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The Power of Skype

Up until this point I have used Skype to stay in touch with my family these past two years I’ve been overseas.  I also wrote about having used Skype in the classroom to connect to other students around the world.

I know that it is just a tool, but today I truly witnessed the power of Skype.  Yes, it can help us stay in touch with family and friends; yes, it has educational benefits; but it can potentially have profound emotional value as well.

You see, today I attended my Grandfather’s Funeral via Skype.

My Grandfather died on Tuesday.  This was expected and for the best.  He had Parkinson’s and dementia and his quality of life was deteriorating daily.  But my Grandfather was a kind man and he was loved by many, so it was very sad to lose him.

This past weekend my Mother told me that they were taking him off his medications and were letting nature take it’s course, making sure he was comfortable and felt no pain.  During our weekly Skype call she prepared me for the worst and told me the Doctors said it was just a matter of days.

It’s been a hard week.  I felt helpless and isolated, so far from my family.  I couldn’t help my Mom with all the arrangements, I couldn’t give my Grandma a hug to comfort her, I couldn’t say my last goodbyes while I held my Grandpa’s hand.

This was the first time in two years that I felt true frustration at being separated from my family.

I did what I could do from here.  I Skyped with my Mother daily for updates, and we emailed back and forth. I called my Grandma the ‘old fashioned’ way because her nursing home didn’t have a wireless connection my Mom could connect to her laptop.  I had Mom put the phone to Grandpa’s ear so I could tell him I love him and miss him.  He couldn’t speak anymore at this point but the nurses say he could hear my voice.  I sent flowers.

When Grandpa finally did pass away I offered to represent the grandchildren and write something to say at the service.  I tried to think of a creative way to do that from across the ocean.  I didn’t like the idea of someone else reading my words – I wanted them to be just right.  I decided on a podcast. It was so easy using drop.io.  (I got the idea from Richard Byrnes’s post on podcasting, I already used drop.io but it was my first time using the ‘voice mail’ feature.)

All this still didn’t feel like enough.  I apologised to my Mom again and again for not being there to help and support the family.  We talked about how I could be ‘present’ at the service.  (My Mother preferred the term ‘Celebration of Life’ rather than funeral.)  She decided to check out the wireless connection at the funeral home to see if it was possible for me to attend the service by Skyping in on her laptop.

So, as it turns out, today I spent nearly two hours on Skype, being passed around from family member to family member before the service, waving at distant relatives, ‘sitting’ between my Mom and Dad in the front row so I had a good ‘view’ of the proceedings that followed.

It was the next best thing to actually being there.  I could not only hear all the familiar voices, but I could see all the familiar faces too!  I could hear the sniffles and sobs during the prayers, the laughter and the murmurs of agreements during the eulogies.  My own short podcast eulogy was played from my brother’s iphone which he had hooked up to the main sound system.

Today I was able to have an emotional connection with my family and take part in a ceremony that a few years ago I wouldn’t have been able, simply because of geography.  I understand that Skype is just the tool I used and that the real reason I had this opportunity is my Mother’s deep desire for me to be present and involved, a funeral home in rural Ontario actually having a wireless connection good enough to support the video call, and my brother taking ownership to test and make sure everything worked.

Skype was just the tool, but I can’t think of another tool that is free or as easy to use.  Skype enabled me to be present and involved in my Grandfather’s Funeral.  I was able to support and comfort my family.  The peace of mind given to me by being able to make this emotional connection has been a priceless gift.

Thank you Skype.


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Grade 3 Skype Experience

(This past Thursday, I set up a Skype call for our grade 3 class at ISH to connect with students from Jacksonville, Florida.  It was a great experience – you can watch an amazing video reflection from the students at their end here, on the ‘Around the World with 80 Schools‘ Ning.)

Using Skype in class…

‘I thought it was over-rated…Maybe just an over-hyped novelty…Probably end up being a one-time thing…’

Boy was I wrong.

It was worth the hype and more.

The students level of excitement, the wide eyes, the ooohs and ahhhs.

This was definitely a memorable experience for these kids – one that had them making connections and asking questions, and learning from each other.  They were carrying on a dialogue over thousands of kilometres.  A dialogue that saw them looking at kids their age in a different part of the world, different cultural and religious backgrounds and realizing – they had just as much in common with these kids than their neighbour sitting next to them.

I was very fortunate that the teacher at the other end had lots of experience conducting these kinds of lessons, and I was very happy to follow her lead.  They asked and answered great questions that highlighted both the differences (geographically and culturally) and similarities – this was so key.  The similarities now seem insignificant – two kids on opposite sides of the ocean have art as their favourite subject – both groups of kids like pizza, the same TV shows – and the same Hannah Montana song.  But these seemingly insignificant shared pieces of pop culture astounded and united the kids who were oceans away from each other.

In order to do a better job of this next time , (and there DEFINITELY will be a next time), I’m reflecting on how I prepared, what I loved, what I learned, and what I would do differently next time.

What I did to prepare:

  • I ‘test-called’ the other teacher in Florida to make sure I could get a good skype connection at school
  • Informed students and ‘hyped’ them up
  • Sent home a letter (email) to parents asking permission for students to stay after school to skype and included information (website, etc.) about the school we would be communicating with
  • Tried to prepare the students for our call by using ‘Google Earth’ to find both Helsinki and Florida on the map and compare.  Looked at photos of our school and of their school and compared
  • Made a list of different nationalities represented in our class.  (13!!!)
  • Talked a little bit about what the call would look like (but I wasn’t very helpful…this was my first time  too!)
  • Set up the video camera – (ended up being useless)

What I loved:

  • The excitement in the room
  • The anticipation
  • The faces of the kids in the room

What I learned (or re-learned):

  • How important it is for kids to connect with other kids
  • Kids can learn from each other
  • Kids can teach each other
  • Connections are powerful
What I would do differently next time:
  • I would prepare the kids better (inquire into the places we are skyping to)
  • Set up a ‘hot seat’ for the person speaking
  • Get a better external microphone that can pick up the whole class, but is still able to clearly pick up the person speaking (any suggestions?)
  • Get a tripod for my video camera and have a designated camera person
  • Maybe figure out how to ‘tape’ the webcam feed (on both ends for video making purposes)
  • Have students rehearse asking and answering questions
  • Talk about ‘good’ questions
  • Talk about behaviour expectations
  • Have students record what is going on during the call (back-channelling, photos, videos)
  • Have a student introduce the class
  • Prepare something special for the class to show the school we’re skyping with
  • Debrief students immediately afterwards

One big thing I learned after this lesson, (that is completely unrelated to Skype), is that I have zero video editing skills!  This is something I plan to change.


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Coming Soon – My First Classroom Skype

Very recently I joined Twitter, and while I’m still figuring out how to best take advantage of this outstanding tool – I have already made some very cool connections with fellow teachers from all over the world.

My PLN has grown exponentially and continues to do so.  One great connection I made was with a well-respected 21st Century Learning Specialist and blogger.

This connection has led to my school’s very first classroom Skype call.  I cannot wait to post about it.

Do you have any advice, tips, strategies, suggestions, etc. either preparing the Grade 3 students for the call, or for the actual execution of the call itself?

(Please comment below or reply via twitter to @msaquinn.)

Use Skype to make free video and voice calls, send instant messages and share files with other Skype users.