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Digital Learning Farm in Action

Alan November’s article Students as Contributors: The Digital Learning Farm has inspired me in my professional life beyond words and guided many of my research and actions in the classroom and professional development since then.

We have come full circle as globalization quickly becomes the norm, and it may now be essential for our students to compete with peers from around the world. Today, we can restore the dignity and integrity of the child as a contributor. Across the country, pioneering teachers are providing students with new roles that have students making contributions to their learning communities. We have powerful, easy-to-use tools such as screencasting and podcasting that give students opportunities to contribute content to the class. At the same time we can also provide them with rigorous and more motivating assignments and better prepare them to become more productive in our new global economy.

You can read the following posts on this blog where I shared thoughts and examples of students as contributors:

I wanted to share yet another example of The Digital Learning Farm in action with you.

Mystery Call

Fourth graders had a blast with a “Mystery Skype”. Two classes connected without knowing WHERE each one was geographically located. The idea was, by asking targeted questions, to find out the city we each lived in.

This mystery-type-call was a lot of fun and reinforced critical thinking skills as well as collaboration, communication and geography skills!

We stated the rules at the beginning of the call:

  1. One class starts asking a question to determine the geographic location of the other class.
  2. Questions can only be answered with “Yes” or “No”.
  3. If the class who asked receives a “Yes” answer, they continue to ask another question until they receive a “No”. It will be the other class’s turn then to ask a question.

On our end, we gave students different jobs to help figure the location out.

Questions & Answers

  • Q & A: students were in the “hot seat” asking and answering questions in front of the webcam


  • Scribe: Student who wrote the clues we received on the board to keep track of positive and negative responses




  • Researchers: Students were ready and waiting with Google Maps open on their computer or with an atlas to take the clues received and narrow the search down and to feed information to the Q&A speakers.

We had a blast trying to figure each other’s location out and learned that we need to learn to ask good questions that will narrow possible answers down. We also learned that we all need to work together (Q&A, researchers and scribe) and communicate in order to solve the mystery of our Skype connection’s location. Here are some of the clues we figured out: Our skype mystery connection lives:

  • in the USA
  • where it is cold right now
  • in the North of the USA
  • does not live in North Dakota
  • in Michigan
  • about an hour from Detroit
  • close to a lake
  • in a small town

We needed some help to continue finding their exact location: We received the following clues:

  • they are close to the border with Ohio
  • the first part of their city’s name is a “baby sheep”

Our mystery class was from Lambertville, Michigan!

Framing a Skype Learning Experience

No lesson, no event and no learning should stand alone. We connect what we learn with our experiences of the past and store newly acquired skills, facts and experience to be retrieved in the future. Previously, I wrote about framing a field trip with Google Earth. I try to make the case of the importance to allowing students to learn to make connections, to not just expose them to a learning experience without pre-knowledge activation and reflection “to put things in perspective” to follow.

In Assessment of Learning via Skype, I shared the following image

A Skype call should never be done in isolation. We should not treat a video conference any different than a field trip. The actual experience should be framed by pre-activities that activate prior knowledge and post-activites that give students the opportunity to reflect, create and connect these new experiences.

Credit for middle image experience by tombodor

I want to share with you a fourth grade learning experience. Last month I mentioned in the post “What do you have to lose?” how our fourth grade teacher took the time to upload her students’ book trailer videos to her classroom blog. One of the authors of these books, Babara O’Connor, received a Google Alert of her name and book title which led her to the classroom blog. We were able to set up a Skype conference with her.

I set up a test call with Mrs. O’Connor ahead of the actual Skype call with students  to make sure that both of our video and audio settings were set up correctly. In the classroom students started brainstorming questions they would ask during the Skype call.  We talked about questions that could only receive a “yes” or “no” answer and formulated questions that would solicit a more in depth answer. The entire class contributed in the brainstorming session. In the end the questions were narrowed down to 10.

1. What do you like to write about?

2. Where do you get your ideas to write your books?

3. When you write your books what inspires you and why?

4. What was your favorite book as a child and why?

5. How long does it take to write a book and why does the process take that long?

6. What is your favorite part of writing and why?

7.Do you believe you have to be a good reader in order to be a good writer?

8. Where did you go to school, and were you inspired in school to become a writer?

9. What is your favorite kind of genre and why?

10. If you had to turn one of your books into a movie which one would it be and why?

Students were assigned different jobs before the Skype call, such as greeter, introductions, videographer, photographer and individual questions. Student then “practiced” speaking their part ahead of time using PhotoBooth. They recorded themselves speaking slowly, clearly and looking into the camera. Their classroom teacher confirmed that this exercise made a big difference in their confidence level. Everyone was very excited when the Skype call actually took place.

Welcome Mrs. O'Connor to our Classroom

Recording our Skype Visit

Mrs. O'Connor shares books that inspired her to becone a writer

Take a look at the video below that shows a few snipets of the call.

In order to frame the Skype call as a learning call, the experience could not end when we hung up with Mrs. O’Connor. For students it would include blogging about it afterward to reflect on their experience and think about what they had learned from it. Students also got inspired to read more by Mrs. O’Connor after the Skype call.

What did we observe as teachers? How can we take this experience to the next level? Although students were confident demonstrating speaking skills during the Skype call, it was a “back and forth”- “question and answer” session. We would like students to go beyond the ping pong method of “conversing”, but truly be part of a conversation. Not only did we need to go beyond asking questions that inspire more than yes/no answers, we will also need to practice responses that will go beyond: “Thank you” or “That is interesting”.

