I could have retired seven years ago, but Skype is one of the big reasons I didn’t, because it’s so much fun,” said Ann Garrett, instructional technology specialist for the La Vega Independent School District in Waco, Tex., and a Skype master teacher. She’s among the many educators high on the video conferencing and virtual field trip tool and community, which has just relaunched with several new and improved features.
According to Kelly Anderson of Skype in the Classroom and Microsoft Educational Partnerships, Skype in the Classroom has “been around since 2007, when we realized that educators were already actively using Skype in their schools to connect with other classrooms around the world, or to find experts to talk to, or go on virtual field trips that they didn’t have access to locally.” She says that Microsoft has been dedicated to “helping to nurture these global connections with an entirely free community designed for teachers, librarians, and tech trainers,” adding, “Our whole job is to facilitate live connections between educators, their students, and other students around the world, or other experts—authors, scientists, virtual field trip hosts.”
As the Skype in the Classroom community grew and became more vibrant, there was a desire to differentiate it from the Microsoft Educator community, which is more focused on professional development, training, and certifications for teachers. The result of that breakout strategy is a rebuilt Skype in the Classroom site that began beta testing late last year and has rolled out with a preview available now. “We’re moving our content partners over to this new calendar system, which takes time,” Anderson says. “And we’re still adding features; there’s a lot more to come.”
For access to Skype in the Classroom, educators need these basics: a free Skype in the Classroom account and Microsoft account, internet access, a webcam, a microphone, and a speaker. Instructions for use, lesson plans, and activities are available on the site, and Garrett says that, like many other instructional ed tech specialists, she offers a basic training for teachers in her district each year and is able to assist when needed.
“We wanted the new site to offer much better search and filtering because teachers don’t have a lot of free time,” Anderson says. “We want them to quickly find content using searches by keyword, by collections of activities, or by a date and time they’re looking for. That was the goal.” To that end, she says that every activity on the site has a calendar associated with it now, so time isn’t wasted with “the back and forth in terms of trying to negotiate a date and time of an experience.”
In addition, the revamped Skype in the Classroom promises simpler, one-click connections; better content and profile management; and more classroom connections. “In the new system, we’ve made it much easier for classrooms to put themselves out there to be contacted as well,” Anderson says. “You can either start your own collaborative projects and make your class contactable, or you can join someone else’s activity that’s already out there. It can really go both ways.”
The major categories of activity within the community are virtual field trips, guest speaker sessions, collaborative projects, themed collections, and special events. Mystery Skype, an educational guessing game played by two classrooms connected via Skype, is one of the platform’s most popular offerings. “That’s how we got into it at first,” Garrett says. “If you’re new to Skype, Mystery Skype is easy to do.” Tools and instructions for participation are available on the site as well. For the Mystery Skype/Mystery Location version of the game, classrooms take turns asking each other a series of yes/no questions (e.g., “Does your state have a saltwater coastline?”) to try and guess where the partner classroom is located. The project helps teach geography, world cultures, and social studies. The game can be adapted for students of any age, with younger kids often focusing on something like Mystery Animal Skype or Mystery Number Skype.
“It’s great for teaching writing and reading, too,” Garrett says, pointing to a variety of preparation and reflection activities available for the game. Anderson says that some content partners, like the National WWII Museum, use the game as an ice breaker activity to help kick off a virtual field trip.
Educators can find a range of curated learning experiences on Skype in the Classroom provided by organizational content partners that include museums, zoos, scientists, and national parks. Among the favorites in this area is the Grand Tetons National Park’s annual Snow Desk program, where each winter (January–March, conditions permitting) park rangers do Skype sessions from a desk made of snow. Participants in the popular Iditarod Teacher on the Trail Program do Skype in the Classroom visits before, during, and after the race (the 2020 race began on March 7). And researchers at Aquarius Reef Base undersea laboratory Skype during their missions studying the coral reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Literacy, authors, and publishers
Authors and publishers play a big role as guest speakers and content providers on Skype in the Classroom. Large literacy initiatives like LitWorld’s World Read Aloud Day (which took place on February 5) are a natural fit for the platform. And for the past few years, author Kate Messner has managed a sizable list of Skyping author volunteers, accessed via a link within Skype in the Classroom. Individual authors and illustrators can set their availability within the tool to Skype with classes. Candlewick; Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; Penguin Young Readers Group; and Scholastic are among the publishers providing a roster of authors available for virtual visits.
Scholastic and Skype in the Classroom teamed up for a special event in 2017, the first ever Teach Graphix Week, in order to spotlight the use of graphic novels in schools, as well as Scholastic’s popular Graphix imprint. “They reached out to us, initially,” says Lizette Serrano, v-p, educational marketing and conventions at Scholastic. “We were able to build our own Scholastic page on their site, which was really great. The attraction of working with them is that they can provide access to any school in the world, but primarily to schools that don’t have a budget to support author visits, which is so important.”
Though Serrano notes that the graphic novel landscape has grown and changed a lot since 2017, she recalls that three years ago, “we were thinking, how do we educate educators about the value of graphic novels and teaching them in the classroom, having them become part of the curriculum?” Her team worked with Anderson at Skype in the Classroom to build a program that was turnkey in terms of lesson plans (e.g., for creative writing and drawing) and also included Skype visits with 10 graphic novelists—including Dav Pilkey and Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm—throughout the week, as well as a Twitter chat with author-illustrator Kazu Kibuishi. Teach Graphix Week officially kicked off with a live interactive event featuring the creators of Dream Jumper: Nightmare Escape, author Greg Grunberg and illustrator Lucas Turnbloom, which was broadcast to kids in more than 1,000 classrooms, and dozens of countries.
Videos of special live classroom broadcast events remain archived on the Skype in the Classroom site, and Anderson says that Skype in the Classroom asks that authors and experts featured in those events make themselves reachable via Twitter after the fact, if an educator accesses their archived event on demand. “Most of them are happy to take questions about that content any time,” she adds. Other author special events include those with Cressida Cowell (the How to Train Your Dragon series) and Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver, who spoke about their Here’s Hank series.
Serrano speaks highly of her experience with the platform. “They are true collaborators,” she says of Anderson and Skype in the Classroom, “and just like Scholastic, they want to serve their teachers with access to books, and stories, and content.” She adds, “They’re very open to making custom content work for publishers. They took a chance on Teach Graphix Week, and we felt aligned with them in creating that program. We’re trying to find other opportunities to do that.”
“The thing that I love the most about my job and about this community is when we actually see kids changing the world around them,” Anderson says. She cites one classroom connection from several years ago as an example. A middle school class in Kansas learned that the classrooms in Nairobi that they had been connecting with were not able to continue because the water pipes around their school had burst and their drinking water was contaminated. When the Kansas students said they wanted to help their faraway friends, several Skype in the Classroom master teachers at their school worked to turn the situation into a teaching moment for the entire student body. The science class studied water filtration, Skyped with LifeStraw and Culligan Water and other companies, and learned how to create water filters from everyday objects. Health classes learned about the effects of contaminated water, and social studies classes learned more about Kenya and other places in the world that lack clean water. The Kansas students raised an initial $2,000, and LifeStraw agreed to install community water filters in both of the affected Nairobi schools. “Through the connections they had made, they knew these kids, they had empathy for them, and that’s the impact of this community,” Anderson says.
Garrett has a similar view. Reflecting on her years of using Skype in the Classroom with educators and students, she says, “One of the things I didn’t realize it was going to do is that it makes our students see how much they have in common with the kids they talk to in other countries. It is life changing, I think. And it opens up so many doors for our students. I’m just so excited that it’s there and it’s free.”