Getting Experts to Speak to Your Students…Virtually

Wednesday, December 10, 2014 -- Scott Sterling

The Internet has many valuable uses in the classroom. But one that, to me, seems underexplored is the opportunity to bring subject matter experts in as guest speakers. What was a difficult, if not impossible, proposition twenty years ago can now be commonplace. Put it this way: a speaker would much rather spend half an hour talking to a class online than hours travelling to that class.

How does this work? Is it that easy? Yes, with some tech skills (if you don’t have any, borrow some from a colleague) and some creativity.

Videoconferencing

The first step is setting up some sort of videoconferencing solution. The goals are basic: you want the kids to be able to see/hear the speaker and vice versa. Skype is obviously the most popular solution and they have a brilliant website devoted solely to helping teachers connect with other classes and with guest speakers through the platform. It really is a great first step in this process.

If you don’t have a projector and a microphone, consider setting up a Twitter conversation that the students can follow on their devices instead.

Finding speakers

Finding speakers for your subject area is also easy, with some persistence and creativity. Besides the Skype in the Classroom site I linked earlier, there are plenty of other directories.

  • Cal State has MERLOT, but those experts tend to be quite advanced.
  • Here’s a big directory from CLN organized by subject area that links to well-known sources and companies.
  • Do a search for “virtual field trips”. Some well-known examples are PolarHusky, which follows scientists exploring the arctic, and Colonial Williamsburg. Not only do students interact with experts, but they also get to see the subject area come alive through actual work in the field.
  • Reach out on Twitter, Facebook, or any other social network in which appropriate experts hang out.

Just be realistic: the president and Neil Degrasse Tyson receive hundreds of invitations to speak. Unless you have someone in your network that can reach a famous person, set your sights on someone engaging and enlightening that can still shed light on your subject area for your students without being famous. Friends of friends work great.

Be flexible

People on the outside don’t operate by a bell schedule. You might need to be flexible with your classes or even record the presentation so everyone can see it. Another option would be to team with another teacher so you can swap kids at the right time. If you can make it a cross curricular event, even better.