The old adage that “you get what you pay for” seems increasingly outdated in the age of free technologies that provide real value. Like Google’s free tools and all the main social media platforms, Skype is one more free and infinitely useful tool that educators can add to their toolbox.
You’re probably already familiar with Skype; the free service for calls and chat has become ubiquitous in recent years. It’s revolutionized how people around the world communicate with each other. Friends and families living far away now have an easy, affordable way to communicate. Businesses have used it to increase the possibilities of remote work and collaboration between offices. And teachers have started to explore the opportunities it brings to education as well.
If you haven’t taken advantage of using Skype in your classroom yet, we’ve got a few suggestions and tools that can help you get started.
Connecting students from different places and backgrounds is a more personal and interesting way for them to learn about the world beyond their own community than reading a chapter in a textbook. Where the best option available for making those connections was once writing to penpals, Skype makes it possible to make the conversations more direct.
Teachers can seek out connections with classes around the world, or even at different schools in the same area, as a way to give students a glimpse into cultures and lifestyles other than their own. Skype can help students practice a foreign language with new friends from other countries. Or you can come up with creative collaborative projects that students from different classes can work on together, like writing songs together or having a debate with students from different backgrounds, all over Skype.
Teachers are good at becoming experts in a wide variety of subjects, but it’s always nice to be able to bring in the outside perspective of someone more experienced with the topic you’re covering in class. Experts in various professional fields have a tendency to be busy, making it hard for them to commit to an in-class visit. But a Skype call’s much easier to fit into a packed schedule.
Calls with experts can be set up as a Q&A or more of a lecture, depending on what you prefer. You can give students the assignment of doing some research and coming up with questions in advance, so they have an opportunity to interact with the expert and learn more. This can take a lot of different forms depending on the subject you’re teaching. A professional artist can do an art critique of your students’ work in class. A musician can provide an informal music lesson over Skype. A museum curator can discuss different items in their collection, saving the time and money of a field trip.
You can always get more out of these interviews by giving related assignments to students. You can have them summarize what they got out of it in a paper, short video, or podcast. Or ask them to create something related to what the expert discussed, like a piece of art that would fit into the collections at the curator’s museum.
Of the ideas on our list, this is probably the one that’s most in use already. Sickness is always going to be a part of life for students, but with Skype, they never have to miss a lesson again. Kids who are too sick to come to school can have the option of sitting in on class over Skype from home or from the hospital. If they’re in no condition to follow the lesson while nursing that flu, the teacher can record it for them for later.
As a related use, when you encounter parents that are too busy, sick, or far away to come in for a parent-teacher conference, Skype can bridge the gap. This can be especially useful for continuing to connect with parents that are deployed or otherwise live out of town.
Inevitably, students will have difficulties and questions outside of class time when the teacher’s not around to ask. Many students would benefit from some extra tutoring time with the teacher, but there are only so many hours in the day and most teachers feel overworked already.
Some teachers may be a little more willing to make themselves available over Skype. They can still head home and enjoy their comfy couch and (optional) cocktail at the end of a long day, while providing virtual office hours to students who might have a question while working on their homework.
This idea can extend to enabling an after-school tutoring program at schools that don’t have the budget to provide one on campus. You can probably find more volunteers willing to give their time to be available to students for tutoring and questions if they can do so from the comfort of their own home, rather than spending their evenings in a classroom. You can set up an official Skype tutor account for the school that different teachers or librarians take control of at different times. Students having trouble can send a chat or make a call at any point during the allotted hours to work through their difficulties.
Hosting interviews with professional experts in the subjects you’re studying in class is great, but you have a whole host of experts in various professional fields at your disposal in the form of parents. Students can learn all about the different types of jobs that their peers’ parents do each day through Skype calls.
You can either have a virtual Career Exploration Day, where you set up calls with a number of different parents and have them each present on their job. Or you can make it a regular feature of the class once a week. Students will get a glimpse into different career options and learn a little more about their peers, and parents get a chance to be more involved with the class (without having to miss work). Also, having a video call over Skype while the parent is at work gives them a chance to show some of the tools of the trade, which is another useful lesson in itself in many professions.
Group projects have always been valuable for teaching students about working well with other people, but they used to often come with the complication of figuring out where and how to meet. If your students don’t drive yet (which is true of most students), the logistics of meeting up at the library or someone’s house could get pretty complicated and make it hard to complete the project with everyone’s equal involvement. Skype takes away that complication, as everyone can meet with each other from their own house (or wherever else they happen to be).
The same solution can apply to setting up meetings for extracurricular projects like the school newspaper, book groups, or even chess club. Students can simplify scheduling whenever meeting on campus isn’t practical.
Many of the ideas we’ve shared above are easier to realize if you use some additional tools. These are some of the most useful ones that we recommend.
To collaborate with other classrooms, you first have to find those other classrooms.
Skype provides a Global Community for teachers that you can tap into to find other teachers around the world interested in forming a partnership. This access to different teachers from all over means you don’t have to stop at one, you can take your kids all around the world over Skype.
The ePals Global Community is similar to the Skype community, but with somewhat broader goals. They aim to connect classrooms and individual students, as well as provide projects, global challenges, and content that teachers can bring into the classroom.
iDroo is a free online, real-time whiteboard that is useful for anytime you’re giving a presentation over the internet. It can come in handy for those interviews with guest experts, if they want to add a presentation component. Or you can use it yourself for presentations to your class, especially any time when there are students outside the classroom tuning in.
Join.me makes it easy to share your desktop with anyone else who might be on the other end of a Skype call. It can be a useful tool for students to use when they’re meeting about a group project, as well as something guest experts can make use of if they want to share something on their computer with the group. It’s free for the screen sharing capability, but also has paid options for audio conferencing.
When you want to record your classroom lesson for absent students, or record a Skype call with parents or guest experts, Vodburner is a free tool that can make that happen. It’s only compatible with Macs though, so if you use another OS, our next tool may serve you better.
SnagIt is a screencasting software from TechSmith that allows you to record audio and videos of your screen. It works on Mac and Windows, but comes at a cost of $29.95 for educational use. The company offers a free screencasting software, Jing, but that one has a 5-minute limit for videos, which means it wouldn’t be much use for recording lectures or interviews.
Skype can make opportunities possible for your students that you didn’t even know yet you wanted. Our suggestions are only a start. Get creative and see what you and your students come up with.
Editor’s note: This article is a revision and combination of several older Edudemic articles, updated and re-analyzed to reflect the latest innovations.