Part II: Skype in the Classroom

This article originally appeared in the September issue of BiBimBap magazine, an online journal for EFL teachers in Jeollanamdo, South Korea. You can view the ISSUU version here.

In Part I of the this series I outlined the resources, methods and potential best practices for leveraging one kind of information and communication technology in the classroom – Skype Education. In Part II of this series I’d like to share with you my experience using Skype in two of my 6th grade ESL classrooms, one being a recorded video exchange over a couple months and the other a live video class session.  

Whether or not the Skype VOIP service is best for keeping in touch with your friends and family back home is debatable, but there is no doubt that their service offers the richest platform for teachers trying to connect classrooms across the world. And remember, if you have a simple webcam, a monitor and a broadband internet connection in your classroom, like most of us do, you are one simple download away from getting started.

Recorded Skype Exchange

I mentioned in Part I of the series that I had made a connection with a teacher in Florida and a teacher in an American school in northern China. As it turned out, the exchange with the classroom in Florida just did not work out because of a combination of factors; the learning objectives of that classroom teacher and scheduling difficulties. I have come to think that this is the norm when seeking out a Skype in the Classroom partner across the country or across the world. I probably contacted close to ten teachers via the Skype Education platform in my initial search to find a partner teacher whose goals for the Skype exchange and schedule would work with mine. To date, I have successfully collaborated with two of those ten initial teacher contacts. Keep this in mind! Put a lot of hooks in the water and be patient if your schedule doesn’t immediately align with the first teacher that responds to you.

Nevertheless, I did successfully devise a #MysterySkype plan with the 5th grade teacher in an American school outside of Beijing. Ms. Hart’s homeroom class schedule and my schedule teaching five 6th grade English classes on Wednesdays and Thursdays did not initially mesh well, particularly because I had one deserving high-level, hardworking and outgoing 6th grade class in mind for this initial foray into a Skype exchange. Thus, instead of a live lesson, we settled on a recorded weekly video exchange over the course of a few months.

Since we both taught ESL students, we first established a geography-themed vocabulary list to review with the students in preparation of the #MysterySkype questions to come.  It included words like hemisphere, equator, prime meridian, province, and the cardinal directions. I also prepared a Powerpoint presenting the whole idea and purpose of the #MysterySkype game and showing them how the exchange would work with a sample recording on Skype. My co-teacher translated all and fielded many questions in Korean. Our goal was to have all the students fully understanding the process and intention of the activity so that they could focus on the language and not be confused by the strange new activity that was definitely not from the curriculum.

During April, May and June, Ms. Hart’s class and my specially selected 6th grade class went back and forth asking increasingly specific geographic questions in a race to figure out who lived where first. We started with, “Do you live in the northern hemisphere?” and ended with, “Do you live outside of Beijing in the Heibei province?”

In each successive round of question and answer I chose two new students to work with me to craft an answer to the other class’ question along with crafting our own new question for our mystery friends in China. We worked together at lunch time, where I would sometimes have them write the response on a whiteboard to read during the recording, or we would just practice the question and answer repeatedly until they felt confident they had it down pat. Then we recorded the video message on Skype with me leading and introducing the students. We would watch it once through together to assure clear speech and audio, send it on to Ms. Hart’s and then waited for their response. In the last five minutes of every class I would show Ms. Hart’s class’ latest video and it was always highly anticipated. My 6th grade class and their homeroom teacher resoundingly loved the exchange!

Live Skype

I also mentioned in Part I that I had a plan to do a #MysterySkype class with a 6th grade teacher in Hobart, Tasmania. After much scheduling and rescheduling, we finally connected our classes in mid June, this time with a different, yet no less competent, 6th grade class of mine.

Mr. Fitzpatrick’s class was a group of native English speaking Australian 6th graders. Therefore, I requested that Mr. Fitzpatrick’s class ask us questions about our location and limit my ESL 6th graders to simply responding ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to their geography questions. I was admittedly nervous about asking my students to create ever more specific location questions in response to the Hobart students’ answers in real-time in a live Skype session. Instead, I limited my students participation to primarily English listening comprehension as opposed to production. In addition, I leaned heavily on my enthusiastic co-teacher to keep all the students in the loop in Korean regarding the questions being posed.

I did ask a small group of higher level English speakers to prepare a show and tell presentation on Korean culture. The small group and I worked together to prepare a presentation on hanbok, ddeok, the danso flute and janggu drum. They practiced their English presentation three or four times for me before the live version.

The class was an absolute hit and went off without any problems except for, of course, a technical difficulty. Mr. Fitzpatrick and I did not test our VOIP connection on Skype before the actual class. Thus we were left scrambling to fix an unknown connection issue, then a mysterious microphone problem, and had to hang up multiple times until the connection magically strengthened and the audio righted itself via restart. It was frustrating and would have crushed the students and I if it didn’t eventually work out. So my big advice is to run a test Skype video call from the classroom computer you will use during the live session. Otherwise, happy Skypeing!  

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Going Global in Korea with Skype

This article originally appeared in the May issue of BiBimBap magazine, an online journal for EFL teachers in Jeollanamdo, South Korea. You can view the ISSUU version here

Going Global

In 2012 the Korean Education ministry announced it’s ‘SMART Education’ plan, the ‘T’ of which stands for technology. In an effort to create an education system which is less passive, more creative and more adaptive, the plan called for wide scale integration of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). In fact, the plan set 2015 as the deadline for digitizing the entire school curriculum to make it more accessible to 21st Century learners. Yet in spite of the reported 67% of Korean youth ages 5-19 that have smartphones and the widely touted high-speed broadband access in Korea, ICT is not leveraged for learning in most classrooms yet.

