Over the last 6 years I have had many exciting skype linkups both as an individual, a teacher and with classes, but last week I experienced one of the most emotional of my videoconferencing life.
Tatyana Chernaya of Moscow was looking for some global teachers to skype into her school for International Peace Day. The students there had been reflecting on and discussing world peace. However, this was not an ordinary school but one for students with special needs and many of their classes are online.
A time for connection was set and 15 mins prior to the conference, Tatyana messaged to make sure I was online. Skype soon alerted me to the incoming call. As my webcam took focus, I could see a class of students with special needs in front of me and a number of teachers with laptops in their hands. Thinking they were videoing the skype call, we proceeded with mystery skype. The students had to work out what country I was from with questions that just required a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. The questions flowed in and I could hear them clearly
Did I live in Europe? Did I live in USA? Did I live near the sea? etc
Then, quite quickly and smoothly the webcam panned around the classroom to a corner that was not initially visible to me and again quite clearly I heard a question
Are you from Australia?
But that question came from a laptop that the webcam was focussed on! It was then that I realised the laptops held individually by adults, each had a student in them, beaming in from home but still part of this live linkup. I was not the only one in a laptop. That nearly brought me to tears!
Peace was discussed – the relative ‘safeness’ of our countries – Russia and Australia. Discussion came from both the students in the physical classroom and those in the laptops. Students sang me a wonderful song. As the conference drew to an end, the ‘special needs’ students in the classroom and in the laptops all said goodbye and thanks!
I subsequently released tears as it was such an emotional and special linkup, made even more interesting in that when I was growing up, Australia was part of the ‘Cold War’ with Russia and here we now are discussing International Peace.
Thanks to Tatyana, the staff and students for all the effort that must have gone in to bringing these students together for this videoconference.
My students argue that videoconferencing with another class in, another country, is the best and most powerful experience for them. They beg for more and more. It is now 12 months since our first experiments with skyping students in Korea.
To successfully connect, the following factors need to be taken into consideration.
Why I like skype:-
- Skype is a free piece of VOiP software, that can connects computers together to allow free telephone calls.
- Follow up service is great, they constantly seek feedback and are always improving their service.
- User and operator friendly
- Inexpensive – just need cheap headset or desktop microphone and headphones, cost of download time is negligible. Download software from skype.
- Allows chat and video conferencing
- May be used to call landlines
Videoconferencing with skype
- downloaded skype software,
- higher bandwidth connection
- web camera
- desktop microphone and earphones, or headset
- Interactive white board for display or a white wall, and datashow or data projector if videoconferencing with a class.
21st century skills required
A new set of skills needs to be taught and developed as there is now a virtual class. Staff and students need to learn and practise these skills.
- Speaking to a web camera requires use of eye contact, stillness or little movement and voice inflexions or animated voices (avoid all montotones). The voice needs to take the place of body language.
- Use of microphone is critical as the audio must be carried to the distant classroom(s).
- Student confidence is crucial – students who are not confident will not be effective. (I have found it is often my quietest students and those who are not so competent in literacy and writing skills who will excel and perform well in the virtual classroom)
- Appropriate placement of any object being displayed needs to be carefully considered for maximum effect eg when demonstrating a jar of vegemite – the angles need to be checked for maximum effectiveness.
- Keep any movement of objects or people to an absolute minimum, or else there is too much blurring.
- Use the chat window feverishly for feedback, questions and variety of delivery. If dealing with a country that does not speak English as their first language, or if the sound quality is not so good, the chat is great to type in the key phrases, to ensure they understand what is said.
- Video should be used to keep the class interested and give some concept of a third party(ies).
- Diction is another crucial element in successful use. You need clear, slow voices and short, simple sentences.
- Need to be able to multitask eg speak, read chat, position camera, microphone, control and manage existing class and virtual class etc.
- Keep the camera as still as possible. Better to bring the students and objects to the camera, rather than move the camera to them.
- Seat students appropriately, so that they can be seen via the web camera.
- Allocate roles to students eg chat window, web cam operator, microphone manager etc as this is a real multi tasking operation.
- Ensure everything is organized right from the start – all materials required are on hand.
- Determine the outcomes and plan the class accordingly. (We find it is good to get to know each other first – so a show and tell of school, classes, country, culture etc works well in the initial stages.)
- Always test the equipment before starting the class and test prior teacher to teacher before the day. Practise with family, other teachers in school, country and then abroad.
- Always use chat to ensure that the other class is ready, then when given the ‘all clear’ ring.
- Organisation, confidence and management are the key to success.
- If the call drops out, come back in and switch the videooff for the group who is listening, then reverse and switch yours on when talking. If it continually drops out even with just one video on, switch off both videos and continue with chat. (not as exciting but it is still maintaining connection)
This is an area of difficulty, as the teacher needs to be working at the front with the technology, student speaker etc. Small groups are far more effective and manageable. If students are misbehaving, ensure that the camera does not pick that up. Cross culture teaching is interesting and so exciting but expectations differ. Have a management plan for discipline problems ready before commencing. Most students love this kind of work, but if sound quality, voice carry over, technical issues, software dropping in and out it may become boring and students, restless.
Always have a backup lesson ready should the internet not function and a backup date for another attempt.
- Video option is lost once there are more than two participants in the conference.
- Long distance and differing bandwidth connections are still unstable. Connections with Korea and Russia were not as stable as those with USA and Canada.
- May be blocked in many educational institutions especially universities.
- Skype does not like another program being open at the same time if that program also uses a video camera option. So close any other programs down, before using videoconferencing with skype, and restart the computer if necessary.
- Security cannot be guaranteed although, operator has option of allowing a person to use your phone number of name, before being listed as a contact.
- Risk of viruses over large organizations.
- Bandwidth variations
We have successfully skyped with video to USA, Canada, Korea and Russia. In conclusion, these are such rich learning experiences with amazing learning outcomes and gives us a taste of where the future of education may head.
Since I wrote this post, @Peter@skype found me on twitter and gave me this great link with advice on improving my connection:- “You might find the call quality guide useful – and let me know if you run into problems next time 🙂 http://is.gd/3XZL”
Here is a great video presented at the K-12 Online conference by Sylvia Tolisano (Our class was proud to be one of those Around the World with Skype.
Great article by Shelly Terrell with lots of wonderful links and resources featured – Learning Beyond Walls: 21 Skype Resources
Read this blog post translated into the Armenian language