A window on the world: Using Skype in the classroom
This article explains the basic technical requirements for getting started with Skype, a web-based videoconferencing tool. Several suggestions for how to use Skype in an educational setting are included.
A class of second-graders sits and waves to themselves on screen as the teacher tests the web camera. The students know they’re about to make a video call using Skype. This is the first time they have ever heard about Skype, so they are not sure exactly what’s going to happen. For now, they are fascinated with just seeing themselves on screen.
While waiting for word on the other end, the teacher pulls up a Google Map to show the caller will be speaking to them from many miles away in Louisiana. A message flashes at the bottom of the screen indicating the caller is ready. Students go quiet as they hear their teacher place the call.
When a familiar face appears on screen, the students whisper, “I know him.” “He was at our school.” The caller is author Mike Artell, who had visited their school just a week earlier. The rambunctious group becomes still and silent. The students sit completely captivated.
Skype is a free software program that allows you to make free voice and video calls to any other computer in the world via a high-speed internet connection. Tools like Skype allow students in even the most rural areas to connect with other students, educators, or interesting people from around the world, creating myriad educational opportunities.
To use Skype in your classroom, the first thing you’ll need to do is install the free Skype software on your computer and set up a user name. The software works with Macs and PCs. Installation is simple, and you should be up and running in about five minutes.
In addition to your computer and internet connection, you’ll need a web camera. Most any webcam will work, but the quality of the video can be an issue with low-end cameras, so try to purchase a camera that lists compatibility with Skype. Most laptops now come with a built-in webcam, and these work just fine. However, using the built in microphone on a laptop can result in echoing or feedback, so invest in an external USB microphone if you plan to involve your entire class. While they’re not necessary, a digital projector and external speakers can help students to better see and hear during the call.
A word about etiquette
Good communication with your Skype partner is key to a successful call. Make sure both you and your partner are clear on dates and times, taking into account any time-zone differences. It’s a good idea to send a chat message to the person you wish to call to make sure he or she is available before you place the call. If you call a person without advance notice, you risk catching him or her off guard, or worse, in the middle of an important meeting or presentation. Even if you have an established time, it is courteous to send a quick message to ensure your collaborator is ready for the call.
Exploring the possibilities
Now that you have the basics, how should you use Skype in your classroom? Skype opens the door to several educational possibilities. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Connect with other classes
Collaborating with other classes is probably the most popular way to use Skype in the classroom. Possible scenarios include:
- Reading to another class.
- Classes ask volunteers to sign up and read to students. It can be students acting out a story as it is read or simply reading a book. Older students can share a story with younger students or vice versa. This is a great activity for “Read Across America Day,” and you will likely have many other classes eager to collaborate with you for a Skype call.
- Connecting with reading buddies.
- This option provides an opportunity for one-to-one interaction. A student in another class Skypes in to read to or with another student — similar to a virtual tutoring session. Becoming a virtual reading buddy is a great way for pre-service teachers to practice both teaching reading and working with technology.
- Sharing projects.
- Your students have worked all semester long on a project and you would love to have them make a formal presentation to another group of students. Students can virtually present projects to another class and have the other class critique their work. To take this one step further, you could pair students from each class to work on the project virtually and then work together to present the projects via Skype.
- Polishing language skills.
- Foreign-language teachers have embraced Skype as a powerful tool to reinforce second-language acquisition. By partnering with a class in another country, both classes can refine their conversational skills. It also serves as a way for students to gain firsthand knowledge of another culture. Be aware, however, that time-zone differences can sometimes make these collaborations prohibitive.
Finding a Skype partner can be challenging if you’re not sure where to start. Newbies may want to start with a local partner. This will help you get comfortable scheduling and making practice calls. You can also turn to Twitter if you have a network of followers already in place.
Fortunately, there are several websites designed to connect teachers who are looking for Skyping partners. Skype In Schools is a wiki that allows teachers to sign up to make connections with other classes seeking Skype partners.
