Window to the World

Even though I’m just outside Toronto, Canada, I just a fun little chat with a Year 7 class at a school in country Victoria, Australia.

Anne Baird is a teacher from this Victorian school. Anne and I have been exchanging a few emails and Skype calls recently to share some blog and wiki ideas. Anne noticed I was online and buzzed me to ask if I’d like to talk to her Year 7 kids. I said yes, and the rest was easy. From my place in Canada, she was able to have my voice and video image magically appear on the board in a little school in country Victoria, and then Ms Baird and her kids were able to chat to me about life in Canada.

We spoke for about 25 minutes, and the kids asked me a bunch of questions about Canada, what it was like, the weather, the food, the people, and so on. Then my daughter – who is in Year 6 here in Canada walked past the computer so I put her on for a chat. Kate told them about school here, what it was like to live in a different country and so on…

Here’s the thing about this… the time taken to organise this event was about 2 minutes. The cost to make it happen was zero. The effort of taking part required a single mouse click on the Accept button.

It made me wonder… why don’t we take more advantage of these technologies in schools? We so often want to expose kids to bigger ideas and to let them ask questions from people who are outside their own little world, and the technology to do this is right here, right now. The technical barrier to using this stuff is ridiculously low. It requires very little special technical skill or know-how, and is not difficult to set up, and costs virtually nothing. We really should be using it more than we do.

And why don’t we? Too often the barrier for real-time collaboriative tools is that school systems block such traffic from their networks. Administrators unthinkingly deny access to collaborative technologies like Skype, MSN, and so on, because they think that if the network enabled kids to talk with people outside the classroom it would be dangerous or distract them from the work they should be doing, so they just turn it off.

But the way I see it, the value of being able to connect to the outside world could be incredibly valuable if we just manage it the right way. Of course you probably can’t just give open Skype access to every kid, but in many school systems the one-size-fits-all approach to online security is so restrictive that it stops anyone, including many teachers, from using these powerful learning tools with their kids.