This is where Skype in the Classroom comes in. Most of us have a broadband internet connection, a computer connected to a classroom monitor, a classroom document camera, headphones with a microphone, or, if you are an online “J-Distance” teacher, you have a webcam with a built-in microphone. This is all it takes to get started and begin using the ICT in your classroom to connect your EFL students with native English speakers the world over.

 

Where To Start

If you do not have a Skype account, you should start there. If you already have a Skype account, you can use that as your login for Skype Education. You can create a distinct teacherly profile name, like Mr. Short, add a professional profile pic, enter your location in the world and give a brief description of your aims for using Skype in your classroom.

Next, you can ‘find a lesson’ or ‘find a teacher’. There is a really cool map with classes and teachers pinned all over the world. You can zoom in and out and see more or less teacher pins appear as a result. If you click on a pin it will automatically scroll down to that teacher’s Skype Education profile and from there you can select that person and message them directly.

My suggestion is to ‘find a teacher’ first. I spent some time searching to ‘find a lesson’, I signed up for lessons, and did not get any responses from those teachers. However, when I started searching for teachers in our general timezone, for example, classroom teachers in Australia and New Zealand or International School teachers in Japan and China, I had much more success messaging them directly and proposing a Skype classroom collaboration.

 

A Global Lesson

The trending Skype lesson on Twitter is #MysterySkype. This is billed as a “global guessing game” where students in each class prepare questions, hints, show and tell items, etc. that allow the other class to guess their location. Skype Education recommends that #MysterySkype beginner classes start off playing 20 questions, preparing that set of questions and a few hints to give to the other class. This is ideal for our EFL students because it allows us to pre-teach the target language; questioning, locations, directions, place specific vocabulary and more. You can scaffold the whole process and interaction for your timid Korean students by helping them fully prepare before so they know what language to expect once you are in the Skype call.

There are many more ways that innovative teachers are using this all over the world to support a wide range of content learning. Students are brainstorming conflict resolution strategies via recorded Skype messages across the world and teachers are designing standards-based social studies lessons to compare and contrast their own customs and traditions with that of a foreign culture. The tool can be used as simply as a 21st century version of penpals or as complex as a collaborative research and writing project.

 

My Plan

I am currently planning my first #MysterySkype lesson with a 6th grade teacher in Hobart, Tasmania. For my first lesson I want to give my students the best shot at success, so we have agreed to limit the lesson to the Australian class guessing our location through questioning. This will allow my students to answer questions concerning basic facts about Korea, which they will know. And those questions and answers can be more easily supported by a bilingual Korean co-teacher. I suspect that the creation and translation of questions from Korean to English in order for my students to figure out where in Australia those students are would be very time consuming and possibly discouraging for both parties. At least this first time, I want to be able to scaffold this process so that both parties walk away feeling successful and encouraged.

The other way you can use Skype in your classroom is via a recorded message exchange with another class, similar to the old school pen pal programs. This allows for classes to have an exchange or do #MysterySkype in spite of impossible time zone differences. So, for those of you who know a teacher back home in Canada or the U.S., there is a way to connect with them even though they are in school there while we are asleep here.

I am working with two teachers right now to set up this kind of recorded message exchange, one classroom is located in Florida, U.S.A. and is interested in doing a basic show and tell cultural exchange, while the other classroom is in northern China and wants to do a #MysterySkype lesson over the long-term. In both cases we are planning on recording one short message per week.


Our first message from Ms. Hart’s class in China.

Final Tips

As you can imagine, considering the timidity of many of our Korean students to produce authentic language on demand, planning, preparing and practicing a recorded lesson might lead to a more fruitful exchange than a live Skype lesson. However, there are ways to prepare students for the live chat as well, introducing key vocabulary, sentence stems and making it completely clear in Korean the purpose and goal of the Skype exchange.

The planning and preparation will generally require significant buy-in from your Korean co-teacher, which I know may be a tall order for many of you. You may have to put significant effort into identifying your curriculum’s target language that will be used authentically in the Skype lesson. You may also need to start with a baby step like recording a simple message for another class one time, and then checking in with the co-teacher about the possibility of an ongoing exchange. It is probably obvious to you that the value of the lesson and the time it will take to schedule and plan it may not be immediately understood and committed to by your co-teacher.

Lastly, it is important to strategically choose a class you feel has the makeup to do well and get something out of this kind of global live lesson. You know your students best and you know the ones who are outgoing and who try and chat in English with you all the time. The first few times you experiment with this kind of lesson, you should lean on those students and those classes, if you have them.

I will check back in with more info and tips once I get a few Skype lessons under my belt.

Links:

https://education.skype.com/

https://education.skype.com/collections/skype-guides?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_2015_jan_literacy

https://www.edsurge.com/n/2014-12-11-how-you-can-actually-teach-beyond-your-classroom-s-walls

http://genproedu.com/paper/2013-01/full_003-009.pdf

Twitter:

@mysteryskype

@SkypeClassroom

#skype2learn