy your fish in the store?” asked another.
These were just two of the many questions asked by our 7th grade social studies class last year when they took a virtual field trip to a fish farm. While talking to the owner, they learned about the process of raising fish for commercial purposes in connection with their studies of the impact of fishing on the economy of southeast Asia. The farm, located near Ames, Iowa, is approximately a three-hour drive from our school in the northwest corner of the state.
When we first heard about opportunities to connect our students with farmers through Siouxland Ag in the Classroom, a number of teachers jumped at the opportunity to link the work in their classrooms with relevant and meaningful experiences outside the classroom. However, as great as it all sounded, we didn’t have time in the school day or money in the budget to bus students around to learn about the ins and outs of a variety of farming styles.
Welcome to 21st century learning, courtesy of…Skype!
Our 7th grade class took their “field trip” at 8:30 in the morning and learned about the process of raising fish, including feeding and maintaining them, and how and where they are sold. Many of our students are familiar with raising cattle, hogs, and sheep, but the idea of raising fish was foreign to them. By 9:15am they were off to language arts class. No three hour bus ride back. No juggling of schedules that day for the rest of their classes.
Not long after that, our 8th graders were in the middle of a stock market simulation, learning about investments, mutual funds, and buying/selling stocks on the New York Stock Exchange. Rather than attempting to answer the students’ questions on the details of the stock market himself, the teacher connected his class via Skype with a relative living 800 miles away who handled large investments for a nationally recognized firm. The students had questions answered on high/low risk investments, what the term futures meant, and what investors look for when selecting stocks to buy.
With the prevalence of technology in our culture today, these types of experiences don’t require expensive equipment or specialized training. This addition to the curriculum gives students an opportunity to hear a voice other than the teacher’s. It gives them the chance to hear from and ask questions of an expert actively working in the field being studied. It gives credence to the readings from the textbook, classroom discussions, and YouTube videos. For many students, providing another believable “real-world” connection to what they’re learning fosters an authentic learning environment that allows them to thrive.
Of course there are trade-offs in conducting field trips via Skype, FaceTime, or Google Hangouts. In our school, we were able to project the person speaking to us on the board using a projector, but we did not have a great way to capture the image of our own room to provide an ideal two-way conversation. Additionally, by bringing the field trip into the classroom, the students miss out on the sensory memories of the field trip. I imagine students may have remembered learning about a fish farm quite a bit more if they were able to hear and smell what was going on around them.
Before last year, I hadn’t entertained the idea of video-calling to connect my students to experts outside of my school. It may not be quite as beneficial as actually having someone walk in your classroom door or taking your class on a physical field trip, but it is most certainly an addition worth looking into as we continually work to find ways to integrate technology into our classrooms and enhance the learning experience for our students.
Guest post by: Matt Van Schepen
Matt is a middle school science teacher at Orange City Christian School in Orange City, Iowa. He spends his time away from school coaching baseball at Northwestern College, working towards a master’s degree in school leadership at Dordt College, and squeezing fishing in any of his remaining time. He is married and is the father of two children. He can be reached via Twitter @mnbaseball or email firstname.lastname@example.org.