There is a program that assists teachers all over the world to make contacts, that is simple to use, reliable and, above all, free. Strangely, very few teachers use it.
Skype recently started to make it easier to set up contacts with its Skype in the Classroom website. Spokeswoman Jacqueline Botterill says that the impetus for the new website came from research that showed that teachers were finding it difficult to locate other teachers, projects and resources who were also using Skype.
She says the safeguards built into the privacy settings on the site make it suitable for classroom use. Teachers can use the site to create a profile and advertise their current teaching priorities. Creating a profile means that other teachers across the globe can see what is required. It is also possible, through a secure directory, to find teachers with similar priorities to share experiences and to browse resources.
To say that Dan Roberts, deputy head of saltash.net community school in Cornwall, is a Skype enthusiast is an understatement. "There are over 12,500 teachers on there working on 550 projects with 475 resources," he says. "It is a great place for teachers: they should all sign up."
Mr Roberts has completed projects that have taken his students all over the world on Skype. An international collaborative project on football was held at the same time as the last World Cup. Students at saltash.net invited schools from different countries to pick a nation that was represented in the World Cup and create a multimedia presentation about that place. For the Cornish pupils, it gave them an understanding of different cultures and countries, and demonstrated the value of good communication.
Teachers at Lent Rise Combined School in Burnham, Buckinghamshire, have been using video conferencing in various forms for more than 12 years. "It puts the icing on the cake of education," says headteacher Brenda Bigland. They have established relationships with science museums, history museums and NASA.
"We even have a relationship with Father Christmas," says Ms Bigland. "The first conference that children do at the age of four is with him.
"It is the beginning of speaking and listening, collaborative working as a group, improving clarity of speech, taking your turn, appropriate use of ICT, children's engagement. We can use video conferencing to put experts into the classroom because we can't be experts in everything. I have watched amazing history lessons where an Egyptologist shows the children artefacts and talks about them. Think of the economics. If we took the children to the museum there would be a cost to the school and to the parents."
Of course, Skype is not the only option for collaborative working. "Skype is great for one-to-one," says Andree Jordan, international co-ordinator at Ravensbourne School in Bromley, Kent, "but if you want to talk to 15 schools then you need something else. I am now using FlashMeeting. It is also free and you can book time well ahead and have multiple users booking in."
The school has developed partnerships with schools in South Africa, China, Romania, Czech Republic, Poland, Sweden, Turkey, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. "We have had 15 schools - four from the UK, five from Vietnam and the rest from Malaysia - all sharing conversations," she says. "You need to prepare well and pupils soon get used to the system."
Other schools have had similar success at building international relationships using Skype. "I could see straight away that Skype was a way to make learning interesting," says Sera Shortland, head of citizenship at Hamilton Community College in Leicester. Ms Shortland has created a link with Henderson Community College in Kentucky, US. "It was a way of bringing politics alive. We had online chats and pupils talked about so many things: the war in Afghanistan and the economic stimulus package.
"These were Years 7 to 9 (P7-S2), talking about stimulus packages, immigration issues, human rights. They were learning without realising that they were learning."
Hamilton students were also able to talk to a Kentucky state senator about the economic downturn and the comparisons between the UK and the US. In return, Ms Shortland organised a talk between the Mayor of Leicester and a police inspector and the US students. Hamilton pupils have also taken part by video in a Kentucky conference on global communication.
"The kids' confidence has increased; they have had memorable experiences and have acquired world views without needing a passport," adds Ms Shortland.
- Make sure that what you plan is relevant and interesting.
- Make sure your objectives are clearly defined.
- Don't use Skype for the sake of it.
- Test the technology with students before starting a call.
- Build a relationship with the Skype partner before the project starts.
- Use Skype to engage with your own community.
- Ensure there is good technical support.
The global gateway - a site for finding education partners: www.globalgateway.org.uk
British Council: www.britishcouncil.orglearning- partner-finding.htm
Mirandanet - a group of ICT policy makers, teachers, researchers and developers: www.mirandanet.ac.uk
Skype in the Classroom: http:education.skype.com
FlashMeeting - software for online meetings: http:flashmeeting.e2bn.net
Google Chat - live video chat: www.google.co.uktalkintlen-GB.