I hate to date myself, but when I was in elementary school, the technology was pretty basic, or even nonexistent. The newest, latest gear consisted of mimeograph machines that turned out finger-staining, purple-inked work sheets; Commodore 64 computers to play "Oregon Trail;" and overhead projectors, the great-grandmothers of Power Point. These days, however, kids are just as comfortable typing away on tablets as they are coloring inside the lines. And they certainly have no problems using Skype to call a classroom half a world away to chat about what they ate for lunch.
"Skype in the Classroom" officially launched at the end of March 2011, after a period of beta testing that began in December 2010. So far, more than 9,000 teachers have registered their classrooms in this free, online database. This week, my CNET colleague Jared Kohler and I visited a second grade class at Montclaire Elementary School in Los Altos, Calif. The teacher, Jennifer Auten, had prearranged a Skype call with a fifth grade class at the Villa Maria Academy in Santiago, Chile. Chile! I'm not sure that when I was seven I even knew that Chile was a country and not a food, let alone had the chance to see and talk to Chilean students.
During the 38-minute Skype call, students from both countries shared images of their favorite foods, maps of their country's geography, and information on what kind of weather they have. The neatest part was when Skype's videoconferencing technology was really used. For example, one little American girl asked the Chilean students if they had to wear uniforms. To answer, a fifth grader popped in front of the camera and proudly showed off her "jumper with colored ties." Auten tries to arrange these calls every couple of weeks and says, "I think it's a really great way to get kids to learn more about the world they live in. It's a great way to interact with other kids, learning about their cultures." Indeed.