A classroom of 40 children flickered onto the computer screen.
It was Thursday evening at Silvermine Elementary School, where fourth-grade students had been anticipating this moment. For the children on the screen, it was Friday.
Using Skype, a free videoconferencing service, they were visiting from across the world – a fourth-grade classroom in Beijing.
Over the course of 20 minutes, the students swapped stories about school, their hobbies and their favorite colors.
The children from Silvermine sang “Happy Birthday” to one of their the Chinese peers. The children from Beijing said, “Merry Christmas.”
“The fact that we got to talk to kids from the other side of the world was amazing,” said Cheyenne Ortiz, 9. “It was a fun activity.”
At a time when schools are faced with tightening budgets, teachers have turned to Skype for a bargain-price experience that can yield powerful results.
“You can travel great distances without leaving the city,” said David Hay, the principal of Brookside Elementary School.
There, fifth-grade teacher Keith Morey has used the software to connect with schools in Norwalk and beyond.
In one case, teenagers from New Canaan High School, who were teaching Spanish to Morey’s class, paid a virtual visit.
“It was a way for the children to play some Spanish games and reinforce an earlier lesson,” Morey said. “Not only was it cool, but it served a purpose.”
At Tracey Elementary School, students will soon use the program to learn about Native American heritage in Kenneth Woods’ class.
“They are going to be Skyping with one of the children’s grandfathers,” said Robert Polselli, director of technology for Norwalk schools. “It’s one thing to make a phone call, but to be able to see the other person, to collaborate and to share. What better way to learn?”
At Silvermine, the videoconference Thursday prompted students to research China – in Cheyenne’s case, to see whether her global classmates truly spend as much time in school as they claimed. It was true, she discovered; and the country ranks first in the world for reading, math and science.
“It was a really enlightening experience,” said Ed Wachowski, vice principal of the school.
Silvermine Principal Ivette Ellis, a 33-year educator, said the technology has broadened the horizons of the classroom.
Although Skype was released in 2003, Norwalk educators began using the software last year, said Polselli. The experienced has been underpinned by educational value and the matter of cost.
“Without Skype, it would cost $40,000 to $80,000 to put this type of equipment into classrooms,” said Polselli. “I have seen people spend that kind of money and get very limited use out of it.”
When a teacher wants to use Skype, however, they are merely equipped with a webcamera that cost less than $100, Polselli said. And those cameras can be shared within a school building.
Yet there are potential drawbacks, as well – largely because of the novelty factor.
“It can be meaningful, but it depends on your purpose,” said Morey, of Brookside Elementary School. “Is it because of the gimmick? It’s exciting to talk to another classroom, but are you
really getting something out of it?”
Other complications include finding the time and finding other people to “visit,” he said.
To address those matters, Skype, which was recently purchased by Microsoft, unveiled “Skype in the Classroom” in March: A website that helps teachers connect with each other and find lesson plans.
It currently serves more than 20,000 educators.
“It’s going to grow, as far as teachers sharing ideas with other teachers about how they have used the software and what they were able to accomplish,” Polselli said. “And the more teachers who get involved, the better.”