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Wendy Norman and Skype in the classroom

Skype in the classroom

Wendy manages Skype in the classroom, the fast growing online community of teachers who work together to share experiences that inspire students and teachers by removing societal, technological, and cultural barriers to communication. Skype in the classroom reaches over 3 million people in more than 235 countries and territories collaborating on thousands of lesson plans in 66 languages.

Wendy talks about their new guest speaker program that centers around computer science, as well as the history of Skype in the classroom and how Skype helps students learn critical thinking skills.

Tim: How did you get involved with Skype and Skype in the classroom?

Wendy: I’ve been at Microsoft almost 20 years. I’ve been in various Marketing roles and Program Manager roles. When we purchased Skype, I was in love with the product. I thought it was amazing how it brought people together. And through my personal experience I was watching people teach over Skype.

My son, being a guitar player, I watched him find people who were tutoring over Skype. And I thought that was fascinating. I also heard about how these disaster relief groups used Skype to perform for refugee kids. When I heard these stories, I was instantly interested in how I could help. And so I came to the Marketing team and asked them if they wanted support and here I am!

Ever since I’ve started this job, it’s now become awkward almost for me to do a voice call. I want to see the people I’m talking to. And now even when I call friends I want to see them, I want them to use Skype. I expect them all to have Skype on their phone. I’ve been told I’m becoming annoying.

I feel there is almost no limit to what people can teach and mentor and connect over Skype, or any video communications technology. It’s the medium. My interest is both personal and professional.

Tim: How did Skype in the classroom begin? Were you involved?

Wendy: I actually was not personally involved. Skype in the classroom started with teachers. Teachers were using Skype for two reasons. One, they wanted to collaborate with other teachers in other classrooms, do projects together, and introduce their students to other students around the world. The second reason was because of resources. Because of the economy, classes could not take field trips like they used to.

The resources, the people they wanted to talk to, also were not available. So innovative teachers started to use Skype in their classrooms to bring in guest speakers, the same way they made Skype calls with their relatives on Sunday at home. And they got creative. And it started spreading.

Now that’s taken off and become global where it started out local. Time zones permitting, teachers can use Skype to take their classes anywhere.

Tim: How did teachers find guest speakers?

Wendy: About four and a half years ago, folks at Skype started to see teachers doing this, learning about it through teacher sites. So the team built a network, basically a dating site for teachers to find each other. The Skype team started training experts to come in, tour guides from Yellowstone National Park, oceanographers, explorers, folks who are authors. They started to organize experts around categories of core curriculum. Then teachers started to tell us content areas where they wanted guest speakers.

In addition, these incredibly innovative teachers, as they were designing what became Skype in the classroom, they would find experts. So, if they were studying labor laws, they might call someone who is an expert in labor law and suggest they become a guest speaker for Skype in the classroom.

So it was a combination of the Skype in the classroom team curating experts and teachers signing up experts based on their curriculum and contacts, inviting these experts into our community.

The whole thing is designed by teachers. We enable the network. But teachers drive it. They post lessons. They collaborate and we just follow their lead.

Tim: Does Microsoft make money from Skype in the classroom? How does this program benefit Microsoft?

Wendy: We make no money. We invest in the platform, we make sure the platform works, that teachers and experts can find each other. We learn a lot about how people use Skype and want to use Skype. The community is very vocal, the teachers are all about helping each other. It’s a great community to be involved with.

A lot of what we do in life is adopt what works for us, in our own minds. The more you become comfortable with those things, the more you bring them into your personal space, the more you are willing to pay for them, or not. Consumers will pay for what they thinks has value for them. In this space, there is no cost. It’s all about building a global classroom any teacher can use. For non-profits, there should never be a disaster where people cannot reach their family and friends.

Tim: How do non-governmental organizations use Skype?

Wendy: There are so many examples. Companies are building products for developing nations, whether it is incubators for babies or where they teach how to make jewelry in Afghanistan so women can be help support their families and villages, or how to farm in Peru, all of these efforts use Skype to connect people to teach.

Where you used to have volunteers having to travel, or do it over a voice call, now they use video for training. We support these groups with vouchers to use Skype when they don’t have computers. We also help make sure volunteers can get to different places. We have Skype pods where people can use the service to communicate in disaster areas. We also have people volunteer to entertain children in refugee camps by reading to them or playing music.

