Bring the World to Your Classroom: Videoconferencing

By Bryan A. Upshaw

My worst grade in high school was in Spanish I. Our teacher was tough, and the pace was blistering. I struggled to learn the vocab, grammar, and odd verb conjugation charts. I found the culture interesting, but the rest of the class was just frustrating and seemingly pointless to my future. Guess what subject I mainly teach now? That’s right – Spanish. What turned my worst grade and most frustrating class into my career?

Getting to see the world outside my little East Tennessee community and building relationships with people who at first seemed so different from me changed the way I saw the world. I was inspired to travel abroad, learn a language, join a local Hispanic church, and live with an undocumented family my last semester of college. Those relationships and experiences made language learning fun and transformed pointless grammar exercises into real-world challenges that unlocked boundaries that separated people.

How can I show them the world when we can’t leave our classroom?

I share my stories with my students and perhaps it inspires some to consider traveling one day, but how can I motivate students right now? How can I show them the world when we can’t leave our classroom? In my opinion, one of the most underused tools in education is videoconferencing. While expensive systems with fancy cameras and monitors can make it seamless, most teachers already have the resources to videoconference. If they have a smartphone, tablet,  or computer, then they probably have everything they need!

As a foreign language teacher, I use videoconferencing in my classroom in many different ways. For example, my friend in Nicaragua, Emanuel, converses with my students. My sister shares stories about her semesters abroad in Nicaragua and Honduras. Another friend, Garret, has talked from Germany about his year abroad in Argentina and how it helped him to learn German and get a job with BMW. My students love hearing stories from guest speakers projected in the front of the classroom. They have fun asking questions and always learn something new.

If my guest speakers have time, I ask them to talk, one-on-one or with a small group of students, in Spanish. Students are often nervous and excited as they practice their Spanish with someone new. This live oral practice and production of the target language is crucial to the development of proficiency. My goal this year is to use Skype in the Classroom to arrange a sister class relationship between my Spanish II or Spanish III classes and a class in a Spanish-speaking country that is learning English.

Videoconferencing does not need to be limited to foreign language learning.

However, videoconferencing does not need to be limited to foreign language learning. Science teachers can use Skype, FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, Google Hangout, Viber, etc. to talk with an expert botanist, paleontologist, or university professor. The really cool thing is this can be a person in their hometown or in the Amazon jungle. History teachers studying World War II could talk to a survivor of the Holocaust living in Israel. A class studying Egypt could videoconference with a professor about the Pyramids of Giza. Studying American art? Why not set up a free videoconference with the Smithsonian? The opportunities are limited only by imagination, and the impact on students is priceless.

Not only is videoconferencing engaging, but research proves that it bolsters listening and speaking skills through live interaction and immediate feedback. Videoconferencing further makes it easy to fulfill common core requirements by evoking higher-order thinking, questioning, collaboration, and global awareness.

My students love asking questions and are always engaged while videoconferencing with someone from outside their world. So why not arrange some video connections for your students this fall? To get started, contact some college professors and museums. Talk to your friends and other teachers to identify and locate experts. Call up old friends who may now be in other parts of the world doing interesting things with their lives. Even if your class can’t physically leave the classroom, it doesn’t mean you can’t bring the world to them.

Bryan Upshaw is a high school Spanish teacher in East Tennessee. He is also currently a doctoral student at Carson Newman University. Bryan enjoys finding innovative ways to use technology to engage students and connect them to the outside world.

One Response

  1. As much as I approve of the use of video conferencing in learning another language, I don’t see it working as well in science. You’ll find many more science classes than scientists, and the gap with scientists willing to spend time with classes is even greater. Beyond the numbers, there’s the language. Too many scientists are simply unable to speak about their speciality in terms your students will understand. As you consider the various issues here, you will find few scientists ready and able to communicate with your students.

    Active scientists work very long days and have little time for anything else.

    Another fact is that much of science takes place in fields that young students have no connection to.

    If you could arrange a group of classes to be online with a willing scientist at the same time, you should be discussing science in general or a timely topic that’s in the news.

    For those in science, nothing else has the same excitement. Other cultures pale in comparison. Not that scientists don’t have outside interests. Some are musicians. Others are woodworkers. If you do science, you must have a way to decompress from the intensity of the work you do every day.

    BTW, once a scientist, always a scientist. It’s a suite of mental habits that you never really lose as you go through life. This makes your best way to engage a scientist finding one who has retired and who loves conversing in ordinary language with people about science. If you are lucky, you’ll find one who keeps up with many different areas of science.

    How about video conferencing in other areas? I can imagine music. I cannot imagine math, but my imagination may be weak. You’ll have a hard time video conferencing with great historical figures unless you have a seance. Civics has the opportunity to conference with active lawmakers. Might an ELA class have a conference with an author? Plenty of unpublished authors must be available. Painting could work the same way.

    As you say, it’s free if you have the internet.

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