Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Questioning the potential value of Skype and videoconferencing in the classroom?

Are folks in your IT department, your school administrative leaders, school board members, or others questioning the educational value of Skype and other videoconferencing solutions in the classroom? If so, I commend the following resources.

Neil Stephenson‘s post on ISTEconnects this past spring, “The Many Roles of Skype in the Classroom,” provides outstanding examples of how a classroom teacher HAS and IS using Skype to bring in guest speakers and extend classroom learning beyond traditional boundaries.

The Skype in Schools wiki is an educational directory for using Skype in the classroom which is also wonderful. I referenced this in my January 2009 post, “Skype Virtual Guest Speakers and Collaboration wiki.” I wrote the article “Skype in the Classroom” for TCEA’s TechEdge magazine back in 2005. My presentation wiki and resource list, “Videoconferencing Collaborations and Virtual Field Trips” includes multiple examples and suggestions for using Skype as well as other videoconferencing technologies in the classroom with students. I’ve shared professional development presentations with teachers using multiple videoconferencing tools and platforms to date, including Tandberg videoconferencing hardware, Skype, and Google Video. Of these options, the Tandberg equipment is definitely my favorite. Not all classrooms or classroom teachers have access to H.323 videoconferencing equipment, however. Desktop video solutions like Skype and Google Video can fill this void and address this need affordably and securely.

Just yesterday, thanks to James Deaton, I learned about Vidyo desktop videoconferencing which uses the same technologies as Google Video to deliver HD quality conferencing to the desktop. We’re continuing to see the evolution of videoconferencing technologies migrating from the iTV room to the laptop. Gone are the days you needed a dedicated room outfitted with $90,000 of equipment and infrastructure to conduct high quality videoconference interactions.

Two of my favorite examples of Skype’s use in the classroom are the video interviews “Skype in the Classroom” conducted by a student of Tammy Parks in Howe, Oklahoma, last year, as well as Brian Crosby’s video “Inclusion” linked from his 2008 K-12 Online Conference presentation, “Video-Conferencing It’s Easy, Free and Powerful.”
Find more videos like this on Celebrate Oklahoma Voices!

The wiki project “Unmasking the Digital Truth” may also be of interest and assistance when discussing technologies like Skype and videoconferencing in the classroom. My ISTEconnects post from April 2009, “Skype and Twitter going more mainstream” references uses of Skype now on mainstream media shows like Oprah and channels like CNN which are demonstrating the viability and quality of desktop videoconferencing solutions for larger audiences.

We need to respond to those who question the value and practicality of using videoconferencing in the classroom with SPECIFIC EXAMPLES, like those linked in this post, demonstrating the educational value of videoconferencing. The 1.5 minute video, “Howe High School KC3 2009 Project,” is yet another example of how videoconferencing can and DOES expand the walls of the classroom to transform learning opportunities for students, WHEN administrators and teachers/librarians “get it” and support its transformative use.

Our K-12 school networks need to resemble university networks in many ways, and today most do not. Many university networks are segmented for “official” administrative/academic traffic and student/public use. Concerned that students may bring a virus to school that could infect your Windows-based and virus-prone administrative computers? Switch to an Apple and Linux environment. Create separate VLANs on your network so student/public Internet access is segmented / separated from your administrative network. This can also permit you to throttle and manage available bandwidth for student users.

Are you hearing someone cry, “We don’t have enough bandwidth to support Skype” when you initiate this discussion? Point out that you’re not advocating for every user on your network to open simultaneous Skype video connections. Suggest that the use of skype in the classroom begin with access granted for teachers, and then monitor bandwidth utilization. Teachers can schedule Skype calls if bandwidth is severely restricted. If the school doesn’t have sufficient bandwidth now, it’s time to ramp it up. That is what E-Rate is for in the United States. Schools receive a MINIMUM 40% discount on connectivity. E-Rate was not created as a program and is not supported by taxpayers merely to help teachers submit grades and attendance online. Internet connectivity offers unprecedented opportunities for students to not only search for and consume multimedia content, but it also permits students as well as teachers to INTERACT and PUBLISH their ideas for and with a global audience. More options for dealing with bandwidth issues are included on the “Unmasking the Digital Truth” wiki.

If your school network is not being used regularly by students and teachers to virtually interact with other learners in other places and interactively publish information online, your network is underutilized at best, misused and a waste of taxpayer money at worst. As educators, we need to help our administrators understand that the benchmark of a highly successful and effective educational computing environment is not an IT Department which has locked everything down so tight that no one can do anything interactive, and the IT department faces ZERO trouble tickets each day because users can only check district email and surf the web. Hat tip to Sylvia Martinez for shaping my thinking about this. IT “success” in an educational context should look very different from what it looks like in a commercial business or hospital.

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9 responses to “Questioning the potential value of Skype and videoconferencing in the classroom?”

  1. John Weidner Avatar
    John Weidner

    This reminds me of a time 30+ years ago when in third grade we had a lesson on phone etiquette. We even had a pair of phones connected together where we could dial the other phone and it would really ring.

    We just moved out of state and we gave a web cam to my son’s best friend so that the two of them could stay in touch. Our internet service got connected today so I’m sure he will be testing it out tonight. Soon kids will have been video conferencing long before they start school. Students will look at their teachers in disbelief if they can’t connect with others to answer a question.

