Time-to-Adoption Horizon: One Year or Less
As more professionals work from remote or distributed locations, the need for cheap, flexible communication tools has grown. Recent technological developments are creating more ways for users to work anytime and anywhere, and these new tools are finding their way into homes and classrooms as well. Online communication tools put students in touch with distant family members, practicing experts, and their peers, wherever they may be located. Desktop videoconferencing, instant messaging services, microblogging platforms, and voice-over-IP clients facilitate connections and the dissemination of information between and among students and teachers, keeping classroom communities in touch with each other on a more extensive basis than ever before.


The tools for remote communication that are used by professionals are easily adaptable to teaching and learning, and indeed we are seeing an increase in classroom use of programs for that purpose. Such tools make it easy for students to move past the classroom walls and connect with their peers around the world as well as giving them access to experts in fields they are studying. Online communication tools may be synchronous or asynchronous; based in text, audio or video; and enable one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many communications. Many may be used either from a computer or an Internet-enabled mobile phone, and some can be used from almost any mobile phone.

Brief, synchronous online communication through instant messaging, and near-synchronous or asynchronous conversations via Twitter (http://twitter.com), a microblog application, allow dialogs that are not bound by physical space or time limits. Meebo (http://meebo.com), a web-based instant messaging aggregator, eliminates the need for schools to support software from a variety of instant messaging vendors by enabling access to different accounts in one interface. There are mobile clients for both Twitter and Meebo, meaning that access to text communications is possible on the go as well. Synchronous online communication through instant messaging is a part of many people’s daily lives, and this includes K-12 students. Many schools are now beginning to see instant messaging as a learning tool rather than a distraction. This requires new approaches to classroom management in order to optimize learning and limit unhelpful communications.

Programs like Skype (http://skype.com) allow free online video conferencing, which many young people already use to communicate with their extended families. Now a student in Jacksonville, Florida may be as likely to speak to a peer in India as to a grandparent in Minnesota. Desktop video conferencing knocks down classroom walls and brings subject experts and co-learners from all over the world into the classroom. Ustream (http://www.ustream.tv) makes it easy to broadcast video to the web, either as a live event or as a recording, pairing the broadcast with a chat window for remote participation. Such opportunities present great advantages to students who are now expected to develop skills valued by the international work community such as communication skills and global and cultural awareness.

Online communication tools developed with schools in mind offer additional features. Edmodo (http://edmodo.com) is a private microblogging platform that gives teachers and students a sheltered place to manage classroom assignments and activities as well as engage in protected conversations. YackPack (http://yackpack.com) combines live voice, a visual presence for speakers, text messaging, and the ability to record and archive sessions in a friendly interface designed for school use. There are many tools like these available, and they continue to be developed day by day.


Relevance for Teaching, Learning, or Creative Expression

The value of online communication tools goes well beyond social interaction. Access to these tools gives students an opportunity to experience learning in multiple ways, to develop a public voice, to make connections with others around the world, and to compare their own ideas with those of their peers.

The best moment to teach a student something is the moment they are curious about it — but what about when that moment happens outside of classroom hours? Online communication tools create opportunities for “the teachable moment” even if students are at home, at the mall, on a field trip, or anywhere else. Students in Greenville, South Carolina can take part in live conversations anytime with their teacher through Gabbly (http://gabbly.com), a chat widget that is embedded into their teacher’s website. Anytime communication also helps make students available to teachers when needed. Teachers can manage classroom activities even outside of classroom hours through synchronous, two-way online communication that can provide time-sensitive information about projects and assignments and reach multiple students at once.

The combination of social interaction and meeting an expert in a subject provides avenues for deep learning, but student field trips are necessarily limited and not every opportunity can be followed. Desktop videoconferencing offers unique solutions to these issues. While videoconferencing in the commercial world has been around for quite some time, standard equipment and technology requirements often make that type of communication unfeasible for schools. Web-based communication tools for video conferencing, which are often free and require only a webcam and a moderately high speed internet connection, open up new opportunities for virtual visits to relevant locations and for interactive conversations with specialists. Capturing such a conversation creates an instant reference: students at Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy (SLA), a public high school, use Ustream to view class discussions and presentations for study and review, or to make up for a missed class.

