One final big day out – a 12-hour learnathon over Skype

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions” – Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr

On Tuesday July 12th 2016 Sandfields Comprehensive School in South Wales, UK embarked on their first—and last—12-hour Skype learnathon. Last because the school as we know it is closing its doors this month and being merged with a broader educational group. Today’s guest blogger is Paul Watkins, Head of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) at Sandfields Comprehensive, soon to be a member of the Digital Learning Department at Ysgol Bae Baglan, the new educational group.

So, what is a Skype learnathon?

Our plan was to take 30 pupils on an end of term trip they will never forget: a 12-hour trip around the world—over Skype. Utilizing virtual field trips and guest speakers from the Microsoft Educator Community, we wanted to give our pupils an enriching “once in a life time” experience. Not only did they have fun, they learnt a lot. The learnathon developed their world view and helped them realize the importance of their role as global citizens. Whilst the normal end of year trip may be to a theme park, I know that through a webcam I can bring the world to my pupils.

This was a poignant time: it was the last full week that our school was open. We wanted to take our pupils on one final big day out and give them an experience that would allow them to dream big, and inspire them to be the best that they can be….and provide memories that they will never forget.

Singing the national anthem with fellow students over SkypeSinging the national anthem with fellow students over Skype

What inspired the Skype learnathon?

Since being involved in the Skype-a-Thon last December, I have continued to see the impact that Skype in the Classroom can have on pupils. To have a parent tell me that their child came home from school and couldn’t stop talking about the call they participated in with a school from China was amazing—especially when the mother added that they usually never talked about school.

The world being opened up to my pupils challenged them to dream big, helping them with their future aspirations. Riding high on the euphoria of having a class so engaged in a lesson, I soon found myself coming back down to earth with a thud after a conversation with a colleague. This teacher had asked her pupils to write a short article on a holiday they had been on. Whilst the majority of the class where jotting down their memories, two pupils approached her. “Miss, we have never been on holiday. We don’t know what to write about.” This broke my heart. I had been thinking for a while about a project to engage students, and I had just found it: I wanted to do something big, something special for my pupils.

Why was the Skype learnathon important to me and the school?

Situated in South Wales, Sandfields Comprehensive School opened in 1958 as the first purpose built comprehensive school in the United Kingdom. The Sandfields estate was originally built for the workers of the landmark steel works the area is renowned for. But through economic issues and the proposed closure of the steel works, the region is now recognized as an area of deprivation.

Sadly, Sandfields Comprehensive School is closing its doors this month and merging with three others schools from the locality to form Ysgol Bae Baglan. With all the benefits and opportunities that a brand new building can offer, the closure of Sandfields Comprehensive has been difficult for some to accept as many called it “The Heart of the Community”.

The school rose from being a failing school on the brink of closure to a school achieving one of highest inspection reports in the country, with the outcome of the last report stating “Outstanding”. We have always been a school that pushed boundaries, and now we did it one final time, with the learnathon. We planned to take our pupils on one final “Big Day Out” that will stay with them forever.

On Skype with explorer Justin MilesOn Skype with explorer Justin Miles. Explore the world with an explorer on Skype in the Classroom

How was the day organized?

There was only one way that this event was going to happen, and that was with some help and support. Microsoft OneNote provided me with a fantastic platform to plan and prepare for the event, and collaborate with other teachers, often on-the-go on my mobile phone. Using the Microsoft Educator Community, I was able to access the virtual trips and guest speakers and carefully plan the calls for all 12 hours based on time zones.

Throughout the event the pupils were able to access the notebook and leave their thoughts about the different connections that we made. It was lovely to read back at the end of the day and see some of the thoughts of the pupils and what had challenged, inspired or even entertained them through the day.

Invites where also send out to teachers and member of the ICT department of the local authority. It was an ideal opportunity to showcase Skype in the Classroom to those who had never experienced it before.

How would I summarize the impact that the day had?

It was such a diverse day. We came across a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences that there was something for everyone. The very first connection was with student Nefeli Stefopoulou—one of the winners of Microsoft’s YouthSpark Challenge for Change—and really set the tone for the day. Her inspirational story captivated the pupils when she told them to “throw your heart out in front of you, then run and catch it.” I could see their eyes lighting up

Having external visitors come to various sessions was also encouraging. Having teachers wanting help getting started with Skype in the Classroom, librarians excited to start running Skype in the Classroom after school clubs, and the local authority’s IT representative simply look at me with a smile and saying “Powerful!” was so encouraging. They could see the pupils growing even during a call, something they had never seen before, and were in awe.

In many ways that day was a career high and I found myself becoming quite emotional at the end of the day. As I reflected on the last 12 hours I could clearly hear the voices of the pupils when asked about what they learnt that day: “To dream big and don’t let anyone tell you that you are too young to make a difference!” To hear that from students with low confidence, ambition and aspirations was the greatest thing I have ever heard a pupil say.

On Skype with YouthSpark Challenge for Change winner Nefeli StefopoulouOn Skype with YouthSpark Challenge for Change winner Nefeli Stefopoulou

Apart from the skills development through Skype in the Classroom, what other skills were developed on the day?

Collaboration was one of the main skills we worked on that day. We looked at developing a collaborative Sway that all pupils contributed to throughout the day, as well as a OneNote notebook. One of our calls was with the Sway team as part of the Meet the Microsofties project. It was amazing to see the pupils engaging with them and giving feedback on the product. Pupils who had previously been reluctant to verbally engage in lessons were now speaking with confidence about their experiences, and the fact they were being taken seriously made them feel ten feet tall.

Looking towards the future, what’s next?

The Skype learnathon was an amazing experience—life changing in some ways for the pupils—and a powerful educational tool, more powerful than I had realized. In September Ysgol Bae Baglan will open its doors, and I hope that all faculty areas will be aware of, know how to use and be engaged in Skype in the Classroom. I am also planning to introduce after school Skype in the Classroom sessions. But ultimately I want to help further promote Skype in the Classroom and train educators across my local district. Through social media and my “Getting started with Skype in the Classroom” lesson on the Microsoft Educator Community I would love to encourage educators across my country and the world to engage with it.

My pupils have come to realize that through Skype in the Classroom, the walls that surround them are removed. My hope is that many more classroom walls will fall in the months to come.

It’s hard to believe that 24 hours after the Skype learnathon the room no longer resembles a classroom. Tuesday 12th July 2016 will be a day that remains with all who were present for the rest of their lives. Sandfields Comprehensives doors will close but the memories, challenges and inspirations will remain with those pupils—that’s the power of Skype in the Classroom!

The room - 24 hours after the eventA last nostalgic look at the room – 24 hours after the event

Teachers: New to Skype in the Classroom? Find out how to get start with Paul Watkins’ “Getting started with Skype in the Classroom” lesson and check out our guest speaker and field trip lists. And look out for more information about this year’s Skype-a-thon happening November 2-3.

Parents: Why not ask your school to get involved with Skype in the Classroom so your kids can experience the world live from their classrooms?