  2. Mark Ahlness Avatar

    Great post Wes, a keeper! I especially love last paragraph. BTW, couldn’t get your share to FB thingy to work (prob. just me…). Thanks – Mark

  3. Kern Kelley Avatar

    We were part of Langwithes Around the World with 80 Schools which what completely dependent on Skype.

  4. […] Questioning the potential value of Skype and videoconferencing in the classroom? (tags: skype) « Telling a Story- Creating Poems with Animoto […]

  5. sylvia martinez Avatar

    Thanks for the “hat tip” – you are so right, we need to make sure that networks work FOR THE USERS, not the IT department. It’s so wonderful to run across some IT teams who get that learning is sometimes messy, and that is more important than a perfect network.

  6. Ricky Avatar

    “we need to make sure that networks work FOR THE USERS, not the IT department.”

    99% of end-users have no concept of how IT/Networking works. It is the job of the IT department to ensure that the network continues to function first and foremost for legitimate educational purposes. While being a potentially great technology tool, it should not put other online educational applications at risk for failure simply because it’s the new “super cool” technology kid on the block. I’m also certain that taxpayers would be thrilled to know that they pay the salaries for educators to use skype/youtube/facebook/etc. for things that aren’t instruction related throughout the workday!
    Enabling access to Skype for all users with clients operating in “SuperNode” mode is network suicide.

  7. Wesley Fryer Avatar


    Interesting I’m able to use Skype on numerous commercial and residential networks and those networks do not seem to have committed “network suicide.”

    Skype has numerous “legitimate educational purposes.” I use it all the time for professional work as well as providing professional development. Many in IT are unaware of the educational benefits of Skype and similar desktop videoconferencing programs. One of the largest public school districts in our state decided in the last year not to order any webcams for any laptops that were going to be used by students, because they did not consider webcams to have any valid educational use. This perception is both false and unfortunate. Like any tool, a webcam can be abused. The inappropriate uses of a tool by a small minority of users should not result it the banning of the tool for use by all users. Sadly this is what we see time and time again in educational IT circles.

    Of course you are correct that “online educational applications” should not be put “at risk” by other technology tools being used on networks with limited bandwidth. That is why our school / educational networks at the K-12 level need to look more like networks at our colleges and universities: Separate VLANs for public wifi, allocated bandwidth for institutional IT purposes, student/public use, etc.

    I have never advocated the use of educational networks to distractedly watch YouTube videos all day long and social network using sites like Facebook. Users should be permitted to make these choices, however, and network use should be monitored and discussed with users. If a teacher is watching YouTube all day long instead of teaching his/her class at school, that’s certainly a problem and would be an ADMINISTRATIVE problem for the principal to address, not the IT department by banning all staff and students from using the website YouTube.

    The decision to prohibit these destinations by the IT department is inappropriate censorship which can be more readily understood in a closed society like China, but not in an ostensibly free society like ours in the United States which values both free expression and open access to ideas.

    Most of our school districts need far more bandwidth today than they have currently. We need greater involvement by state and federal government to make high speed Internet access more accessible and affordable in many areas, especially our rural communities. The differences in access and pricing for broadband in countries like Korea and Japan is stark when compared to the United States. We didn’t wait for corporations with ROI calculations to provide electrification for our rural communities in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. We formed co-ops which had governmental support to insure these needed services were supplied to all areas. We need to do the same thing with broadband.

    Larry Lessig discusses the phenomenon we’re seeing here with IT administrators in his book, “The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World.” Technological tools provide great latitude for censorship in our organizational networks today. The availability and possibility of such censorship does not coincide with its propriety in a free and open society. Certainly we have limits and constraints on openness in our country, I am far from an anarchist and am not saying the IT department doesn’t have an important role to play in monitoring and at times regulating bandwidth utilization on the network. I am saying that blanket prohibition of sites like YouTube, Skype, Facebook, etc, is wrong and inappropriate in our educational institutions because it amounts to censorship above the paygrade of the IT department to mandate.

  8. […] received the following comment today on my August 21, 2009 post, “Questioning the potential value of Skype and videoconferencing in the classroom?” from Ricky. He began his comment by quoting a sentence of my post with which he took issue, […]

  9. Ricky Avatar

    K-12 Public education in rural areas receives little to no funding for the type of bandwidth you’re talking about. There’s a huge difference between businesses, universities, and public primary education and specifically where the money comes from and exactly how much. Over half of our entire technology funds are allocated immediately to bandwidth costs for the year (over half a million) and guess what….we have a whopping 10 Mbits of speed per school! Ever try to run 1500 users through a single 10 meg pipe?! Odds are, you have a faster connection at home but you’re not paying for the large WAN infrastructure to support it. Until taxpayers are willing to pay more out of pocket for little Susie to use more bandwidth, or the service providers are willing to cut their costs in half, we’re stuck with what we have!

    We’re the bad guys for trying to keep the network running and limiting the bandwidth hogging applications. When the applications work, we’re the bad guys because the network is deathly slow and no longer works. Fix it they say!

    I guess there’s no middle ground here huh? No censorship is a great idea until you’re the one who has to answer for it!