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Video Chats Take Students to Other Worlds

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As Skyping becomes part of our daily vocabulary -- like "googling" and "friending," it's also being used more in schools. As a way to connect students to valuable resources across the world, schools are embracing Skype, WebEx, Google video chat, and other tools as an alternative the chalkboard generation could only dream of: conversations with astronauts, field trips to the zoo, and connecting with kids across the globe, for instance -- all from the comfort of their own classrooms.

Grant funding for videoconferencing equipment in schools is becoming more prevalent, too (often, that money is federal; Tandberg, for example, is one resource). This means that more kids might get to meet peers in El Salvador, and snow days could be a thing of the past.


In Tennessee, instructors at Dyersburg State Community College 11 interactive TV classrooms can teach students more than an hour's drive away, thanks to a $800,000 USDA grant. A distance learning program in Alabama that uses webcams, big-screen televisions, and interactive whiteboards has been lauded for its ability to bring Advanced Placement (AP) classes to students who wouldn't otherwise have access. And the Gallup-McKinley and Jemez Valley School Districts in New Mexico are each receiving $500,000 in federal grants to create a videoconferencing system that will enable students to take AP and foreign language classes as well as facilitate professional development for teachers.



Some of the greatest potential for learning exists with kids meeting friends across the world or across town to discuss class topics or to collaborate on long-term projects. Kids can perform in slam poetry competitions with one another through an arts program called Global Writes; a Discovery Museums science and culture exchange program allows third-graders in Acton, Massachusetts to videoconference with students from El Salvador and learn about one another's local ecosystems; and sixth graders in Hillburn, New York are teaching kindergartners beginning Mandarin Chinese. And sometimes, student videoconferences are, in fact, conferences, like this international conference on the global response to natural disasters based out of Pittsburgh or a virtual book club meeting between middle school students in Oklahoma.


In Orangeville, Ontario, a Canadian Space Agency astronaut told kids about his experiences in outer space via Skype -- things like you can't burp in space. Through the NASA Explorer Schools Program, schools videoconference with astronauts at the International Space Station. In New York, kids have connected with health professionals at the McMillen Center for Health Education to learn about eating disorders, while elementary school students in Ottawa got to ask questions of the author of the book they were reading.


Videoconferencing means going places -- real places -- without having to pay for transportation or juggle logistics. Students can visit "the heart of Madagascar" through a videoconference tour of an exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, for example, watch an autopsy procedure at the Center of Science & Industry in Columbus, Ohio, or even chase thunderstorms (or at least learn about them) through a tour of the National Weather Center with Discovery Channel's Reed Timmer. Check out this video of Center of Science & Industry's COSI's Storm Spotter videoconference session, in which students learn to take and use readings from barometers and thermometers to help them predict basic weather patterns and much more.

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