“Online teacher leaves the confines of virtual classroom comfort zones to ‘brave’ it on the wild west of skype & world wide web.”

Report from the field by Silversal…aka Sylvia Guinan.

As an online teacher who has used virtual classrooms up to now, it’s ironic to think that I was more comfortable with clunky technology than with the idea of just using skype for teaching.

This self-imposed tunnel vision was a result of being reluctant to teach without a whiteboard/classroom environment.

Despite this classroom conditioning borne of fifteen years teaching offline, I am at heart a teacher of somewhat rebellious notions, expressed by my support of Jason West & English out There ( classrooms without walls), and George Machlan’s Edupunk, which embraces all that’s quirky & fun.

My first disillusion with virtual classrooms came after I had prepared my first ever interactive powerpoint for teaching online. I had created a dynamic, non-linear presentation with hyper-links to videos and interactive games.

I soon realized that most virtual classrooms nullify the interactive elements in a power point presentation and it becomes a flat project with dead links. I went on a search of virtual classrooms to find the ‘perfect’ one, but soon resigned myself to using standard linear presentations. The only place I could put my interactive work was on my blog or some dusty cyber corner waiting for technology to catch up or open up.

One virtual classroom I was introduced to by Marina Petrovic, www.vyew.com, allows for hyperlinks and is wonderful, but rather daunting for first-time students online.

Another disappointment was that I had invested a large amount of time learning how to use Prezi, a right-brain futuristic alternative to power point, only to find that it too, would not work in a virtual classroom.

Many of my other favourite interactive presentation tools would also not work in VCs such as glogster posters, cartoons, or interactive games.

As an Edupunk I wanted to use interactive games in the VC – either those available online or self-created from templates but as they wouldn’t work for me, I’m still trying to figure out simple ways to get games working online from a VC.

I knew it was time to check out skype. Andre Klein saw that in me too, and it was he who encouraged me to adopt the minimalist approach.

Skype, I found, is both simple and sophisticated. The minimalist approach is highly recommended as the teacher is always more important that the tools, of course, but if one wants to plan anything complex, the world wide web is at one’s disposal via screen-sharing and browsing with students. You can also use whiteboard plug-ins for skype though up to now I haven’t felt the need to bring my classroom into skype. Two I know of are Mikogo and Uneeko, though I haven’t tested them yet.

Virtual classrooms also have screen-sharing though it isn’t as reliable as skype, in my opinion. Also, some virtual classrooms have web-touring facilities which can work though I’m not sure of reliablilty as opposed to simple skype screen-sharing.

The advantages of skype on a basic level are that you can get new students started quickly and easily without any overt technology or fuss to contend with. You can share your presentations from your desktop or from online hosting sites, your blog or anywhere on the web.

You can simply speak, share a book or get ambitious and develop web quests, create interactive quizzes etc. for your students to work on during class time, or even get them creating comics, story lines, posters, commenting on videos, breaking news etc.
Interestingly, recent developments are making skype an ever more attractive option for teaching online. Facebook has just announced integration with skype which should open up some interesting avenues for students and teachers everywhere.

Also, skype in the classroom connects teachers all over the world, where you can invite teachers into your classroom, thus offering attractive and simple blended learnig opportunites. There are also forums and resource sharing facilities as well as job opportunities available via this portal.

I still use virtual classrooms as I’ve done a lot of work on certain platforms, but I’m glad to have skype whenever I need to stretch myself ‘beyond the walls’.

When Pink Floyd envisioned a better educational future in their classic ‘The Wall’, little did they realize that a virtual replacement in cyber space would indeed break those walls down.

Finally, if you are about to embark on teaching online for the first time, skype is the simplest way to get started.

Whether you are a minimalist, rebel, web-application maniac or conservative, I advise you to let skype become your virtual blank canvas and let your students run all over it.

Happy Skyping one & all.