Imagine students and teachers chatting with one another while jointly analyzing or creating a document. The document is displayed alongside live video feed with collaborators in multiple locations. One student makes a text-based reference to illustrate a point while highlighting the cited text so others may easily focus on it. Another student writes a note on the margin of the document to emphasize a point. One participant, with approval from a facilitator, displays a video. The students and teachers ask questions and enter comments into an active discussion forum window displayed next to the video. Later, one participant uses a polling feature to survey the group regarding a topic under discussion and immediately displays the survey results. The entire session is recorded for reference.
Web-based videoconferencing systems such as Blackboard Collaborate (formerly Elluminate and Wimba), Adobe Connect, and iVisit each offers many or all of these capabilities. Each month additional teachers and others within our school district experiment with using Elluminate to support student work. An elementary student read a story he wrote to his mother stationed in Kuwait during a parent-teacher videoconference. Students in two elementary schools collaborated on a writing project using videoconferencing. Middle school students held a videoconference with their Algebra teacher in which students demonstrated their attempted solutions and sought help. In the aftermath of the recent earthquake in Japan, high school students connected with a teacher less than 100 miles from the damaged power plants. When the need arose for an impromptu meeting with principals earlier this spring, we met virtually via Elluminate to view and discuss the latest budget documents. Shortly thereafter, a principal videoconferenced with a teacher who demonstrated how to use new software.
Some observers believe that the acquisition is a setback for Skype since Microsoft is not open source like Skype. However, even if open source systems become increasingly prevalent, if Microsoft integrates Skype with the Microsoft Suite of applications, then many more students will gain access sooner to advanced audio and video conferencing technology. After all, the IT directors of many school districts believe that Skype is not a great match for enterprise networks with their firewalls and filters. So, IT directors are more inclined to embrace Skype if it is part of the Microsoft Suite of applications.
Access would be maximized if Microsoft Skype users retain the ability to use Skype on non-Windows platforms, like Macs, iPhones, and Androids. As our school district transitions to allowing students to access our wireless networks with their netbooks, smart phones, and gaming devices for learning, students will benefit if digital tools can be used on a variety of platforms. Besides, given Microsoft’s stated desire to bring people closer together, it should not build barriers between people by restricting Skype to Windows-only platforms.
So, while others in the blogosphere are gnashing their teeth over the Microsoft acquisition of Skype, I’m asking for an upgrade. Yes, we are spoiled, but if we don’t ask for more, we’ll never get it.