Tearing Down the Classroom Walls

Designing an Effective Training Program April 07, 2016

This article is part of a special interview series featuring global innovators in education (part 4 of 5). Visit WISE ed.review regularly to read the upcoming articles.

“I have a vision where companies, public sector entities, libraries, museums and more have a Skype Pod near their open spaces where employees or volunteers can connect with children around the world,” explained Wendy Norman, Director of Skype Social Good Programs at Microsoft. In an interview, we explored the philosophy underpinning Skype for Good, innovative and interesting ways Skype is currently being used in the classroom, the intersection of technology and education more broadly, and much more.

Tell me a little bit about the origins of Skype for Good. What inspired its creation?

We saw hundreds of non-profit organizations and educators using Skype to increase and improve their connections to teach children and adults around the world. Curators at museums were sharing the wonders of their collections over Skype with students who were unable to travel to see them due to financial or geographic obstacles. Volunteers were reaching out virtually from their homes or offices to help educate, tutor or provide support for children to learn.

From retired professionals who wanted to continue contributing to the world, to young people just starting their careers, individuals were using Skype to reach out and create greater opportunities for the next generation. To support them, we developed a set of free technology resources to make it easier and more efficient to get connected, stay connected, and strengthen their impact.

What are some innovative and interesting ways Skype is being used in the classroom?

Global connections with other classrooms around project based lessons is some of the most interesting work being done today. Students from other countries work on the same problem for weeks together around a science, math, social studies, etc. Coming from vastly different cultures, children learn about varying and similar perspectives as they tackle each step of their project. While studying the basics of math or science, they are learning how to be accepting and tolerant of other ideas and approaches. This is the blending of IQ and EQ that can exist today through products like Skype that connect the world.

When teachers take their students outside the classroom to gain real-time, real-life experiences, it changes their view of the world and increases their curiosity and desire to learn. There is a recent story about students from Kenya, Greece, Kansas and Pennsylvania in the United States who all worked together to design filters to create solutions for clean water in Kenya. Every teacher agreed, they’d never seen their students more engaged and excited about learning.

When you think about the intersection of technology and education now and into the future, what are some trends or observations that come to mind?

Today the best lesson plans, teachers, learning resources, and experts are quickly becoming just a click away for any and all to access as needed. This can be archived content, on demand, or live conversations. I see a future where there is a mix of educators, students, and professionals in areas of study that can easily be a part of a free and open global learning environment – regardless of economic or geographic barriers. Technology enables all of this. With a device, collaboration apps and learning tools, and access to the Internet, learning should be limitless. If the ideas around global learning are adopted, every individual on the planet can contribute to teach and inspire the next generation.

For example, when explorers trek across the Arctic, they can document and live stream or communicate about their adventure along the way. They can collect all of their notes in a shared notebook and make it available to students. Students can then read, watch and learn about it real time, making geography or environmental lessons much more interesting. An explorer could even comment on reports or projects students are working on through sharing documents real-time.

A free and open global learning environment will also help address the challenges that very remote places in the world face with recruiting and retaining great educators or having access to subject matter experts. Through technologies like Skype and shared notebooks, experts can be just a click away.

At the same time, what are some of the barriers or challenges to success, and what needs to change for even greater scale or impact?

The greatest challenges today are still around access to devices and strong connections to the Internet. Many advancements are being made here in developing countries and underprivileged areas which is great to see. But an even greater challenge is the perception of school leaders who view global collaborations as “entertainment”. They see global learning as un-necessary and not part of the academic curriculum.

The data I am asked for the most from teachers is scientific research that proves these connections are transformative for their students. They are looking for a way to demonstrate through science that when they connect their classrooms with other students, go on a virtual field trip, or bring in a guest expert over Skype, they are creating a more engaging learning environment. They want to show how students who are rarely attentive, stay engaged. How students who are shy, come forward and are a part of the conversation. Teachers want to document how these live connections, inspire students, seize their curiosity, and improve learning outcomes. Until school leader perceptions change and view real-life, real-time learning as pivotal to making learning relevant, many educators still have quite a challenge ahead of them to adopt these kind of connections into their classroom.

Research is just one part of tackling the perception of school leaders. Having a principal sit in a class and watch the look on a student’s face during a live call half way across the world is the best way to show impact.

Looking ahead, and given the tremendous pace of change in this space, what kind of role do you envision Skype for Good playing in the future of education 3, 5 or 10 years from now?

Five years ago we had only a few dozen guest speakers volunteering their time through our Skype global community. Today based on the tremendous interest from educators, we’ve engaged thousands. Ten years from now I see a world where part of an employee’s role at their company might be to volunteer their time to share their experience, research, or knowledge with students. I have a vision where companies, public sector entities, libraries, museums and more have a Skype Pod near their open spaces where employees or volunteers can connect with children around the world. The role of Skype for Good in education should be to help make this vision a reality by working with private and public partners interested in raising the next generation of global citizens.

We will also listen and stay connected to the education and non-profit communities and follow their lead. This has been our approach from the beginning. They are the innovators in this space and on the forefront of change. They are the feet on the ground and dealing with the new challenges and opportunities every day. We will support their needs by ensuring advancements they make around global learning are met with the best technology resources available.

About the Innovator

Wendy Norman
Director, Skype Social Good Programs

Microsoft Wendy Norman develops and manages global technology resources and programs like Skype in the Classroom for the education and non-profit communities that use Skype to advance learning, literacy, and development. In her 20 years at Microsoft, Wendy has served in various marketing and public relations leadership positions, including Director of Worldwide PR. It was in this global role where she discovered her passion for the application of technology to break down barriers and overcome isolation around the world. Prior to joining Microsoft, Wendy was with Nordstrom where she managed corporate giving and community events. Wendy is a native of the Pacific Northwest and serves on several development committees for local non-profits that help strengthen families and education. She lives in Seattle and has two college-aged boys.