Global non-profits use it to either reach the people they serve or training. She’s the First, started by Tammy Tibbetts, is raising money for girls around the world who are first in their families to go to school. They meet these kids with Skype as part of the funding process.

A non-profit called Embrace also uses Skype to train mothers in villages how to use these hot water heated infant warmers to help keep their newborns and preemies alive. Babies don’t have enough body fat to keep warm and so training mothers how to keep their new babies warms helps to save their lives. In another case, a cancer group uses Skype to teach women on their lunch hour how to do self breast exam. There are an infinite number of groups and individuals, and many ways they use Skype.

Tim: Aside from matching teachers, what else does Skype offer teachers?

Wendy: We have video messages or ViM in Skype where you can leave a video message, up to three minutes. One teacher in Pennsylvania sends video messages to a school in Nairobi to teach kids how to tell time. His name is Mike Soskil and he teaches at Wallenpaupack South Elementary. In Nairobi, kids click on the video message in their Skype account to see kids in Pennsylvania teach them something. Then the kids in Nairobi do a video message to teach the kids in Pennsylvania about their school or village. It lets teachers and students get around the time zone problem. It also lets the kids learn and do the hokey pokey, in real time.

You also can share computer screens. Often teachers will do project based learning where they work on projects together, sharing their screens to show the website or PowerPoint they’re building. It’s a little plus sign in the Skype screen.

Skype really is a full communications tool, not just video call software tool.

Tim: What are the future plans for Skype in the Classroom?

Wendy: We never will stop listening to our audience because they define the kinds of things they want to do. On our end, we're investing more deeply in partners that bring tremendous community and value to classroom.

For example, think of Career Day. Parents often have a hard time coming in. We're starting a new program centered around computer science for which we are recruiting 500 people in computer science, mostly on coding, and they will be guest speakers in classrooms. We curate a wonderful audience of people who teachers will have access to. They can find them by skill, region, time of availability. Teachers can talk about what drew them to computer science.

The kids and teachers want to talk to every day people doing interesting things in their lives. Kids may want to talk to someone who designed the Halo game but they're also interested in every day moms, dads, neighbors, friends. That's where the magic of Skype in the classroom happens.

In one case, one of the coders did the call early in the morning in her house. As she talked to kids in a classroom with Skype, her kids walked behind her chair after brushing their teeth and said, "Okay mom we're ready for school!" That was one of the kids favorite moments. I told the program staff everyone has to do these interviews in their robes, in the morning, with the refrigerator behind them, and kids getting ready for school.

What's most interesting is the diversity of people and interests available. One person got interested in computer science after she built a computer screen saver that featured her favorite celebrity. She tells this story to kids and the classroom starts laughing. Another gentleman gives all these examples of games kids play like Words with Friends and Angry Birds. With Angry Birds, he asks kids, "If you threw a pig and it went up instead of down that wouldn't be fun, would it?" They give these really great examples for kids in terms of the apps and devices they already use.

Eventually we'll expand to people who work in marketing, art, music. We're starting with computer science because there will be a lot of jobs open in the next few years.

We want to make sure we have a really valuable group of people available in this program. I think video call and sharing technology will become as ubiquitous as chalkboard in the classroom. The only thing they'll need is to find people for speakers, field trips, and resources. Video technology like Skype will take them there.

Tim: What’s an amusing way teachers have used Skype?

Wendy: We heard the other day that a teacher started using Mystery Skype, the game where classrooms try to guess where the other classroom is, as Rainy Day Recess. The teacher uses it because on a rainy day they have to keep the kids busy to avoid chaos in the classroom.

Mystery Skype turns out to not only be fun but also an excellent way to teach students critical thinking skills. As a child we used to play these games on car trips, the Similarity Game and other word games, it was all about critical thinking. We had a beach house about an hour and a half from our home and on those drives we’d play these thinking games. Teachers say kids learn these thinking skills and use them everywhere in their lives. People ask me if I mind our kids have become skilled negotiators. Programs like Mystery Skype helps kids learn how to ask questions, how to listen, and how to work out problems.

Learn More

Skype in the classroom


She’s the First


Embrace Infant Warmer


Mike Soskil


Enriching the Minds of Kiberia’s Youth through Skype