If you’ve looked up an arcane fact via Google on your smartphone over a dinner discussion, you’ve taken part in what used to be science-fiction — access to almost limitless information via the Web, pretty much on demand. But information without context, history and explanation (basically what a good teacher provides) is just that; a trick, a bit of stuff. That’s why the newest promise of the Internet regardess of the learner's locale — for not just information, but communication overall — may be just as worldchanging as its precedent. Videoconferencing in the classroom just got a whole lot more interesting.

If you think “videoconferencing” and imagine students in the U.S. waving via a large sceen to their counterparts in China, you’re behind the times; these days, there are quite a few ways that kids and their teachers can utilize communication software.

Virtual field trips are a growing area where using videoconferencing can be effective (and save school districts plenty of money, not to mention reduce possible liability). And they can be a real boon for kids with disabilities, who might be shut out of visiting certain sites otherwise. According to an article in The Australian, teachers have taken more than 100,000 students on “incursions” (contrasted with excursions) in the past 12 months in New South Wales. Education spokeswoman Carmel Tebbutt told The Australian, "I think everyone would agree that helping children in rural or remote areas visit Taronga Zoo or the Opera House via the Internet is a great idea.” While some parents (not to mention kids) are mourning the traditional field trip, going on a virtual trip sometime supplements, but doesn’t necessarily replace a real trip; it also broadens the number places students can ‘visit’ — moving far beyond their local area and into the rest of the globe.

Video conferencing can also connect students in different countries by creating genuinely collaborative projects, and with the low cost of the technology these days, it’s not as much of a logistical challenge for teachers. It’s also a lot cheaper, so students can spend time individually speaking with their equivalents around the world. Videoconferencing can also mean accessing classes or programs that may not be available in a particular school’s area. (This is a real boon for rural students who may have limited resources in their home schools.)

Skype is probably the most common tool for video conferencing used by educators (unless they have a proprietary system of some sort) and students the world over. Not only does the video chat software lend itself naturally to the communication needs of modern learners (if you haven’t tried it, it’s insanely easy to set up and get going), the company has been active in the educational community with its free Skype in The Classroom (SITC) program, which now has more than 41,000 teachers around the world involved. (The company’s aim is to eventually connect 1 million classrooms.) Skype even collaborates with organizations like NASA, the New York Philharmonic and Penguin books to bring experts in the field directly to students. 

When teachers get creative, all kinds of educational mashups can go down. “One of our most recent stories came from Allison Holland, an e-learning coach for two schools in Plymouth, Indiana. A long-time member of SITC, she has used Skype to connect with a park ranger at Yellowstone National Park, a classroom in South Korea, and, most recently, Shaquille O’Neal, who spoke to the students about his (and their!) favorite books and the importance of reading,” says Andrew Schmidt, head of Social Good for Skype.

As teachers and school systems increasingly bring iPads, e-readers, laptops, and other Web-enabled devices into the classroom, the possibilities for all of these programs expand, as each student can learn at his own level from someone nearby or across the state or country.

What kinds of programs teachers choose to integrate into their classsrooms are up to them. But one thing is for sure: these days, that ubiquitous handheld technology and Internet access we all love can be used to expand educational horizons, foster cross-cultural connections and give access to those who have traditionally gone without. Technology isn't not just for games anymore.

Additional information:

To join Skype in the classroom and view its exclusive resources, teachers should:

1. Sign up at education.skype.com using their Skype account details
2. Create a profile that includes their location, the age groups they teach and subjects their students are interested in learning about
3. Once complete, teachers will have full range to explore the Skype in the classroom site and take their students on the ultimate field trip by engaging in conversations with select guest experts or connecting with other students anywhere in the world. 

Skype also has a how-to video on Skype in the classroom:

Related video conferencing stories on MNN:

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Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

How educators are using video conferencing technology
Video conferencing also connect students between or among countries by creating genuinely collaborative projects in the classroom.