This week’s assignment for my Technology in Education course was to call a teacher using Skype. The assignment was open-ended, giving us the freedom to direct the project to meet each students’ needs and based on their familiarity with Skype. I was familiar already with Skype, having lived overseas for four years. My wife and I sued Skype to call family stateside as often as the differences in our respective time zones and the quality of our internet connectivity allowed. Because our internet speeds in Uganda and Mali, where we lived and worked, was insufficient to support the video component of Skype, we rarely used video calling. It’s a shame too, as I feel that is one of the advantages of Skype: being able to see the person with whom you are talking. Another advantage is the cost – calls cost so little (we’d call a person’s cell phone and tell them to get on Skype, and then calls would be free computer to computer). So for me, this project was less about becoming familiar with the tool and more about making a connection with and having a conversation with a teacher currently working in the classroom.
My call with my teacher was fun and I felt more at ease than I initially thought I would be. I had thought it would be awkward, but it was quite the opposite. I felt comfortable starting the conversation, perhaps because of our personalities, perhaps also because we were both in our own homes and comfortable – she said she hadn’t made it out of her jammies yet, as she and her child were doing the Saturday morning cartoon thing (I had no idea that still happened!). Our conversation ended up being almost half an hour long, and she and I discussed a variety of topics. She described her professional background, indicating that in eight years she has taught everything from kindergarten through remedial reading through technology. Topics in our conversation revolved around technology in the classroom and particularly barriers that she has seen first-hand to the use of technology.
She indicated two barriers that I had thought or read about: technological limitations in the particular school (e.g., bandwidth to support Skype) and teacher and administrator mindsets. But we also discussed two barriers that i hadn’t really considered as well. One is that sometimes teachers (perhaps at the insistence of administrators) sometimes push technology into the curriculum without first considering how it can be used to advance content learning – they are often wowed by the bells and whistles. Another barrier that i had not fully considered is the lack of time to include technology. She cited an example from her classroom where she has only 12 days to cover the Alamo. Since she has a background in educational technology, she would like to include some longer-term projects that integrate technology, but she feels that she just doesn’t have the time to do so.
Another interesting (for the both if us) topic that we discussed, and on which we spent the majority of our time was the need for explicit instruction of students in using technologies. She suggested that this should be made part of the curriculum, starting in the lower elementary levels. In her school district, certain tests are taken on computers (by mandate) and yet the students may or may not be familiar enough with them to properly assess content alone. We also spent a good deal of time discussion the importance of teaching students critical thinking and discernment and evaluation skills especially when using online sources for information.
All in all, this was a great conversation. It was interesting to note how we both bi-passed the old social norms and niceties of conversation (that would likely have happened had this been a face-to-face conversation) and delved right into the issues we were going to discuss. It’s odd to think that I was comfortable with this, for a few reasons. I am continuously lamenting how we are moving away from these social norms – our conversation was polite and courteous and all, but we just jumped right in. Perhaps because I have spent so long living overseas, in cultures where one would never start a conversation without first inquiring about a person’s health, or family, or work, especially someone you had never met.
And that’s the thing about using something like Skype to connect our classrooms with people around the world. I think we (students and teachers alike) need to spend a little time learning about cultural norms, differences and similarities, in order to make the best use of conversations with and between cultures. If for example, my class is having a discussion with a class in Beijing, we should take a little time before the conversations/interactions to learn a little about perhaps some different cultural norms. But I suppose that could be said for any learning opportunity/activity that students undertake: preparation before the activity is important.