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Video Chats Break Down Classroom Walls

February 24, 2015

Sometimes a field trip isn’t possible, but meeting the experts face-to-face is a worthwhile experience.  Over the past year face-to-face video chats have provided my students with multiple opportunities to consult with and question experts from around the country and across an ocean.  Here are some examples.

A Museum an Ocean Away

My 10th grade history classes started the school year with a study of the Industrial Revolution in both Europe and the United States.  Of course, the textile manufacturing boom began in England but a class trip to textile mills and museums there would be a huge undertaking.  Over the summer I contacted the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, United Kingdom.  After working with the staff on learning goals and the right format for our chat, we set up a time.  During the Google Hangout students learned about topics like urbanization and sanitation, women’s health, orphan laborers, and Luddites.  While my students could have learned about these topics from me lecturing and showing them photos at the front of the classroom, talking face-to-face with a dedicated scholar was more interactive and allowed them to understand the local history perspective. Also, the machines literally came to life as our “Explainer” Jamie powered them up and operated them himself. Their reflective posts demonstrated their appreciation of working with scholars outside the classroom.

Consulting with Experts in the Industry

A handful of students and I are piloting a student-led tech integration service for our high school called Rockets Help Desk.  In order to develop our relationship with edtech professionals and understand their perspectives when they develop tools, the students have been able to interview app designers from across the country. Reshan Richards, the Explain Everything developer, talked with them from New Jersey after an initial face to face meeting at MassCUE, our state’s largest edtech conference. Most recently Swaroop Raju, the creator of eduCanon, provided his ideas and visions of flipped learning from California.  The students felt special and appreciated when leaders in the industry took the time to talk with them face to face and even ask their opinions of how to improve their product.

When it came time for the students and I to propose the expansion of our program to our school administration, the kids once again wanted to chat with experts.  This time, they interviewed Andrew Marcinek who has personally worked in 3 school districts to help build their student tech teams.  He gave them lots of hints to help craft the proposal in a way that would promote both the learning and the service sides of our program.

Networking with Students

When students want to learn from one another they use Google Hangouts often for study groups and project collaboration.  It seemed to make sense to help them make a similar connection between schools.  Thanks to the initiative of Jennifer Scheffer, a technology integrator and mobile learning coach in Burlington, my students chatted virtually with tech teams from around New England twice last fall.  First, alongside teachers in order to discuss the varied missions and philosophies of student tech teams.  Then the students ran the video chat themselves in an online demo slam!  These virtual meetings proved to open doors when several of the student groups met face to face at MassCUE a few weeks later.  They had already worked together and were able to have more constructive conversations about continuing their relationships and building their respective programs.

Google Hangout is not the only video chat tool.  Students and teachers can use FaceTime or Skype to extend their learning beyond the resources and people within their school.  Face to face conversations make learning more personal and purposeful.


Kerry Gallagher teaches middle and high school history in Massachusetts.