Primary

Primary – Reach for the Skype

The Problem

For years we wanted to do video conferencing with schools in other countries but were restricted by the cost of setting up the system and the bandwidth required to stream live video both ways simultaneously. Then along came Skype and took most of the problems away.

We were early users of www.epals.com to help us get in contact with other schools around the world to exchange data and become ‘pen friends’ with children from other countries. We had partner schools in Chile, the US, Australia, Japan and Ghana. Each week the children would write to their friends over the internet and wait expectantly for a reply. We used our links for geography lessons and for citizenship and it worked very well. Two things were missing though; spontaneity and face to face contact. All the schools we had contacted and ourselves investigated the possibility of video conferencing as a way to get together but because of the cost and technical knowledge required, the plan fell apart.

The Solution
Someone in school suggested that we try Skype and so we asked all our partner schools to set up Skype accounts. The only requirements were a webcam, a PC with a broadband link, a microphone and some speakers. We were able to send microphones, a webcam and speakers to the school in Ghana who couldn’t afford that level of equipment. At our end we attached the PC to an interactive whiteboard and positioned the camera centrally and twin microphones linked by an adaptor on either side of the room. The speakers were wall mounted by the whiteboard and we were ready to begin.

How we used the system

Understanding the views of children in other cultures

Our first topic concerned attitudes to bullying and how it was dealt with. The children prepared questions that they could ask the partner school and they did the same. We laid down rules for who should speak and clicked ‘Connect’. Moments later we could see them on a 2.4m x 1.6m screen and see who our camera was focused on. The children introduced themselves to each other and we then had a break to allow the children to get the excitement of seeing their new found friends out of the way. That period also allowed the teachers to tweak settings for sound and video quality before we began the question and answer session.

We began by getting the speaker to come closer to the camera but then found it better to move the camera around the class, with the teacher acting as ‘cameraperson’.

As Skype developed, it allowed true ‘conferencing’ and we were able to invite other schools to join in. It began as an observation session for the third school but we soon worked out a way we could harmonise the involvement of each school.

If there has been a major news story in one of our partner school’s countries, we have contacted them by Skype and talked about how they feel about the news. We did this for the Japanese earthquake in March 2011and the outcome was extraordinary after our children could see how events affect ‘real’ people. One of the children in Tokyo had grandparents in the quake zone and hadn’t heard from them since the fateful day. Our class were brilliant in displaying great empathy for him and his teacher emailed later to say how the boy felt better knowing his friends in the UK were concerned for him.

Keeping in touch

One of our pupils left to move abroad because of her father’s job. She asked if she could keep in touch via Skype and we now have occasional lunchtime sessions asking her about her life in Cyprus. Another child in our class was off school for several weeks due to a broken leg and was able to keep up with lessons by having Skype operating, enabling her to still receive the teaching and participate in the lessons.

Master classes 

One of our parents had a friend who worked in the film industry and managed to persuade a ‘B’ list actress to join us in a Skype lesson for drama. It was great fun and the children acted for her with the actress giving tips on their performance. We have since written to other personalities and asked if they would be prepared to do a short ‘master class’ session with our children. The response so far has been encouraging with a fire service chief doing a session with the children and a children’s author helping us with our creative writing. All schools should be able to do this quite easily, adding another dimension to lessons.

So how do I get started?

Just go on to www.skype.com and register with a username and password. You’ll need a webcam and microphone plus decent speakers. We used a splitter jack that enabled us to use two microphones to cover the whole classroom and a mini-jack extension cable to get the video camera and microphones around so the children could stay sat at their desks. If you’ve got an interactive whiteboard you’ll be able to have the video of the partner school, full size on full screen. Our broadband connection was 12 Mbps and so video and audio were nearly perfect. Don’t forget that the picture and sound quality you receive and send will also depend on that of the partner school.

Dave Lewis
Primary Teacher

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