Talk to and write with a well-known author. Visit the zoo and learn about endangered species. Immerse yourself in Mardi Gras tradition with students and teachers who live in New Orleans. Travel to the White House. Or to an ancient Roman villa. Or even to China.

All from the comfort of your classroom or computer lab.

Though this sounds like an ad for a travel agency (or maybe just a teacher’s dream field-trip list), all of this can be accomplished through the power of video conferencing: a tool relatively new to our school, yet incredibly useful in expanding the classroom beyond the confines of its physical walls.

Video conferencing for a more connected classroom

When I think about what it means to be a connected educator, my mind begins to wonder what I can do to better myself as a learner and a teacher by networking with fellow teachers. How can I share in and contribute to the collective knowledge base they have to offer? So I’m stepping out here with my contribution about video conferencing — and I hope you’ll share back. Just leave a comment below!

My urge to share also grows out of my wondering about how the knowledge and relationships I develop as a connected professional can assist me in cultivating connected students — connected learners. We are more knowledgeable, powerful and successful together, as one collaborative community of educators, than we are alone. If we believe this holds true for teachers, why not afford this kind of opportunity for shared learning to our students?

This is where video conferencing comes in. With seemingly endless options for connecting and learning with experts, professionals, and other students and teachers, this internet-dependent tool gives our students the ability to learn from someone other than their teacher (yet another way to ditch the Sage on the Stage routine) and also to show and share what they know with students from other parts of the country and the world.

Through live video experiences, students are able to gain insight into particular areas of study. They can have real-time, face-to-face interactions with those who know the topic best. They practice social skills by being encouraged to interact politely and professionally with those they encounter during a video conference. And they learn how to prepare for a virtual meeting in ways that help them make a good impression and perform as knowledgeable teachers for their audience.

Above all, students come to recognize that they and their friends and young people in their physical community are not the only learners in the world. There are other students out there—encountering the same material, facing the same challenges, growing up in the same time as they are. They discover that learning can take place in spaces that do not include whiteboards and desks and textbooks and tests. And they see that teachers can be of any age—from a wide-eyed second grader to an eighty-year-old war veteran— all offering lessons that may very well be more valuable than anything they might find in their science or history book.

So, how do I get going?

With the proper equipment and connectivity (ours is powered by Polycom), students and teachers can take part in video conferencing opportunities found in a variety of places. MAGPI offers several programs that span grade levels and content areas from cookies with Santa to reading story books about sharks to learning about the Civil War. Content-focused programs, academic classes, and classroom collaborations, all able to be filtered by area of study and grade level, are accessible through the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration. Publishers may stage live webinars with popular children’s authors (here’s an example from last May).

Google is an effective way to search for prepared programs or for teachers who are looking for other classrooms with which to collaborate. And Skype is invaluable for connecting with teachers and students from around the world to share and learn together. Several teachers on Twitter will also tweet invitations or requests to connect with classes regarding a particular book, lesson, or unit that is being studied. To find global connection opportunities, try following the #globaled hashtag.

As always, start small

Video conferencing can seem a daunting task, what with the equipment set-up, the possible connectivity issues, and the potential nervousness that may ensue from “meeting” students, teachers, or professionals you have never seen before. But, as with all things technology in the classroom, it is important to start small and work your way toward more complex opportunities.

Contact a teacher in your district or a colleague you know in another state. Arrange for your classes to “meet” during a video conference if only just to introduce themselves and share what they did over Christmas break. Leverage your school and local community to find parents who have video conferencing equipment at work and would be willing to use it to share what they do. Ask local professionals (news anchors, meteorologists, librarians, government officials, clergy, or even educational administrators) who can speak to your class and answer their questions.

Most of all, share your experiences with other teachers, parents, and school administration in an effort to strengthen the connective threads that video conferencing spins to weave an enriched, genuine, wall-less learning environment.

Help me make this post more useful

I know many people will read this post who have far more experience than I do with video conferencing. Will you help me and other readers create more opportunities for our students by sharing below in the comments: I promise to comment back!
What should you share?
• Experiences (successes or failures with lessons learned).
• Tips and tricks that can help both beginners and more experienced video conferencers.
• Any resources you use to find opportunities for students to talk to experts, hear interesting people, learn about distant places, or meet up with students to share cultural information or work on projects together.
• Ways you’ve woven video conferencing experiences into lessons and curriculum standards.

Thank you!

2nd photo: Langwitches blog

About the author
Stephanie Bader is a 4th grade teacher at Saint Margaret Mary School in Harrisburg, PA. Nothing makes her happier than seeing her students embrace the technology she brings to the classroom, make it their own, and use it to showcase their learning. She blogs at Learner First. Follow her on Twitter @stephpbader.