Google Hangouts and/or Skype
Skype is FREE. Free is great, but you are limited to only talking to one person at a time (which, truthfully, is the way most conversations occur: one on one). Skype has a separate site dedicated specifically to education. Skype in the Classroom allows teachers from all over the world to locate other teachers who have registered with their class. Teachers can post projects that they would like to connect with. Their site is completely searchable, and their site allows you to navigate all over the globe to see if there are classes signed up in other countries. If you want an author to speak with your students, you can search through the list of authors that have registered with Skype in the Classroom and the site will even tell you whether or not they are in your time zone as well as how many hours ahead or behind they are than you. You can search by topic, grade level, and content area. Skype in the Classroom is great if you are reaching out to other educators or authors. One drawback to Skype is that there are a lot of agencies that are not registered with Skype in the Classroom. If you search the word museum, you will only get 23 results...23!!!!!!!!!!!! There are so many agencies that could impact your students if only they could connect with you. Many museums and government agencies have educational divisions, but they have never implemented a distance learning program. If you want to connect your students with one of these groups, you may need to reach out to them through e-mail or phone to see if they would be willing to set up an account so that your students can benefit from their expertise. It is well worth making the contact.
Hangouts is a Google App that can be used on any mobile device as well as PC or Laptop. Hangouts is a FREE application, as well, and it allows for more freedom and creativity during a Hangout video session. Hangouts can be used with a green screen to allow you to be in a variety of locations. Hangout sessions can also be recorded and shared on YouTube. Another unique feature to Hangouts is that multiple people can be a part of a Hangout session. This is a great way to bring in multiple agencies to discuss a topic or to even have a historical debate. Hangouts can include up to ten participants at one time. One of the drawbacks to Hangouts is that most schools do not have a Google+ account. Individuals have Google+ accounts. The ability to become part of someone's Google+ circle is fairly simple and it can be done without the consent of the individual. Hangouts has great potential, however, most of its potential lies in a business/professional forum. Many people use gmail, but few people are aware of Google+ and its purposes. There are a lot of great uses for Google+, but to the average user it can be a little confusing and overwhelming to figure out.
My experience has been great with Skype. My students have been able to speak with the National Archives about the Declaration of Independence, The U.S. Capitol about Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, The White House Historical Association about Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution, and we have two events coming up: An interview with George Washington (AKA Phil Elvy) and a discussion with Claudio Giorgione, curator at The National Leonardo da Vinci Museum of Science and Technology in Florence, Italy. Each event went off without a hitch. I have had one opportunity to use Google Hangouts and it was for a book interview. Everything was going just fine until I clicked something and lost the video feed. I did not lose the audio, but I could not find a way to get the video back. So, all in all, my personal preference is Skype, but I would suggest trying both of them and see which works best for you. The effort to bring people from all over the globe will enhance your students experience in the classroom!