When a high school mock trial team from Dallas, Texas, got stranded in New York City during the worst of Superstorm Sandy, students logged on to Skype to describe the storm to their friends and families. The Bishop Lynch High School mock trial members had just finished competing in the Empire City Invitational in downtown Brooklyn on Sunday, Oct. 28, before mass transit came to a halt. As part of the curriculum, government teachers Rick Dunn and David Post (also the mock trial coaches) had planned to continue class Monday, Oct. 29 with their students back in Texas by Skyping with them from both the 9/11 Memorial and the New York Stock Exchange, where a former student was going to give a tour. But with the storm brewing and mass transit down, they had to blow off that virtual field trip.
But “teachers are notorious for hating to miss school,” says Post. So when Post and Dunn saw their mock trial members chatting away on Skype at the DoubleTree Suites in Times Square, the duo decided class would go on . . . via Skype. Post and Dunn improvised a Skype lesson to show students in their Dallas classroom how the storm was affecting New York City — to give them a taste of history in the making. On Oct. 30, Post went outside and tried to Skype with his class using his iPad connected to the Doubletree’s Wi-Fi, while inside, on the 40th floor of the hotel, Dunn led a Skype discussion about how the storm could impact the presidential election.
“Skype in the Classroom” was created for teachers like Post and Dunn, as the Internet-based communication service kept hearing stories about teachers who had begun using the software in their classrooms so that they could introduce their pupils to cultures and experts worldwide in real time. Launched March 2011, Skype in the Classroom is a website on which teachers worldwide can post ideas for Skype lessons, connect with other classrooms and come up with ways to collaborate via Skype. Now Skype in the Classroom’s global community boasts more than 43,000 teachers and 2,400 lessons.
Post and Dunn did not even know about Skype in the Classroom before they Skyped with their classes during Superstorm Sandy. They had used the Internet calling service to host virtual office hours for their students in the evenings so that students could ask questions about homework. But the vast majority of the lessons posted on Skype in the Classroom come from teachers who want to Skype with classes abroad to expose their students to different languages and cultures — a necessity in a global economy. Think back to the old-fashioned pen pal, the tradition of writing handwritten letters to someone in another part of the country or the world. Skype in the Classroom adds video to that exchange to give students a much fuller view of pen pals’ worlds.
“Young people are so engaged with video, and it’s so much a part of their daily lives,” says Andrew Schmidt, Skype’s head of social good, the company’s corporate responsibility arm that runs the website. “Students can both learn from experts and be the expert.”
Amy Rosenstein, who teaches third grade at Concord Road Elementary School in Ardsley, N.Y., has taught geography by organizing Skype conversations between her class and people in Hong Kong, Italy, New Zealand, Kenya, Brazil, England, Albania, Israel, and soon, India. She interviews potential speakers beforehand and suggests they show items that are native to their homelands to enhance the exchange, whether it’s native garb, falafels from Israel, or Albanian instruments. A May 11 Skype session with elementary school students in Kenya turned into a singalong when her students belted out a song in Swahili and the Kenyan students belted out a song in English.
(MORE: A Brief History of Skype)
Of course, animals are the most popular Skype guests. “We Skyped with a mother and two children living in New Zealand, where there are a lot of farms, and the mother stepped away to go get her pet lamb, and then they fed some milk to the lamb,” Rosenstein explains. “The kids are still talking about it.”
Teachers may need to buy a webcam and external speakers for their computers to Skype, but the service is free to download, so it seems like a low-cost tool for educators — especially at schools where budget constraints may limit field trips and funding for guest speakers. Twenty-six states are providing less funding per student to schools districts than they did last year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“You’re able to give an experience to a student that you could never possibly provide otherwise,” says Allison Holland, an eLearning Coach for Plymouth Community Schools in Plymouth, Ind., where students have had Skype conversations with Indiana’s Secretary of State Connie Lawson and Shaquille O’Neal. The former Boston Celtics center, who now has a doctorate in education, addressed 600 students via Skype on October 24 and discussed the importance of reading.
Skype has 14 partnerships that help connect teachers with experts at Microsoft (which owns Skype), Penguin Books and the New York Philharmonic, to name a few. NASA’s Digital Learning Network partnered with the Internet phone service last month because web conferencing is dramatically cheaper for teachers to set up than video-conferencing systems, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars, according to Lead Education Specialist Caryn Long and fellow Education Specialist David Alexander. NASA would give out grants to certain schools so that they could purchase the video technology, but Long and Alexander hope their team will be able to reach more students nationwide via Skype, and therefore get more youngsters revved about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) — especially at a time when the STEM workforce is growing faster than the workforce overall. This month, NASA has started offering to teach aeronautics and “pulsar algebra,” which combines math with the study of stars.
All educators told TIME that frozen screens and audio that fades in and out are the most common technical glitches they have experienced with Skype — problems that can depend on schools’ bandwidth or the number of people on Skype at a certain time of day. For the Skype chat with Shaq, Holland actually shut down school computers that she didn’t need to make sure there wouldn’t be any technical glitches.
Her students are already thinking about the next star they want to Skype with. Sixth grader Mary Beatty says, “We want to Skype with the President.”