I first tried Skype about five years ago and, immediately, I began brainstorming ideas for using the FREE video chatting tool in my classroom. I wasn’t alone — thousands of teachers across the globe have used Skype to connect their classrooms to the world. But it could be hard work — teachers had to think about the best ways to use Skype in their classroom, and then seek appropriate Skypers to connect with. Message boards on teacher sites like Classroom 2.0 were often buzzing with requests for Skype buddies.
Now, Skype has made teachers’ jobs much easier. After several months of beta testing, the company just released Skype in the Classroom, an education version of its site specifically targeting teachers.
If you’re unfamilar with Skype, read on. If you’ve got some experience, skip to the next section, titled, “Effective Classroom Skyping.”
What’s a Skype and How Do I Get One?
Skype is FREE software that allows you to make audio or video calls to any other person in the world (who also has Skype). My mom now has dinner with grandchildren who live 500 miles away, thanks to Skype.
After that, you can make a basic audio call:
Making a video call follows a similar process:
Skype audio and video calls are completely FREE, but you can get added features (like group conference calls) for a fee. I’ve never known anyone who used the fee-based Skype features — for most teachers, the FREE features are all you really need.
Effective Classroom Skyping
Teachers have been using Skype in the classroom for years. But that doesn’t mean they always use it effectively. Often teachers will Skype with a single author or expert — the guest’s video projected onto a screen in front of the entire class, with students raising their hands to ask questions. In some circumstances, this format can be really powerful. For example, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles has a program that brings Holocaust survivors to classrooms around the world via Skype. However, this is still basically a lecture and, for most lessons, it’s not the best way to teach. One teacher at my school volunteered with EarthWatch for several weeks during the school year. She was sent to Canada, where she worked with scientists to complete climate change research. During that time, she blogged about what she was doing and regularly Skyped with her 4th-grade classes back in Phoenix. While the students really enjoyed the Skype calls for the first couple of minutes, it was difficult to keep their attention for extended periods of time. And, of course, since the teacher wasn’t in the same room, it was difficult for her to fully interact with the entire class.
So what are better ways to use Skype? One of the best things about 21st century technology is that, in many cases, teachers have access to one computer for every student (or every pair of students). This allows for much more individualized learning. Even if you only have access to one or two computers, you can have students rotate through them throughout class to chat with Skype buddies — it just takes a little more planning.
Once you figure out the logistics, you can head to Skype in the Classroom to get started. You can look at the listed ‘projects’ to answer a teacher’s request for a partner class. Or you can post your own request to do something like the following:
- Partner with a class(es) in another timezone (preferably another country). Partner each of your students with a student from this distant class. Have the pairs collaborate via Skype and Google docs to complete a project (i.e., a science experiment, with each adding data from own environment).
- In foreign language classes, use Skype to find language partners who are native speakers.
- Use Skype to include a sick or chronically ill student who is at home. Have the student use one computer, with webcam, at home. Set up another computer, with a webcam, at the student’s desk so (s)he can participate and see the class as if (s)he were there.
- On Skype’s education site, the company suggests using the software for a cultural exchange. Partner with a class from another region of the world and have students report on one another’s culture, using their Skype partners as one of their sources. (You can do this with a class from an area you’re reading about in a novel or studying in social studies.)
- Try a Skype scavenger hunt. Have students connect to a user in another geographic area, who gives kids a task (draw picture, build model, answer a question). Once the student completes it properly, they’re given the name of another Skype user, who they must call to get the next task. This would be great for a geography class, where each call is to another part of the country or the world.
- Skype suggests something similar, called mystery Skype calls, “where classes connect online and give clues to help each guess the other’s location.”
- Use Skype for long-distance parent-teacher conferences. Often, one parent may be separated from their children because they live in another city or are temporarily away for work.
- Students can offer peer-to-peer tutoring via Skype, so your students can partner with younger kids and act as tutors and/or older students to act as tutees. The software has even been used to connect teachers and tutors to students in third-world countries. Wouldn’t it be great to have your high school students tutor elementary kids in India one-on-one for an entire school year? Aside from cementing their own content knowledge, think of the global and social lessons your students would learn in the process.
- Some people even offer music lessons via Skype. I wonder if a creative music teacher could orchestrate something like the virtual choir, using a computer lab connected to another music class.
For more ideas and for resources on using Skype in education, check out this article. Also, be sure to share your own Skype successes and challenges as a comment!
Subject: Social Studies
Objective: The student will be able to compare and contrast his/her culture and community with that of another geographic area.
You can use Skype a lot like teachers in my day used classroom pen pals. On Skype in the Classroom, post a request for a partner class from a geographic area you’ve been studying. Depending on your students’ age, you might try to partner with older students (it would be difficult, for example, to have two Kindergarteners answer each other’s questions, but a 5th-grader can work pretty well with a Kinder kid). Once you find a suitable partner class, work with the teacher to schedule Skyping times and to partner up students (or pairs of students).
Tell students they’re going to interview kids from another part of the world and then they’ll create a presentation for the class about what they learned. With younger students, give them specific questions to ask their Skype buddies. For older kids, a general rubric scaffolded with pre-Skyping class discussions should be enough. Encourage students to have a conversation with their Skype buddies, rather than just interrogating them with a list of questions — you might be able to do this with a low-stakes first meeting, where partners complete simple team-building activities with their Skype buddies.
In upper elementary classes, your students might be asked geographic questions about their community as well. This is a great way to motivate your students to understand local geography since they’ll be responsible for teaching others about it.
Middle and High School Classrooms
Objective: The student will be able to recognize the cumulative nature of scientific evidence AND perform tests, collect data, analyze data and display results.
On Skype in the Classroom, post a request for a partner science class with students of the same age as yours. Depending on your scientific focus, it might be interesting to find a class in a different climate or geographic area (coastal vs. plains). Once you find a class and a teacher that meets your needs, set up a schedule of Skype calls — several in the following weeks or months. Using class lists from both classes, work with your partner teacher to create Skype buddies or groups.
Have students meet their buddies on Skype — these will be their lab partners. Either have the students work together decide on their own science experiment or offer them a guided experiment. Have students communicate with their partners via Skype and each collect their own data for the experiment. Have students use Google docs (or another wiki-like tool) to collaboratively record and analyze data and create a final report or presentation.
Subject: Foreign Language
Objective: The student will be able to use speaking and listening skills to communicate fluently in the target language.
On Skype in the Classroom, post a request for a partner class that natively speaks your target language. Most likely, there will be a class out there looking for English language partners, as well. Chat with the teacher to set up regular Skyping times and to assign students Skyping partners. Ideally, these sessions would be about an hour in length, with the first 30 minutes spoken in one language and the last 30 minutes in the other.
For each chat, give your students specific assignments — questions about their partner’s culture, life, etc. — to guide the conversations. You might also offer students some prompts, if they have trouble keeping the conversation going for the full hour.