When I first started teaching at Sriwittayapaknam School nearly 17years ago, I used to do penpal projects between my Thai students and students in other countries such as America, England and Australia. It was great fun for all the students involved as they got to communicate with people on the other side of the world. However, we could usually only do it two or three times as there were long delays involved. The students had to first write up their letters. If they were taking pictures as well, they had to take the film to the shop to be developed. Then I used to collect the letters and then take them all to the post office to send them off. It would then be a week or two before the students the other end received our letters. Maybe longer if they happen to be on a half term break when it arrived. If they wrote the letters back straight away, it would still be a couple more weeks before my students received them. So, a minimum of a month had passed before any of my students received a reply to their questions!
The coming of the Internet helped speed this process up. We went from the more traditional snail mail to the much faster e-mail. The students visited the computer room once a week where they could compose their emails and then send them off straight away to their penfriend. In the early days, most students didn’t have Internet or even computers at home. So, if there was a quick reply, they couldn’t write the next letter until the following week. Things have, of course, changed even more since then. Most students have Internet at home and are very savvy when it comes to working on the Internet. At least they know their way around Facebook and Hi5. Despite this, we haven’t been keen on encouraging students to write to penfriends from home. Mainly because we are worried about predators on the Interent. It is much safer if all emails came into a central mailbox which we could monitor.
The emergence of new technology over the last year has encouraged us to look again at ways of communicating with other schools around the world. In particular, the ability of being able to do video conferencing on the iPhone has been quite exciting for our students. Our first video conference was between my students and my sister who is a teacher in the UK. Using the iPhone and 3G the students spent the first session asking her questions about her school and her students. In return, she also asked them some questions. I had the iPhone plugged into the speaker system so everyone could hear her clearly. As she had an iPhone as well, we could also see each other.
Every year I do a project with my students where they learn about the different length of days between summer and winter. As Thailand is near the equator, the length of our day doesn’t change much. But it does in places like England and Australia. So, as part of the project, they have to find out the times of sunrise and sunset in these two countries around June and December. This year for the first time we took it a step further. Using the iPhone and Skype, we first did a video conference call with someone in Australia and then my sister in England. So, they found out firsthand that my sister had just woken up and was about to have breakfast while the person in Australia was about to start cooking her evening meal. The students were also able to ask about the weather. My sister told them that it was -1 Celsius. She also sent them a recent picture of the house. At the same time, they learned that in Australia they were having summer as it was hotter there.
From the information they were given they were able to work out that days in the summer are very long and then in winter they are short. The students were fascinated when my sister said that it was dark when she went to school and also before she went home. They couldn’t believe the sun would set before 4 p.m. At the same time, after they asked her about the times of sunrise and sunset in June, they were shocked when she told them that her students could stay outside playing football as late as 10 p.m. at night. I could have told them all of this myself but nothing beats asking someone who is on the other side of the world. Hopefully the students would have gone home with a better concept of different timezones and seasons around the world. If there is anyone who would like to do some video conferencing using Skype with my class, then please contact me.