Students from Brad Peach's ninth grade World Geography class in McKinney, Texas, gathered in their high school classroom on a Sunday night. On a screen in front of them, teenagers in Siberia dished to their Texan peers about life in eastern Russia.
Seeing the faces of students across the globe and learning about a culture firsthand brought his students to life, Peach says.
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"They wanted to sit right in front [and] be right in the camera; they wanted to really interact," Peach notes. "This thing is drawing kids out who might be a little wallflowerish."
The students chatted about sports, school, and food using Skype, a Web-based phone and video service. Skype started in 2003 as a voice service and quickly expanded to include video calls and mobile apps. The service now averages 145 million users worldwide each month.
As Skype grew, so did the number of teachers using the service, and Skype executives saw an opportunity, says Jacqueline Botterill, head of social good for Skype.
"One of the barriers that they continued to face . . . was finding like-minded teachers, experts, and classrooms to collaborate with on mutually relevant topics, and on a global scale," Botterill says.
Skype created its first education-focused community, Skype in the classroom, where teachers could create profiles, post classroom projects for other teachers to join, and find tips from educators on how to use Skype as a teaching tool. The site has grown into a community of more than 17,000 educators since it formally launched in March.
"We found out quickly it was working, that Skype in the classroom itself was working, and teachers were finding partners to connect with more easily than they have before," Botterill notes, citing one teacher who connected with five classrooms the day she joined.
The response was slightly slower for Scott Green, a teacher at Hampshire Regional High School in Westhampton, Mass. Two weeks after posting a project to connect with students in Japan, Korea, India, or China for his Asian Civilizations honors class, Green had one response.
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"If I find one person and have success, have a little failure—even if it is for 30 or 40 minutes—I think in all these situations the kids appreciate the effort," Green says.
For Green and Peach, figuring out the best way to use Skype in their classrooms is a work in progress. "There's an extremely steep learning curve that wasn't expected," Peach says.
To cope with this, Peach starts with a "handshake" call where students get to know the other class by chatting about food and sports. After introductions, Peach assigns his students roles—such as record keeper or moderator—to prepare for the next call, and he debriefs his students after each video chat.
"The debrief is when their little brains are just spinning," Peach says.
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While the projects on Skype in the classroom are aimed at engaging students, the service also challenges teachers to think outside of the box.
Francesca Fay teaches English at the NYCiSchool, a New York City public school that blends technology and challenged-based modules to foster student innovation. This year she's coteaching an AP literature class with a teacher at East Bronx Academy using Skype.
"I think as a teacher I push myself to come up with better ideas," Fay says. "It's not only about having another set of eyes, or another classroom, you're constantly reflecting on what you did."