The future of face to face

November 2011

 

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JUDE BARBACK looks at two different methods of videoconferencing for the lassroom that are changing the way we teach and learn.

 

Who remembers the cartoon The Jetsons? Little did we think, in the late ‘80s, when we watched the space-age one-dimensional family communicate with each other by video phones, that this parody on the future would be part of our everyday lives in a mere matter of years.

Of course we now use videoconferencing in a slightly different way to George and Jane Jetson. Skype, to take a popular example, has become part of our everyday lives, connecting us to homesick offspring on their OE, or to show off your son’s mastering of the alphabet to a proud nana in the States. It was only a short time before schools were taking advantage of the free web-based resource to connect with other schools around the globe.

Many teachers were quick to introduce Skype into their classrooms to connect with other classrooms around the world and make learning more exciting and interactive for their students. Videoconferencing is relevant for many subjects. No longer confined to the scratchy tape recordings of old, language students can test out their Japanese with students in Japan. Geography students can take a virtual field trip. Expert speakers can join classes from afar, adding another dimension to student learning, all without leaving the classroom.

However, teachers are often confronted with the difficulty of finding similar classes to pair with. In response to this challenge, Skype, in consultation with teachers, created ‘Skype in the Classroom’, a free global community intended to bring like-minded teachers together online, making it easy for them to share skills and ideas. The platform, which has been in beta since the end of December, already has a community of more than 4000 teachers across approximately 100 countries.

Teachers are using the tool to collaborate with other teachers, find partner classes and guest speakers. They can source relevant projects according to search criteria such as the age groups they teach, location and subjects of interest; and teaching resources can be easily shared and found.

Already success stories of ‘Skype in the Classroom’ are emerging. Kara Cornejo, who teaches a fifth grade class in Missouri, USA, and is an avid Skype user, found five schools around the world to collaborate with on an international weather project within just one day of joining. “‘Skype in the Classroom’ is an amazing resource to find teachers to collaborate with and to bring people into your classroom that you would never have been able to,” said Cornejo.

The Global Learning Exchange, a programme designed to create borderless classrooms and allow students to learn about other cultures seamlessly, has been using Skype video for four years. Regular exchanges between Jurong West Primary school children in Singapore and Bill Williams Elementary school students in California in the US “has helped all 260 students from both schools build relationships with one another and facilitated learning that is not limited by geographical borders”, said co-founder Manuel Rose Delema. “Skype makes learning fun and engaging as children look forward to meeting their global friends and asking questions.”

In a similar way, Skype is also used to connect nine and 10-year-old students at Lakanal School in Lille, France with their peers in Prince Edward Island, Canada. “Before arranging the first video call, our students exchanged letters and emails, but we decided to bring the two classes together face-to-face over Skype video to enrich their relationship,” said Christophe Fetat, the teacher at Lakanal School. “The result was amazing. Students were really engaged to discuss different topics. It is really a simple and effective way to exchange ideas, learn and bring other cultures into the class.”

‘Skype in the Classroom’ is a two-way street. Teachers are encouraged to share their expertise and experiences to promote a healthy exchange. Teachers who exchange ideas and information and coordinate their practice with other teachers report more positive teacher-student relations at their own schools. “Skype is committed to removing the barriers to communications and enabling conversations around the world with technology that is easy to use and affordable,” said Tony Bates, Skype’s chief executive. “‘Skype in the Classroom’ has been developed for a specific community of people who have a shared interest and are passionate about using technology in inventive ways in their classroom. We’ve received positive feedback from teachers and are keen to continue developing the site to meet their needs and help school children around the world work together in wonderful ways never thought possible.”

The fact that Skype is free goes some way to compensate for its limitations – namely the small number of participants able to participate in a conference and the often poor quality of its calls. However for many schools, institutions and businesses, these limitations are insurmountable and a more sophisticated system is required. Typically, such conferencing systems come with hefty price tags, but Kiwi-based firm HiTech Solutions has got it right with their videoconferencing system, FaceMe. 

HiTech, based on Auckland’s North Shore, recognised that the traditional conferencing services, which typically cost around $100,000, were beyond the means of many small and medium-sized businesses. FaceMe, which has been described as “the world’s first business-focused, browser-based videoconferencing system” was launched in 2010 and costs a comparatively low $25,000 for set-up. 

