A Virtual Spelling Bee Over Video Conference Connects Kids Across the Country

A virtual spelling bee would reduce travel

Do you know what the word nyctinasty means? If you closed your eyes right now, could you even spell it, having just read the word? That word–which refers to the movement of some plants in response to darkness–was one of two that Tulsa six-year-old Edith Fuller correctly spelled as she became the youngest ever finalist in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2017.

While Edith ultimately didn’t make the final rounds of the of the now-televised event, her achievement is remarkable–and a good example of how video conferencing could expand the resources of young spelling champs. Edith is home-schooled, and so did her daily training of five 20-minute spelling sessions with her parents and local children, many of whom were twice her age.

Had she been able to tap into a virtual spelling bee by video conference, she could have prepared and even competed against students from across the country without leaving home. In fact, opening the spelling bee concept to a digital format could connect students and schools across the U.S. and beyond.

11 Million U.S. Spellers

Edith is by no means alone in her passion for spelling. Each year more than 11 million kids aged 15 and under compete in the Scripps event. Each of the eventual 300 or so finalists must progress through a series of regional heats before qualifying for that final stage. Edith herself out-spelled 50 kids, all of them older than her, to get to the last round in National Harbor, Maryland. You can see her in action in the clip below:

All that spelling takes place in community halls and school gymnasiums before groups of judges and an army of parents patiently traveling the country in support of their children. You could cut out all that fuss and organization by staging at least the preliminary rounds of competition online, using video conferencing. It’s already being done in India, where thousands of kids complete regional tournaments online, and in the UK, where local school areas challenge each other over video.

The technology is widely available to put contestants face-to-face online. Webcams are affordable, some leading video platforms are free, 75% of U.S. students attend schools with high-speed internet connections, and schools are already linking with each other online to expand and share their resources.

So, let’s try spelling by video conference.

Advantages of a Virtual Spelling Bee

VC Daily has been down this digital school competition path before. We’ve argued that another U.S. educational tradition, the debate, could also be improved by taking it online. As with moving spelling bees to the web, taking debates online levels the financial and resources playing field among schools. It gives rural and remote schools the chance to compete against their metro peers without having to find accommodation and travel resources and increases the number and diversity of their potential opponents.

It also allows event organizers to supervise regional contests remotely, saving on the number and movements of judges. As we argued in the debates example, you might need to add an additional live feed of the competing room to make sure all activities are on the level, but with HD-quality webcams costing less than $100, that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.  

A virtual competition like this could also be just as accessible to home-schooled students, such as young Edith. Again, with just a webcam and solid internet connection, Edith could have competed from the comfort of home. Crucially, she could also have tapped into a local school network and taken advantage of all the resources traditional students enjoy.

Taking It Further with a Virtual Spelling Network

Scripps and several other companies do offer online spelling tests and games online–such as the official test, and this one from Virtual Thesaurus. You don’t get a lot of feedback or encouragement from a static test though.

Instead, schools could set up networks for interested students, like a mini Facebook community with an accent on the visual element. Under the guidance of a qualified moderator, students could log in at specified times and put each other to the test.

There’s even room to scale the events into cross-town, cross-state, or cross-country competitions. Video vendor BlueJeans recently partnered with Facebook to connect hundreds of people across multiple venues in town hall-style mass video hook-ups. In a similar set-up, a school in Alaska could share a virtual stage with competitors and their viewing audience in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York.

On the home front, students like Edith could tap into a vast network of peers ready to help her, and push her, to one day become the youngest ever winner of the National Spelling Bee. And along the way, a whole generation of U.S. kids could learn what nyctinasty means.

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