The types of experiences made possible by online communication tools give students opportunities to learn in nontraditional ways. Debate, dialog, demonstration, conversation, and other means for exploring the many sides of a topic are all natural ways to interact using these tools. While a shorthand form of writing is commonly used in text messages, students still need to develop their ideas in order to express them; and tools that make use of audio or video encourage students to articulate their thoughts clearly in order to be understood.

A sampling of applications for online communication tools across the curriculum includes the following:

  • Social Studies. Students in Worcester, Massachusetts used Skype to communicate their experiences at the inauguration of President Barack Obama to fellow students in Massachusetts and Maine, and to a TV crew at WBZ in Boston, in real time. The middle and high school students at home asked questions using both video and chat in Skype.
  • Mathematics. A school in Salem, Oregon uses YackPack in an ongoing math project called Math Scene Investigation (MSI). Students use YackPack to collaborate on solving math problems with a criminal investigation twist.
  • History. A collaboration between The History Channel, the New York Historical Society, Ustream.tv and Verizon brought American history expert, David McCullough, into classrooms via Ustream’s desktop video conferencing service so students could talk with him about George Washington on Presidents Day 2008.

Online Communication Tools in Practice

The following examples provide snapshots of how online communication tools are being applied in practice.

Around the World 2008
An annual project at Passaic Valley High School in New Jersey connects students with their peers around the world using videoconferencing, email, chat, and other online tools.

Board Connect: Anacortes School District Board of Directors
Several districts in Washington state, including the Anacortes School District, use an online communication tool called BoardConnect to facilitate school board meetings and communicate information to parents and teachers.

Fishbowl 101
A Colorado teacher uses a process she calls “the fishbowl,” in which an inner circle of students discusses class material while an outer circle of students live blogs the discussion and carries on one of their own in the blogs.

NML Mapping Think Tank
MIT’s project New Media Literacies (NML) used a Tumblr blog to collect resources, examples, and ideas around applying new media literacies to geography. The blog was built as a conversation among project members.

Zoey’s Room
Zoey’s Room is an online community for middle school girls that fosters creativity in STEM subjects. One of the features is a chat room where girls can converse with “Fab Females,” professional women who have careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

For Further Reading

The following articles and resources are recommended for those who wish to learn more about online communication tools.

Around the World with 80 School Projects
(Sylvia Tolisano, Langwitches, 10 January 2009.) The author, a technology integration facilitator in Jacksonville, Florida, is interviewed by Howard Wolinsky about her use of Skype to facilitate student interactions with 80 other schools around the world.

Edmodo is Twitter for Education
(Doriano “Paisano” Carter, Mashable, September 2008.) This post describes Edmodo, a microblogging application that allows teachers to communicate with groups of students anytime.

A Live Lesson on George Washington
(Brad Hunstable, The Ustream.tv Blog, 13 February 2008.) This blog post describes a live, interactive online conversation between noted historian David McCullough and students via Ustream.

Online Videoconferencing: Web Tools Such as Ustream Make Video Broadcasting Accessible
(Gary Stager, District Administration, June 2008.) This article provides an overview of major online video technologies used in K-12 classrooms and examples of how they are used.

Delicious: Online Communication Tools
(Tagged by K-12 Horizon Advisory Board and friends, 2009). Follow this link to find additional resources tagged for this topic and this edition of the Horizon Report. To add to this list, simply tag resources with “hzk09” and “commtools” when you save them to Delicious.

Posted by NMC on March 17, 2009
Tags: Chapters

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[...] 2009 Horizon Report: The K12 Edition » One Year or Less: Online Communication Tools Around the World with 80 School Projects http://langwitches.org/blog/2009/01/10/skype-interview-around-the-world-with-80-schools-project/ (Sylvia Tolisano, Langwitches, 10 January 2009.) The author, a technology integration facilitator in Jacksonville, Florida, is interviewed by Howard Wolinsky about her use of Skype to facilitate student interactions with 80 other schools around the world. (tags: AroundTheWorldWith80Schools) [...]

March 18, 2009 4:10 pm

[...] 2009 Horizon Report describes several technologies that can be classified as either synchronous (real-time interaction) [...]

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