Skype brings in big hitters to make a splash with UK classroom work
Tom Daley book'My Story': Tom Daley's memoirsThe network managers who obstruct schools' access to Skype's free video-conferencing facilities can expect more 'pester power' from teachers and students as the online Skype in the Classroom community ramps up its activities.

Organisations like Science Museum London and Peace one Day are making agreements with Skype to bring instant expertise to classroom projects via online video. And one of the latest recruits, Penguin Books, is offering three UK schools the chance to video-conference with Olympic diver Tom Daley in the autumn term.

Tom Daley, who won two gold medals in the 2010 Commonwealth Games and a bronze at London 2012, will share his experiences at London 2012 with the successful schools, and will also share the life experiences he explores in his first memoirs, My Story. Tom Daley is an incredibly gifted diver (see video below) and will be a powerful draw for young people. But he can only 'Skype' into three schools.

In her blog to introduce the project, Skype social media manager Shana Pearlman advises teachers how to get involved: "To join Skype in the Classroom and get the chance to be part of this exciting Skype call, teachers should:
1.    Sign up at education.skype.com using their Skype account details
2.    Create a profile which includes their interests, location and the age groups they teach
3.    Visit the project page and click 'I want to take part'
While there, don't forget to check out our other projects."

Skype, now owned by Microsoft, is building up its relationships with organisations that can support schools with resources and world class experts to link in via the internet to inspire and support classroom work. The latest collaborations include Peace One day, Penguin Group, The Science Museum, Save The Children and the New York Philharmonic.

Peace One Day founder Jeremy Gilley an inspiring figure for students

Jeremy GilleyJeremy Gilley: inspiringPeace One Day is a phenomenally successful movement promoting world peace. It won the unanimous support of UN member states for the first ever annual day of global ceasefire and non-violence on September 21 – Peace Day – and even earned a day of peace from the mujahidin to allow the World Health Organisation innoculate Afghani children. (You can see Peace One Day founder, the inspiring Jeremy Gilley, in action at the online global Education Fast Forward 5 debate at PrometheanWorld – "Students in driving seat with Peace One Day for EFF5").

The range of opportunities unfolding from Skype in the Classroom holds exciting prospects for schools, like running projects with the National Science Museum, and musical ventures with the New York Philharmonic like "live interaction with musicians and educators, beginning with an exploration of Billy the Kid – the man and the legend – through the lens of Aaron Copland's 1939 ballet". How the work scales as the popularity remains to be seen but there's no doubting the potential, and the community already has 28,000 registered teachers in more than 190 countries

Andy SchmidtSkype's Andy SchmidtThe person charged with growing the Skype in the Classroom community is Skype's head of social good, Andy Schmidt, who says he is excited by developments. It's just as well, because he has been given an ambitious target – linking one million classrooms.

“In the UK, there is a significant and growing number of teachers creating unforgettable shared learning experiences for their students," he said. "We praise this and, as such, are excited to collaborate with like-minded organisations such as Science Museum London and Peace One Day to bring unique content directly to these teachers.”

Skype is already being used by educators and is also being adopted by some services working with schools. For example, the innovative new online story service Night Zoo Keeper brings live storytelling into classrooms via introductions over Skype (see video below). This is how 'zookeeper' Paul Hutson tells it on his website: "We have had some very magical experiences with the use of this technology. For example, we have been able to teleport the Night Zookeeper directly into the middle of a whole school assembly in the blink of an eye. Even the most practical of children are taken deep into their imaginations and believe in the magic of the Night Zookeeper and his teleporting torch."

The problem for schools is that many network managers and providers see Skype as a potentially disruptive force. However, innovative teachers who want to engage their learners with great online experiences don't have much time for the usual claims that Skype is a potential security risk and eats up precious network bandwidth. They tend to see them as excuses from people who want to serve the technology rather than their customers – learners and teachers.

What adds to the cynicism is a history of failed endeavours with school video-conferences with expensive, difficult systems that rely on making appointment and the involvement of technicians. Teachers who have used Skype and appreciated the opportunities for spontaneous creativity think they are being fobbed off by people who simply want to retain control and don't want to open up their networks.

A lack of objective, definitive advice on using video services on school networks

There's not much in the way of objective, definitive advice available either, although John Connell's blog from 2008, "Why not just use Skype?", has an interesting airing of the arguments around adopting Skype for a national educational network (Glow). So Agent4change.net spoke to Tony Sheppard (@grumbledook on Twitter), an educational technologist and respected contributor to many educational technology groups such as EduGeek.net, who has extensive experience of school networks and networking services. He explained: "For many years there has been a nervousness about technologies such as Skype which has led to many schools and local authorities having a blanket block in place. 'Peer-to-peer', 'security and encryption' and 'safeguarding' are all words from the popular press and guaranteed to make people worried.

"Historically Skype has used supernodes, where clients are designated to help announce to other users who is online and how you can connect to them. If you are unlucky enough to have one of your school desktops  randomly chosen for this purpose by Skype it can eat into your internet connection, eat into the resources on the computer and generally be a right pain in the neck. However, since it is reported that around 48,000 of these operate at any one time, and the current peak user-base for Skype stands at 35 million online users according to Wikipedia, then the chances of it happening are very remote. You can also turn this feature off, which many schools and universities using Skype already do. Microsoft is reported to be looking to take these super-nodes in-house, which will also deal with this issue.

"The real concern is bandwidth. Because we have such a variety of quality of school networks and a range of connection speeds you can find using any video-conferencing system causing issues in a school. High-end or dedicated systems can be designed with a Quality of Service (QoS) condition to stop your connection being flattened. Skype has a handy FAQs section which has details about how much bandwidth Skype needs to work best, and you can immediately see some of the problems.

"When the average primary school has a connection of between 2 and 4Mbps, which is the minimum requirement for group video (a growing form of CPD and providing access to educational expertise and classroom resources), then you could find it impacting on the rest of the school trying to use the Internet. The desktop client can be configured to be more friendly to your network but the growth of mobile devices connected in schools means that we are starting to lose control again.

School networking issues 'can be dealt with rather than reinforcing a blanket ban'

"Hopefully the growing trend of schools using Skype will help raise the profile of this issue so that it can be dealt with rather than reinforcing the blanket ban!"

As Skype in the Classroom activities get more appealing the issue is certainly not going to go away. Video-conferencing is also increasingly recognised by the businesses serving education as an important medium, as this fulsome endorsement from Pearson Foundation president and CEO Mark Nieker demonstrates: “As a global leader in children’s publishing, we are thoroughly committed to seeding a student’s growing mind and help them fulfill their dreams. We are honoured to collaborate with Skype in the Classroom as we understand the monumental impact we can offer teachers’ educational curriculum.”

And Skype enjoys a far higher corporate profile now it is ensconced within Microsoft. “Skype in the Classroom is excited to collaborate with stellar, like-minded organisations to bring relevant content directly to innovative teachers who are looking to create unforgettable shared learning experiences for their students,” said Tony Bates, president of the Skype Division at Microsoft. “We are dedicated to making education accessible via technology, and will continue to look for ways to remove barriers to communications and connect to classrooms across the globe.” 

More information

Skype in the Classroom  
Skype Classroom on Twitter
 
Tony Sheppard 
Edugeek   
Ideas for using Skype in class from Teachinghub.com 
The Complete Guide to The Use of Skype in Education at educatorstechnology.com 

Introducing Skype in the classroom from Skype in the classroom on Vimeo.


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