Students were asked to reflect on their “learning experience” during the Skype call by commenting on the classroom blog.

After watching the video of our skype call with Mrs. O’Connor, I want to know your thoughts.  Please answer the following questions in your comment:

1. What did you learn from our skype call?

2. What part of the skype session did you like the best? WHY was that your favorite part?

Remember the components of our preparation: brainstorming questions, practicing with photo booth, talking with Mrs. O’Connor.

See a sample of student comments below:

Student Comments

We had a good lesson on how to write more reflective and reminded them of the commenting etiquette they had drafted for their class previously.

4th Grade Commenting Etiquette

As we were going through the comments in moderation, we noticed that they most students followed the etiquette beautifully for the the most part. We noticed that the week parts in the comments were:

  • Proper spelling
  • Check before you click
  • High level of vocabulary

We also noticed that an important component was missing in our commenting etiquette:

  • Add something…go more into details…explain yourself
  • Remember your worldwide audience (Not everyone who will read your comments, will have been in the classroom with us when the learning event had occurred)

We pulled up a few suggestions for comment starters and highlighted words to integrate in our comments.

Comment Starters

Here are two examples how students re-wrote their original comment. (Click image to enlarge)

If you want to read more about teaching commenting, take a look at a previous post “Blogging Lessons on Commenting” here on Langwitches.

Assessment of Learning via Skype

Skyping with students is great! They are learning…There is no doubt in my mind…!

Skyping Hub- Learning Hub

  • I know…I see motivation in their eyes… I feel excitement in the air…I hear them say: “How cool”, “That was awesome” or “When are we skyping again?”.
  • I  know… all about the different skills students are exposed to and are practicing while skyping.
  • I know… that I am helping them learn differently than from a textbook.
  • I know… that I am preparing them for a work environment where they are expected to collaborate with colleagues and teams who do not live in the same country, nor continent and operate in a different time zone.
  • I know… that I am exposing them to a world, people and cultures beyond their horizon.
  • I know… that I am broadening their perspectives, tolerance and  for someone who is different

…but… what about formal assessment and documentation of this kind of learning.

I enjoy helping other teachers get excited and comfortable using Skype as a tool to connect with other classrooms or experts around the world. I want to make it explicit, once again, that it is NOT about the tool, but about the skills and the learning.

In order to streamline the process of converting a Skype Call into a Learning Call and to make it more visual, I created the following images and handouts. Please feel free to use them in your own classroom.

You can download all of them as a pdf file here.

Credit for middle image experience by tombodor

A Skype call should never be done in isolation. We should not treat a video conference any different than a field trip. The actual experience should be framed by pre-activities that activate prior knowledge and post-activites that give students the opportunity to reflect, create and connect these new experiences.

Pre-Activities include:

  • Familiarize with geographic location, language, culture, age group, etc.
  • KWL Chart
  • Information Literacy (locate)
  • Google Earth (distance)
  • Google Maps (Street view)
  • Formulate questions
  • Distribute job responsibilities for actual video conference experience

Pre-Activities Job Description:

Have students prepare for a call by filling out the handout below. You can easily ask them to formulate and share questions on your classroom blog as well.

Depending on the geographic location, have students “orientate” themselves to WHERE they will be connecting to by answering the following questions.

During the Call Activities include:

  • Interview
  • Q & A
  • Image & Video recording
  • Blog (summarize)
  • Backchannel
  • Data Collection
  • Present
  • Share

During Skype Call Job Description:

I have written several times about engaging students during a Skype call by given them specific jobs and responsibilities. You can listen to my 5th graders explaining each job a little more.

Once the Skype call has ended, it is important to help your students debrief and reflect on their experience. As their teacher you will want to assess in one shape or form the learning that occurred. Is skyping making a difference in their learning? Have they learned something that could not have been taught via a textbook? What was the engagement and motivational level of your students?

Here are some ideas on how to help your students reflect on their Skype experience and help you assess their learning. Give students choices on how to debrief by offering or alternating using different media.

Post-Call Activities include:

  • Informal assessment: debrief right after the Skype call. Have students talk about what just happened. Read the backchannel log out loud and collaboratively add anything that was not documented.
  • Information Literacy (evaluate, analyze, categorize data collected)
  • Create documentary (video clip) from video clips taken during the Skype call
  • Create Photo Slideshow of images taken during the Skype call
  • Write reflective blog posts
  • (Paper & Pencil) Journal entries: Give students prompts
  • Create a Video recording from your debriefing session
  • Audio podcasting
  • Embed images and video into blog post
  • Share with parents (informal at home) or host a parent presentation session at school
  • Present to larger audience (entire school, community, conference)

Post-Activities Job Description:

Take a  peek into a debriefing session after a Skype Call from a third grade class.

What are some of the activities you do to frame a video conference experience for your students? How do you document and assess the learning taking place with video conferencing?


It is important that we start documenting and assessing student learning (formally and informally) from 21st Century tools.  Most assessments are not designed to take new forms of learning into consideration. The more data and documentation we have, the more we can move towards a new kind of “testing and assessing“.

Please contribute by asking your students to take the following survey about their learning via Skype. Once you have had your students take the survey, please e-mail me , so I can share the results with you.

Please disseminate the link to the survey in your own PLN by blogging or tweeting about it.

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