Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Skype on Steroids

Skype. Many of us have heard of it and maybe even tried it once or twice with a computer and webcam or our smart phone. Seeing the faces of those you are communicating with can make a world of difference in a conversation. Subtle communication strategies like facial expressions and body language help make conversation more meaningful. Without them, it is easy to misinterpret another’s intent. These strategies are just as important while learning.

Videoconferencing is like Skype on steroids. Often, the video connection is as clear as if you were standing in the same room as the person you are talking to in the crisp HD quality we have come to expect with technology.

I have to be honest, at first when I was given the responsibility to lead the videoconferencing program for the International Wolf Center I was a bit skeptical about the method. The heart of what I was taught in teaching was that the best experience for kids is when they go to a place and experience it. To me this meant hands-on learning outside. Watching a bobbing head on a television screen inside a classroom was boring and didn’t even compete with a movie. How would this be engaging life-changing learning for kids?

Fast forward a few months. Groups were signing up for programs from states like Wisconsin, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan and New York. These participants couldn’t afford to visit the International Wolf Center in Ely, MN with their limited budgets. However, they still wanted the experience of learning about and seeing wolves. Through observing students in programs I was able to see first-hand how fun videoconferencing could be. Participants were playing games, plotting out wolf locations from real radio collared wolves living in or near their area, acting out skits, touching props like wolf pelts and deer antlers, having controversial discussions about their opinions on management, using art to express their learning and asking questions to a wolf expert. Participants were actually engaged, making connections and learning things!

As a classroom teacher by trade, I know how little time, money and resources educators have to prepare lessons. These videoconferencing programs are less expensive than a field trip, easy to register for online, taught by another teacher, include all the preparation materials and extensions for pre and post-activities. It seems like a no-brainer, right? Three years later, I am still convinced that videoconferencing programs are an effective strategy that should be utilized by teachers across the globe.

Here at the Center, I am able to offer this engaging technology to a wide variety of audiences. Our videoconferencing programs are available to schools, colleges or universities, nature centers, zoos, nursing homes, home-school groups, hospitals, libraries or any location with videoconferencing equipment.

Our content meets state and national standards in lively presentations that are developmentally appropriate and interactive. We also employ other capabilities such as cameras with a live feed for observation of our ambassador wolves “in action” in their naturalized habitat and a document camera to view real artifacts like pelts, skulls and scat make videoconferencing leaps and bounds above the rest.

Through a grant from the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund we are able to offer FREE videoconferencing programs to schools in Minnesota through 2013. Participants receive one program of their choice and a Wolf Loan Box rental (2 weeks) with their registration. Programs paid for through the grant are filled on a first-come, first-served basis. These programs are available to groups outside of Minnesota as well.

How do I sign up?

Don’t have the equipment? Check with your local university, library or government center to see if you can use their equipment. Many offer this service free or for a reduced fee. You may also contact Technology Information Education Services (TIES)or Video Guidance about rental equipment options in Minnesota.

If you are curious about incorporating other forms of technology the International Wolf Center has to offer, check out some of these resources:
Wolf Cams
Wolf Logs
Wolf Video
Online Curriculum
Gray Wolves, Gray Matter Curriculum (free PDF)
Track wolves like a biologist

Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for ways to utilize these tools in posts to come. Happy New Year!