Today, I would like to explore the visual richness of our online, distance interactions using Skype. How did video make the experience many times richer than similar interactions using discussion forums or audio? Perhaps the answer lies in the importance of body language in communication. Many times during the conversation, our students picked up subtleties from our guests through body language. When an individual was excited to make a comment, we could see hear leap from her chair, slide over to the microphone, sit upright, and take a sharp breath before beginning to speak. These visual cues communicated the energy behind the speaker’s ideas before she even opened her mouth. Similarly, when our students asked really tough questions, we could see a slight slump of the shoulders, a downward gaze, and an awkward pause while they considered how to formulate a reply. When funny moments occurred, we could see smiles and laughter, even from a distance of 6,000 miles and one blockade.
We know that the brain simplifies the visual information our eyes take in so that we may make sense of it. In other words, our brains only process a fraction of what we actually see (can someone help me find a source for a study of this?). It may follow that, even though video is only a partial representation of a room in a distant location, it seems real enough to us. As the videoconference grew longer, we became increasingly accustomed to the dynamic and effectively communicated challenging concepts back and forth. The richness of the videoconference made a meaningful exchange possible.
This successful experience completely changes the rules for future global education initiatives at school. I used to think that virtual exchanges were the next best thing to international trips. Now I find that they are equally valuable, though different in nature. When we think about our lower school students, who are unlikely to travel as a class to any faraway land, we assume that their experience is going to be less rich than that of our middle and upper school students. Now, I imagine a curriculum in which students would Skype each other weekly, at a predetermined time, building deep relationships and exploring meaningful curricula over the course of a year or longer. The nonexistent cost, immediacy of contact, and regular scheduling give videoconferencing at least equal potential as short international trips to support meaningful learning. Of course, virtual exchanges may also enhance actual trips, as students get to know each other before traveling and keep in touch after the trip is over.
I can’t wait to get started …