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The Future Wave of School Volunteerism: Be the Textbook
22 February 2007, 16:55
by Vicki A. Davis

Notebook, skype, webcam and speakers: the equipment for virtual school volunteering.Notebook, skype, webcam and speakers: the equipment for virtual school volunteering.
The CEO sits down at his desk, slides a few reports into his top desk drawer and straightens pictures on the wall behind his head. Today, he's volunteering at a middle school and he never has to leave his desk.

Businesses bemoan the state of education and rightly so: they need a well-educated, capable, responsible work force able to solve problems and connect with the right people within their company to get things done. Well, now, virtual tools are getting rid of their excuses for not volunteering. With free Skype, a webcam, and a headset, everyone from the CEO to the intern could potentially volunteer at almost any school around the world with a common language.

Advertisers flock to youtube to encourage average, everyday folks to make what Time Magazine is calling youmercials.

Well, I've seen the beginnings of YouTeach last week as my class interviewed nanotechnology expert, Earl Boysen. Boysen is the author of the easy-to-understand Nanotechnology for Dummies and the Understanding Nano Website.

I have a first cousin in college who is majoring in nanotechnology and I found nothing in our very up to date textbooks. So, after completing a chapter on computer hardware, my class researched and created a nanotechnology wiki for 70 minutes of class time.

Then, using Skype, our class speakers, webcam, and a microphone, my rural Georgia USA classroom dialed up Mr. Boysen in California.

What resulted was an interesting discussion about their future, which includes microscopic robotics, and particles that could potentially be ingrained in everything from their clothing to their toothpaste.

Then, Earl wrote a well-researched article in his NanoTechnology now column where he states:
"I hope that other teachers who can make time in their class schedule and master some simple-to-use technologies will consider calling in outside experts via the Internet as one way around current limitations of textbooks and curricula."


It was an "ah-ha" moment of sorts that turned the wheels of my mind in a new direction. When I worked in corporate America, "the company" was always encouraging us to participate in the community, but then, we didn't really have the opportunity because it would usually take 2-3 hours out of our day to head down to a local school to speak. We didn't have the time to really volunteer.

Goodbye excuse, hello kiddies!
What if a visionary company decided to have each of their employees "volunteer" at a variety of schools around the world for 30 minutes once a month?

After the initial set up, it would be just 30 minutes, no more. And that area could be around the corner or in any remote place with Internet access and less than $2500 worth of equipment on site. A PC, Skype, mike, webcam, projector, and speakers.

Knowledgeable experts in every field can now stop complaining about education and start contributing to education via these inexpensive, easy, connections.

Can we do this now? How can this happen?
Yes, you can volunteer now but I am not aware of any formal programs as of yet.

There are some that use the expensive virtual conferencing set ups that are being used in many schools. We cannot afford it so we have to use the free VOIP software, Skype. But in many ways, Skype is better because I can stay in my classroom. I am sure there are other VOIP type programs out there that would also work, but Skype is what I use.

So how will virtual volunteer connections be made?
These virtual volunteer connections are going to be made by the classroom teacher talking about butterflies who has a brother who is an entomologist across the country or the history teacher who has a buddy from college who works at the Smithsonian.

It is going to be some visionary CEO's who set the precedent and encourage their employees to "virtually volunteer" in their area of expertise. It is going to be visionary administrators who allow the installation of free services like Skype in their classrooms and set up methodologies to allow their classes to communicate and share with experts around the world.

Here is what has to happen in the classroom to make such connections:

  1. Plan ahead, identify upcoming areas in your curriculum that could use augmentation and experts that you already know.
  2. Learn to use Skype 
  3. Locate or connect with experts and teach them to use Skype.
  4. Prepare your class. 
  5. Test the class Skype connection with a teacher in another classroom at your school.
  6. Do a test call with your expert.
  7. Conduct the Interview
  8. Follow up after the Interview