When I arrived at Loyola Elementary School in the Silicon Valley area, I was met by Ellen Kraska, a Technology Integration Specialist who helps teachers in Los Altos bring all sorts of digital projects—movies, digital storytelling, music—into the classroom. On the day of my visit, Kraska was helping out a 4th grade class with "Mystery Skype"—a game where the students connect via Skype to a mystery classroom somewhere else in the world and use maps and logic to figure out where they are.
I sat in the back of the classroom while the kids played with Google Earth (everyone had their own school-provided laptop), snapped photos of the big screen that showed video of the mystery class, and live-blogged their findings into a Google Docs document. The kids pumped their fists as they came closer to pinpointing the mystery classroom ("Do you live in a state that borders a body of water?" "Do you live in a state with lots of stores?"). And after 20 minutes or so, they figured out that the 3rd grade classroom up on the screen was in Miami.
As recently as five years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find an elementary school classroom where kids have constant exposure to nonprofits, NASA engineers, classrooms across the world, and startup founders. As I learned during my visit to Loyola, some of them now do.
A little over a year ago, Skype launched its Skype in the Classroom platform, which connects teachers and classrooms with guest speakers, online lessons, and other classrooms. Today, there are 14,000 members and 14 partner organizations, including NASA and Penguin Books. "We’ve seen this underground grassroots movement. We’ve seen people start to use technology [in the classroom], and we realized we should start to kick it into high-gear," says Tony Bates, the CEO of Skype.
Bates’s favorite Skype in the Classroom projects include the classroom that found a beekeeper to take them on a virtual tour (the teacher wanted to demonstrate a beehive metaphor to the kids) and the pair of teachers that used the platform to co-teach from across town. " The engagement level of the students went way up," he says. "In a video setting, people are more engaged. They know they’re being watched."
A look at the platform reveals an array of guest speaker options for teachers. There’s Jane Kohuth, the author of a children’s book called Duck Sock Hop! There’s the Squid Acres Sled Dog Kennel, which is offering lessons on the science of building dogsleds. And there’s Kelly Witherspoon, the Digital Learning Network Education Specialist at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, offering to teach kids about food in space. A lazy teacher could outsource a big chunk of their lessons to the Skype education network and still have well-informed kids (albeit kids that are well-informed about some random topics).
In higher education institutions that have more money to spare, the Cisco Connected Classroom—a telepresence system designed with classroom lectures in mind—is a more immersive option than Skype. But kids have strong enough imaginations that they don’t necessarily need high-definition life-sized video screens to get excited. The classroom of the near future may only have a grainy Skype connection—and that’s just fine.