FaceMe customers will be getting their money’s worth. While traditional systems typically only link up a limited number of points, as many as 20 people can take part in a FaceMe conference call from anywhere in the world, provided they have access to a webcam, mobile or landline phone and computer.

FaceMe is straightforward to use. The system works through a server-like appliance installed on the company’s premises. A user name and password allows the company to log into the system and create videoconference meetings. When the organisation is ready to have a conference, it sends an email to its customers or staff members in different locations. The email contains a hyperlink that the customer, or colleague, can click on and be taken through to the conference. The audio component is made on a separate land or mobile phone line, with the system prompting calls to all members of the conference.

In an exciting move for HiTech Solutions, the company received NZ$300,000 in funding from TechNZ to expand FaceMe worldwide. Danny Tomsett of HiTech Solutions said the funding would allow a version of the firm’s FaceMe web-based videoconferencing system to be developed for markets such as Australia, Britain, India, the US, and potentially Japan.

FaceMe appears in good shape for export. The original FaceMe Video Collaboration is now complemented by a raft of spin-off services – FaceMe Connect (allows your existing contact centre software to route and report just like a standard audio call), FaceMe Hosted Service Provider (allows virtually unlimited video ports and administrator user logons) and FaceMe Welcome (a sophisticated take on the virtual receptionist concept).

Arguably, FaceMe is most suited to the corporate world and especially to small and medium-sized businesses. However, HiTech Solutions think it has relevance in a wide range of workplaces, including schools and tertiary institutions.

Mark Christensen, managing director of HiTech Solutions, gives a raft of reasons why FaceMe is suited to the education sector, including its flexibility, which allows teaching “anytime, anywhere, with anyone”. He also says the cost of FaceMe is reasonable for tight education budgets. “It really is the simplest, easiest to use, most effective videoconferencing tool on the market, which means schools can get on with the business of teaching rather than worrying about the technology. FaceMe is a huge educational enabler.”

Christensen says that although it is early days for educational videoconferencing, FaceMe is at the forefront of what will be a revolution in education. It is already proving useful in many New Zealand schools, with Watchdog (Safe Internet) chosen as their preferred FaceMe partner in schools.

One way FaceMe is set to revolutionise teaching is with its ‘show and discuss’ documents, which make it easier to show and work with documents on-screen for collaborative learning and inputs from all participants. FaceMe is not simply a ‘teacher-in-front-of-the-class’.

The system is also useful for sharing learning and experiences with others. Takapuna Grammar uses FaceMe to connect their teachers to primary school pupils who are entering secondary school the following year.

Christensen says schools are finding FaceMe useful for connecting with people overseas. Some schools are using FaceMe to dial in some of the best international teachers and lecturers to give Kiwi students a broader international experience. One Auckland secondary school using FaceMe found the system extremely helpful in connecting their Japanese students with their families, following the devastation of the tsunami this year. “The opportunity to have a FaceMe face-to-face talk with their parents offered far more reassurance than a phone call ever could,” said Christensen.

He believes issues of distance, even within New Zealand, can be resolved with FaceMe, particularly within fields of specific expertise. A music class at a small provincial school potentially has access to leading musicians. “It is far easier to get someone to give up an hour or two of their time remotely than to have them travel the length of the country.”

The system could also be used for staff recruitment or remote conference attendance, to save on time and money.

Indeed, the possibilities appear endless. “What we find is that across all sectors people using FaceMe create their own specific uses for FaceMe in all sorts of situations we may not even have envisaged,” says Christensen. “FaceMe is all about shrinking boundaries nationally and internationally.”

 

For more information about FaceMe: www.faceme.co.nz

 

 

To join ‘Skype in the Classroom’, teachers should:

  1. Sign up at education.skype.com using their Skype account details
  2. Create a profile which includes their interests, location and the age groups they teach
  3. Explore the directory to find projects, teachers and resources that match their skills, needs or interests.

‘Skype in the Classroom’ is a members-only community. Once teachers find someone they want to connect with, they can add that person as a Skype contact or send them a message through the site.

To find projects, teachers, resources, and inspiration, visit: education.skype.com