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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