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The pioneer in internet VoIP calling and videoconferencing technology known as Skype has been revolutionizing the ways that many of us communicate. Whether it’s for personal interaction between family members and friends, or helping small businesses to reach out to a larger target audience, this popular technology, which allows for free or low-cost audio/video communications over the global Internet, has become a standard bearer for the future of telecommunications. It’s making people in many industries rethink how their business processes work and how new IT setups can save time and money, or make yesterday’s dreams a reality.

Although Skype has been useful in many kinds of businesses, it has perhaps been most effective in areas like education, where person-to-person interaction is the fundamental basis of providing instruction to students. Teachers, tutors, program directors and other education professionals everywhere are thinking about how Skype can be useful for redesigning courses and programs to fit the needs of a modern community of students of any age, skill level, or educational need.

Chapter 1: Get Started with Skype
Chapter 2: How Teachers Are Using Skype
Method 1: Use Skype for Student-to-Student Teaching
Method 2: Use Skype for Remote Classroom Monitoring
Method 3: Use Skype for Tours and Field Trips
Method 4: Use Skype for Bringing in Guests
Method 5: Use Skype in Emergencies
Chapter 3: Enhance Your Skype Experience with Visual Add-on Apps
Chapter 4: Most Common Pros and Cons of Skype

Chapter 1:
Installing and getting started with Skype is generally easy, but there are some important steps users need to follow, including:

  1. Install the software on a computer, using supplied setup wizard
  2. Create a unique username and password that will be used for identification/login to the network:
  3. On the startup screen, click on “Create an Account”
  4. Fill in the information in the provided “Skype Name” and “Password” text boxes
  5. Record the username/password for future use
  6. Build a profile:
    1. click the tab at the top of the screen marked “Profile”
    2. select the menu option “Edit Your Profile”
    3. fill in text, and a photo
  7. Plug in or turn on the web camera for video and the microphone/headset for audio:
    1. install any drivers necessary for these peripherals
    2. plug in mic and web cam

It’s also a good idea to conduct a short test on Skype to make sure that the student and teacher can find each other’s user profiles, and that audio and video work the way that they are supposed to. In some cases, problems with Internet connections or other issues can cause momentary or permanent loss of either video or audio.

This guide from the Lincoln School goes into more detail about how to get started on Skype, and about the pros and cons of using this technology in the classroom.

Chapter 2:
A wide variety of professional educators use Skype in many different ways to reach out to students and to empower them. The versatility of this technology can help teachers to handle different kinds of workloads, facilitate group work and build better education models for the future.

Warren Dale is a teacher with 30 years of experience in the Los Angeles Unified School District. In addition to pioneering some Skype-based activities in school districts, he has presented material to federal legislators on the value of new interactive teaching methodologies. Dale says Skype has been a very helpful tool in helping teachers to “enrich their instruction” since this VoIP phone technology came on the scene several years ago. Dale and others in the school district have used Skype to instruct and monitor classes remotely, as well as in setting up situations where students can tutor other students online.

 Method 1: Use Skype for Student-to-Student Teaching

One specific way that LAUSD teachers have used Skype is in allowing middle-school students to tutor younger students in elementary schools in various subjects, through a Skype “virtual classroom” setup. Some of the practical steps Dale suggests for these student-driven activities include the following:

  1. Create a tutoring schedule with both the middle school and the elementary school
  2. Set up helpful “Skype handles” for security
  1. Pick a set of unique Skype usernames using the school name, for example School1Math1, School1Math2, and so on
  2. Share the set of handles with the elementary schools
  3. Ask elementary schools to set up a corresponding set of handles with that school’s name attached
  4. Use Skype profile setups to “hide” handles from public view – this protects against phishing or outside interference
  1. Create an “on deck” system for tutors
    1. Decide on qualification for student tutors (making tutoring opportunities grades-based may incentivize middle schoolers or other tutor groups to bring up their grades!)
    2. Set up an “on deck” board with names and status indicators
    3. When elementary school calls, the student who is “on deck” will do the session, then move the on deck indicator to the next name on the roster

Method 2: Use Skype for Remote Classroom Monitoring

Another popular use of Skype is to allow more experienced educators to “sit in on” classes and provide feedback to newer instructors. Dale notes that keeping this kind of interaction and feedback positive can allow for some great teacher collaborations and mentoring relationships.

In remote classroom monitoring, a teacher will set up a Skype connection in the active classroom, connecting to a Skype connection for another “mentoring” professional who is somewhere else. Through a “passive” connection, the mentor can observe what is going on in the classroom. He or she does not need to use the connection for active broadcast (although this is done in “co-teaching” arrangements) – remote classroom monitoring can involve the following:

  1. Arrange web camera to record the entire classroom space or whatever space is relevant
    1. Set up adequate lighting
    2. Turn Skype on and view the sample video screen thumbnail
    3. Adjust web camera physically as necessary
  1. Find mentor’s “handle” and connect
    1. Hit “call” button
    2. Look for evidence of connection, since the passive connection may not include video
  2. Use Skype I.D. features or visual cues to help put names with faces

On the passive end, someone sitting in on a class may want to mute their A/V connection, either using the built-in controls on the microphone, or Skype settings.

