Video sessions open new doors at North Fork schools

It won’t replace student field trips completely, but Skype — the latest thing in Internet video conferencing — has made its debut in North Fork schools. It’s being used to connect local students to their counterparts in other districts; let traveling school board members participate in meetings; and facilitate face-to-face meetings at which officials in various districts can share ideas.

PHOTO COURTESY OF MARIANNE WACHTEL | Using a SmartBorad, Our Lady of Mercy Regional School third-grade teacher Marianne Wachtel gives a lesson on ecosystems last week both to her students in Cutchogue and, via Skype, to students at Our Lady of Lourdes School in West Islip.

Perhaps the first classroom here to jump on the Skype bandwagon was Marianne Wachtel’s third grade at Our Lady of Mercy School in Cutchogue. She had an inquiry from a teacher at Our Lady of Lourdes School in West Islip to share a Skype lesson on ecosystems and jumped at the opportunity.

“In the days leading up to the presentation last Thursday, not only did excitement swell, but the drive for learning new information soared,” Ms. Wachtel said. “They wanted so much to impress the other class that it wasn’t work to them.”

Skype is free software than can be downloaded and will connect your computer with any other Skype-equipped computer at a remote location. If each computer has a built-in or external camera, that connection can include a moving video image. For group sessions, the schools have been connecting a computer to their SmartBoards to bring the images onto a large screen. Users at both ends can see and hear one another, which might require shifting a computer so the image pans to include a speaker or having the speaker move to within camera range.

Prior to the session, Ms. Wachtel had her 13 third-graders do computer research about plant and animal ecosystems and create charts, graphs and pictures to use in a live video presentation to their 15 counterparts at Our Lady of Lourdes. The Mercy students also created a PowerPoint presentation.

“I really believe that the students who report what they have learned are better able to retain that information,” Ms. Wachtel said.

As for the Skype technology, there were some initial difficulties during setup, but once it was up and running, it worked smoothly, she said. “The children had so much fun; really, they were bursting,” Ms. Wachtel said. “They love to see themselves on camera.”

Oysterponds Superintendent Stuart Rachlin has used Skype several times for meetings. For students, he said it will let them go well beyond the old pen pal mode and hookup via computer with students in other states or countries.

Last November, Oysterponds educators, board members and several parents were able to learn about multi-age classrooms by Skyping with educators in the Warwick Valley School District in upstate New York. It saved the time and expense of a trip, Dr. Rachlin said. The Skype session was effective and enabled more people to be take part than could have traveled to Warwick Valley, he said.

“It’s probably one of the optimal uses of technology,” Dr. Rachlin said about Skype. “It really does enfranchise all participants.”
Dorothy-Dean Thomas, an Oysterponds Board of Education member, joined a recent board meeting via Skype from Napa, Calif.
“It’s very cost-effective,” she said, noting that she could clearly hear and see what was taking place on the North Fork. People could see her, too, and she was able to cast informed votes using Skype, she said.

There’s no charge for Skype communication between computers. If you use Skype to call a land line or cell phone from your computer, you can opt to pay 1.9 cents a minute on a pay-as-you go plan for an occasional user or 9/10 of a cent per minute on a monthly plan, which has a usage minimum before it’s cost effective.

As for the technology, there are glitches, Ms. Thomas acknowledged. Toward the end of the Oysterponds meeting, the connection was lost several times and had to be re-established.

Dr. Rachlin described it as “a little bit slow and a little bit jerky.”

Ms. Thomas thought cold, stormy weather in the east caused the problems. Board president Deborah Dumont thought the hotel where Ms. Thomas was staying in California might have had a poor Internet connection.

The Oysterponds school board used the technology once before for an executive session to enable member Thom Gray, a frequent traveler, to Skype in from Central America.

“Members have busy lives,” Ms. Dumont said, and the technology enables them to communicate despite their inability to always be in the same room.

“The challenges are far outweighed by the benefits,” she said.

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