Why I can’t live without TED Talks: using tech to bring speakers into class

First published by the Guardian on Friday 12 April 2013.

Outside speakers can be invaluable to schools. I particularly remember Zigi Shipper, a survivor of Auschwitz, who told a story in my school that resonated with the students so much that they wanted to organise a remembrance concert for victims of the Holocaust. Another inspirational moment came from a Palestinian academic, Mohamed Altawil, whose personal story of hardship started with the pronouncement: “The only time my father hit me was when I threw stones at Israeli tanks,” and he then detailed his family’s journey from Gaza to Hatfield.

Helpfully, some organisations jump at the chance to send speakers into schools. I have called upon Amnesty International and my colleagues have made use of Stonewall and Speakers for Schools. Other organisations can arrange for reformed prisoners to deliver talks on life behind bars, for example, and a variety of local organisations are often willing to discuss topical issues with students.

However, with the English Baccalaureate and best eight measures in league tables leading to crammed curriculums and the annoyance for other staff in hauling great swaths of students off timetable, it is becoming more difficult to justify inviting outside speakers into to school. And, of course, some organisations charge for their time.

Nonetheless, there are ways around this by using three simple technologies and a variety of existing resources.

Firstly, there is so much available on YouTube and TED – a website offering endless talks on a universe of subjects – that in some ways we are spoilt for choice. Streaming videos can allow us to find suitable speeches, interviews and discussions to suit a whole host of topics and issues, from overcoming disabilities to the importance of compassion. Moreover, in subjects like sociology you can often find interviews with the academics and researchers covered in the syllabus.

Secondly, some speakers have started producing DVDs in order to increase their audiences. Roop Singh, for example, is a speaker who specialises in introducing students to Sikhism. A colleague of mine had fond memories of him engaging students with lively talks at Sikh summer camps when she was young. I would, of course, like Roop to visit our school, but the hindrances outlined above would get in the way. Nevertheless, Roop has put together a series of talks on DVD that are designed to prompt debate and discussion on aspects of Sikhism. These are short and concise introductions that do not drag on for too long and bore the students.

Of course, the main problem with Youtube, TED and specifically put together DVDs like Roop’s is the inability for students to ask questions or discuss issues with the actual speaker. It is here, thirdly and most effectively, that I have used Skype to set up cheap and effective video conferencing with willing speakers.

During a RE unit on death and the afterlife, I got my students to Skype a Buddhist samanera called Amaranatho so that they could quiz him on Buddhist beliefs about karma, rebirth and rebecoming. Amaranatho was on a retreat in Australia at the time, but the use of Skype was a great way around this. Moreover, Amaranatho simply used his phone via a 3G mobile network and did not even need to be at a computer.

After some initial hesitation, the students started asking a myriad of questions both on and, perhaps more importantly, off topic. The technology worked well and the students could associate the beliefs learnt in class with an actual practicing monk/samanera. The process was hassle free, only used up religious studies lesson time and did not involve booking out rooms or arranging for someone to meet Amaranatho in reception.

In fact, this worked so well that I am currently contacting other religious leaders to enrich my lessons. My next project is to invite a local Anglican vicar into class while having a Catholic priest ready on Skype in order to debate their different views on abortion. It is hard to get both in at the same time, but this should circumnavigate that problem.

These technologies will never fully replace a speaker coming to school, but they do go some way towards making lessons and learning more real and relevant by introducing real people involved with the topics taught.

Picture credit: TED logo by Julie Freeman (Creative Commons 2.0).

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