It's Not Your Father's Telephone: New Ways to Communicate

from Educators' eZine

For the last two weeks, I have been chatting and using Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, more than I did the whole of 2006. Is it just me, or is communication moving to a whole new level? Today I even had a colleague Skype me about a piece of software in the middle of class. It was a quick question whose answer that he needed in the middle of a lesson. There are many tools that a school could take advantage of to bring communication to a whole new level.

Skype is probably the most popular VoIP program, with some four million people usually online at a time. The new Skype version 3 includes many different programs wrapped into one. You can have a video conference, a phone call, or a chat with anyone on your contact list. If you purchase a $10 Skype Out account you can also call from your computer to landlines and cell phones more economically than with most long distance carriers. For example, I can call my folks anywhere from Shanghai to Seattle, talk for an hour, and pay a whole $2.25. Also with a Skype Out account you can send Skype SMS to cell phones via Skype. In China it cost me five cents a text...cheaper than most cell services. The one disadvantage to the Skype SMS is that you do have to remember to tell the person who you are in the message.

Of course Google has a service as well. Used mostly as a chat platform Google Talk is popular among Google fanatics and those with a gmail account. Google talk is built into gmail. This makes it easy to see when another gmail user in your contacts list is online and so have a quick chat. The VoIP feature in Google Talk works well also. If your school has a school wide Google Hosted Gmail system, this small little add-on could boost communication.

Then there's Gizmo. Although it's been around for awhile, the latest release really is starting to make some waves. It has some features that Skype lacks or offers only as add-ons. Gizmo comes with a built in recorder. This is a great feature for those who record podcast conversations and like me, have had the Skype recorder add-on fail when you need it the most. It also comes with a built in Google map, showing you where everyone is who is in a conference call or where the other person is you are talking to.

Also worth mentioning are: MSN Live Messenger, Yahoo messenger, and AIM. These three big chatting programs belong to Microsoft, Yahoo, and America Online. All are very popular with the younger crowd, with MSN being the messenger of choice for our students here in China. Even though these programs have built in VoIP, they are better known for their chat interface and emoticons.

A new service that is trying to bring all those accounts to one simple web interface is Meebo is taking the web by storm, as users can open one Web page and be logged into their Google Talk account, MSN messenger account, AIM, and Yahoo all at the same time. Even though you can only chat with the program, it's a great way to have all your logins in one place and free up some processor speed on your computer.

There are many creative ways you can use these services. Ask your students which service they prefer. We had a teacher do that and he holds homework-help sessions once a week via MSN Live Messenger. From 5:00 to 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday nights, the teacher sits at his house logged into his MSN Live account. If students need some one-on-one help, they can chat with their teacher. The teacher can pair students together and monitor a chat, or help several students at once. Students understand what the chat is for and questions not related to the class are just ignored. There is something to say for face-to-face conversation, but whether you want to talk with a colleague at another school or a colleague down the hall, these communication tools could revolutionize the way your school communicates. A chat or VoIP program could help cut down the amount of E-mail a person receives each day and streamline meetings and travel time. The next actually hold a staff meeting in the virtual reality world of Second Life. I can just imagine a teacher avatar correcting papers during a staff meeting.

Email:Jeff Utrecht

Editor's Note: This article was first published in the TechLearning Blog.