One of my personal favorites, Around the World with 80 Schools, is the brainchild of Silvia Tolisano. She challenges teachers to connect with 80 different schools. At the “Around the World” website, you can sign up to become a part of the project and connect with other like-minded educators, read technical advice, see where Skype fits in with national educational technology standards, and learn about simple practices to help you make the most of your Skyping experience.
Connect with authors
What better way to introduce students to a piece literature than to have them speak with the author that created the work? Many authors will participate in a short video call with classes to answer questions or to read portions of their books.
The Skype an Author Network is a great place to find authors who are willing to Skype with classes. The site provides a list of authors and information regarding the specifics of what they will present during a call. One of their main prerequisites for making a call is that the students have read at least one of their books.
Bring experts to your classroom
Regardless of your location, it can be difficult to find experts in various subject areas who are able to travel to your school and share information with students. Setting up a Skype call can be a practical option.
To find willing partners, check with universities, museums, government agencies, or businesses to find potential speakers for your class. You might be surprised at who says yes.
For example, my class recently solicited the help of Chartese Burnett, Washington Nationals Vice President of Communications and Community Relations, as part of a career-day activity. She graciously accepted the invitation to be interviewed by students. As a courtesy, we sent the questions to her a few days prior to the call. She was a very engaging interview, and her assistant later treated the students to a tour of the Nationals’ corporate office.
There are experts in most every field who would be willing and even excited to share their knowledge with your students. Just ask!
Take virtual field trips
School budgets have taken a huge hit in recent years making it increasingly difficult to take field trips. While it’s not the same as loading up the bus and driving to the museum, taking a virtual tour using Skype can be the next-best thing.
Check with museums, historical attractions, and other locations to see if they have someone on site who would be willing to conduct a virtual tour for your class. If you can’t find an employee at a specific location, solicit the help of a friend who may be traveling. Set up a schedule and have them Skype in to share the sites they see along the way.
On a recent trip to the Washington Monument, I held a Skype conversation with a group of first-graders and showed them a 360-degree view of the monument. It took only a few minutes to make the call, and the kids loved it.
Link students with family
Many students have family living in faraway cities or serving overseas in the military. Holidays and birthdays are perfect times to help students connect with family via Skype. You can use the opportunity to have family members read to the class or to just share a special greeting. Either way, it makes a tremendous impact on the family. Local family members can help set up the call to make it a surprise for the child.
Many elementary schools have special activities for Grandparents Day. A Skype call could be a special way to include those that live far away to send good wishes to their grandchildren. For students with parents serving overseas in the military, Veterans Day is the perfect time to connect. Check with local relatives or email the family member directly to see if this is possible.
Any time you can include family in school activities — whether it’s in-person or virtually — it helps to foster a sense of community within the classroom.
Collaborate with other professionals
All of the scenarios above share ways to use the audio and video capabilities of Skype, but the program also has a very useful chat function. With Skype, any user can start a chat conversation with another person and continue to add others to form a group. These groups can be a powerful tool as educators work to build a professional learning network, or PLN.
I am a part of one such group, the NC Ed Tech chat, which offers North Carolina educators a forum for sharing resources, offering suggestions, and troubleshooting problems. The conversation began in 2008 with just a handful of people, and now comprises more than 100 teachers and technology professionals from across the state. The chat is very informal, but has helped me form bonds and foster collaboration with educators I otherwise may have only talked to briefly at conferences. If I am ever in need of assistance or need someone to just bounce around ideas with, I know that I have a group of phenomenal educators to consult with. The NC Ed Tech chat has become my most valuable professional resource.
Many ways to collaborate
With tools such as Skype, we can connect students with peers, teachers, and experts in ways we didn’t think possible just a few years ago. These tools open doors and break down barriers that were once held in place by sheer distance. Skype is one of many tools that allows students to gain firsthand knowledge of people and places all over the globe. We can only hope that this technology will help us forge a mutual understanding with those who are different from us, thereby leaving the world a little better off than when we started.