Method 3: Use Skype for Tours and Field Trips

Then there’s the idea of taking students on virtual field trips and tours through the power of a simple mobile phone. Some of these collaborations, says Dale, bridge the border divide between Californian and Mexican classrooms, where L.A. students have seen video tours of ancient Mexican castles, and Mexican students have taken digital tours of the L.A. County Fair.

In discussing how LAUSD schools have set up these kinds of interactive trips, Dale says teachers often choose to focus students prior to a video tour opportunity, with some of these preparations:

  • Work in groups as educators to come up with potential trip ideas
  • Announce trip ideas and task students with doing relevant research
  • Have students present their own proposals to teachers
  • Come up with a set of “guiding questions” that will help to provide a focus for a video tour

Using Skype on tours involves:

  1. Allocate a mobile device (iPhone, etc.)
  2. Follow specific installation wizard for putting Skype onto the device
  3. Find handles and do a test connection
  4. Evaluate signal for lighting, audio

After the tour, students can build on their proposals and questions sets to create “proof of learning” presentations about what they saw.

Method 4: Use Skype for Bringing in Guests

Other kinds of uses of Skype in the classroom involve bringing students together with outside guests or speakers. Vicki Cobb is the published author of dozens of children’s nonfiction books. She is also the president of Ink Think Tank. Cobb’s company is promoting a program called Authors on Call, where children’s book authors are set up to interact with K-12 classrooms through videoconferencing. Technologies like Skype help these experienced authors to visit classrooms all over the country. Cobb provided the following guidance for using Skype to present to classrooms:

Before Presentation Day…

  1. Assess the school’s broadband capacity and typical server traffic – a low-performing network or excessive traffic can cause calls to be dropped during a presentation
  2. Schedule an appropriate space with school admin – the presentation space needs enough seating to accommodate the audience, and a front space for setting up a large screen

On Presentation Day…

  1. Set up presentation screen – check to make sure that screen is large enough for viewing and centered
  2. Keep presentation images on the presenter’s work station – Skype includes a tool for switching to the presenter’s desktop to show images
  3. Adjust sound levels on devices to limit feedback
  4. Do a test call – this test will show whether the lecture transmission is likely to succeed throughout the time frame needed

Method 5: Use Skype in Emergencies

Along with these kinds of planned-out interactive activities, Skype can also help educators who are faced with major challenge, especially when their disaster recovery plans failed. For example, in the wake of some of the different kinds of natural disasters that have been threatening communities across the world in recent years. One example comes from a smaller educational company called Parliament Tutors, where instructors help to prepare American high school students for the SATs. An April post on Skype’s Workspace Blog shows how Parliament was able to help students in New York and New Jersey, in areas hit by superstorm Sandy last year.

Chapter 3:

Another helpful tip for teachers is to use Skype apps like these to add more to this powerful videoconferencing interface:

IDroo Online Educational Whiteboard – This Skype add-on allows teachers to:

  • Draw shapes and other visuals on a virtual whiteboard
  • Reach unlimited numbers of viewers
  • Use built-in math tools for tutoring or other math instruction
  • Keep track of multiple conversations and visuals
CallNote – A program called CallNote allows teachers to manage past conversations. Teachers can:

  • Begin recording at the beginning of a call, or during a call
  • Use language features for bi-lingual access
  • Share/Upload data directly to Facebook
  • Archive the i.d.s of call participants as well as call duration and other relevant info
SkyHistory – SkyHistory is another good app for Skype data storage. SkyHistory can help teachers to:

  • Save call logs
  • Record Skype chats
  • Use calendar tools for scheduling or noting past sessions
  • Bring up past data by keyword

Chapter 4:

Programs like the above have thrived through the use of Skype and videoconferencing techniques. However, there are some distinct benefits and some substantial disadvantages to using this kind of interactive tool in different kinds of educational programs.

Benefits of Skype:

  • doesn’t require advanced hardware beyond a desktop or laptop computer
  • many new computers are now built with web cameras, and for those that are not equipped, a small web video device is pretty affordable
  • offer more targeted lessons to students anywhere in the world – a variety of posts like this one on show some of this enthusiasm for the idea of students choosing very particular types of educators for all kinds of “niche” lessons such as music lessons, and how Skype can open up a much greater menu of choices for students

Disadvantages of Skype:

  • sound quality can be limited (see this post on the PianoStreet piano teachers’ forum)
  • broadband issues can cause downtime
  • problems with connections can eat up a lot of class time
  • lack of “face to face” interactions and nuances (body language, etc.)

As technology continues to change, there is no doubt that educators will build on the past successes of Skype projects to use evolving videoconferencing VoIP tools to their advantage. There’s a groundswell of interest in some teacher communities over how to reach students in new, innovative ways, to help more students, not just “traditional learners,” achieve.

The bottom line is that Skype represents an affordable, versatile resource that teachers are using to their advantage in many different kinds of classes, for all different kinds of students. Educators looking to change the way they run their classrooms can consider using these kinds of long-distance or remote teaching tools.