Skype and Skype in the Classroom: Options for Language Teaching and Learning

May 2013 – Volume 17, Number 1

Title Skype in the classroom
URL https://education.skype.com
Type of Product Information exchange website
Minimum System Requirements Internet connection
Registration Required
Price Free
Online Help Center https://education.skype.com/help

Introduction

The growth of the Internet has changed how people communicate and exchange information with one another. Skype, a software application for online communication, has been used in classes at various levels, providing many possibilities for teaching and learning (Blankenship, 2011; Foote, 2008 ; Messner, 2009, 2010). The appearance of Skype in the classroom, a website for learners worldwide to share information, has expanded the potential of using Skype for language teaching and learning. This article provides a review of Skype and Skype in the classroom by using the ACTIONS model to evaluate their pedagogical value in language teaching and learning.

The ACTIONS model, proposed by Bates (1995), is a practical guide for educators and policymakers to select and evaluate the use of technologies for teaching and learning. The ACTIONS model involves the following criteria:

Access: How accessible is a particular technology for learners?
Costs: What is the cost structure of a particular technology?
Teaching and learning: How does a particular technology support teaching and learning?
Interactivity and user-friendliness: How does a particular technology facilitate interaction among learners? How easy is a particular technology to use?
Organizational issues: Are any class organizational changes needed?
Novelty: How new is this particular technology?
Speed: How quickly can courses be taught and learned via this particular technology?

With these criteria in mind, this review aims to provide those involved in language education–be they teachers or students—with a reference tool to help them consider whether using Skype and Skype in the classroom might be useful and appropriate for their learning situation.

An Overview of Skype and Skype in the classroom

Skype

Skype is a software application that uses voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology “which converts voice signals into data streams that are sent over the Internet and converted back to audio by the recipient’s computer” (Educause, 2007, p.2). Also, Skype is a free, downloadable communication tool that turns a personal computer, smart phone, or tablet into a telephone.
However, Skype is more than just a telephone.

Skype provides both synchronous and asynchronous communication services. With a webcam and a headset, Skype users can have person-to-person or person-to-group online chats or conferences, which enables communication without the limitations of time and space. It is this feature that makes Skype a potential tool for language teaching and learning. According to Elia (2006), Skype facilitates language tandem exchange in which “two people of different mother tongues collaborate in the learning of each other’s language” (p. 271). It allows language learners to start language exchanges wherever they can connect to the Internet. Via Skype, users can share files or screen shots as needed. Even without webcams and headsets, Skype users can still communicate with each other by leaving instant messages. Figure 1 shows different ways of communicating using Skype.


Figure 1. Three ways people can communicate using Skype

The number of Skype users has grown exponentially since its launch in August 2003. As Messenger, another online communication tool, merged with Skype on March 15, 2013, it is expected that the number of Skype users will continue to increase (Protalinsk, 2013).

Skype in the classroom

Skype in the classroom, launched in March 2011, is a website especially designed for educational purposes. It is a platform where teachers and students can disseminate information about their classes, share educational resources, and find partners to start classroom projects. A number of businesses and organizations (e.g. River & Rowing Museum, NASA Digital Learning Network, and Penguin Books) have partnered with Skype in the classroom to provide provocative and meaningful Skype lessons (see Figure 2 for some partners of Skype in the classroom). Anyone who has a Skype account can use their Skype name and password to sign in to Skype in the classroom and decide to be a lesson participant or creator.


Figure 2. Some Skype in the classroom partners

Find a Lesson

For individuals who want to take control of their own learning or learn a special topic according to their interests, and for language teachers who want to enrich their students’ learning experiences, Skype in the classroom provides a variety of lessons that they can be selected. Examples of the options available can be seen in Figure 3.


Figure 3. Options for Skype in the classroom

Language teachers and learners may find the “Languages” category especially useful because they can search for Skype language lessons that meet their needs (see Figure 4 for some examples of Skype language lessons). These lessons provide opportunities for learning another language or practicing language via language exchanges.


Figure 4. Language lessons on Skype in the classroom

Language teachers and learners can enroll in any language lesson according to their needs and interests. More detailed description of the lesson, the profile of the lesson creator, and the number of participants can be viewed (see Figure 5 for an example Skype lesson). Once deciding to join the class, language teachers and learners have to contact the lesson creator via email or Skype to arrange meeting times.


Figure 5. An example of a Skype English lesson in Skype in the classroom

Create a Lesson

People intending to teach a class, find a partner class, provide tutoring services, or look for language exchange opportunities can share such information by creating a lesson using Skype in the classroom. Users create Skype lessons by following the basic format shown in Figure 6.


Figure 6. Creating a Skype lesson

Evaluation of Skype and Skype in the classroom

The seven criteria of Bates’s (1995) ACTIONS model can be used to evaluate the potential of Skype and Skype in the classroom for language teaching and learning.

Access

Both Skype and Skype in the classroom are easy to access. To get Skype, the user simply goes to the download page of the official Skype website (http://www.skype.com) and then selects the appropriate version the user’s operating system. The download and set up processes are very user-friendly, and setting up Skype and creating a Skype account are not daunting tasks.

Skype in the classroom is also highly accessible as long as users have an Internet connection. The webpage of Skype in the classroom is clear and not difficult to browse. In sum, Skype and Skype in the classroom are both highly accessible, and users can navigate both tools easily.

Costs

The costs of Skype and Skype in the classroom can be divided into two parts: software costs and hardware costs. For software costs, downloading Skype and browsing the Skype in the classroom website are both free. However, advanced features, such as group video calls, require users to pay a fee and upgrade to a premium account to get the service. Calling fees vary depending on the countries the user calls and the amount of time spent on calls. Subscribing to a premium account, which will allow users to use services such as group video chats, currently costs US$59.88 for 12 months. US$4.99 per month is not very expensive.

The major cost of using Skype lies in the hardware. First, users need to have an appropriate electronic device to use Skype and Skype in the classroom. An Internet connection is, of course, also necessary, and some users may need to purchase webcams and headsets for video images and audio effects. Though webcams and headsets are not required for teaching and learning a lesson, having these technologies enriches the teaching and learning experience. Nonetheless, since most new computers come with built-in webcams and speakers, anyone with the financial means to buy a computer probably already has most of what is necessary to use Skype and Skype in the classroom.

A suggestion for minimizing costs of using Skype and Skype in the classroom is to use public resources such as schools, libraries, or community centers, which may already have Internet access and the necessary equipment.

Teaching and Learning

The use of Skype and Skype in the classroom supports teaching and learning in many ways. First, these tools promote collaborative learning, no matter if the cooperation happens in group-to-group, group-to-person, or person-to-person. Through using Skype and Skype in the classroom, an English as a foreign language learner can practice English by participating in a Skype lesson; a non-native speaking teacher could, for example, find a native speaker to be a guest speaker for his or her students. Such opportunities support collaborative teaching and learning.

Second, Skype and Skype in the classroom promote authentic learning. According to Lombardi (2007), authentic learning emphasizes “real-world, complex problems and their solutions, using role-playing exercises, problem-based activities, case studies, and participation in a virtual community of practice” (p.2). Thus, authentic learning happens as learners participate in real-world relevant tasks that require their judgment to distinguish information, patience to participate, ability to adapt themselves to unfamiliar contexts, and flexibility to work with people from different cultures. In this view, Skype and Skype in the classroom allow language teachers and learners to participate in a context of authentic learning.

Finally, many functions built into Skype and Skype in the classroom can be used to facilitate teaching and learning. Functions on Skype such as group calls, sending files and messages, and sharing screen shots make a computer a virtual white board that language teachers and learners can draw on during lessons.

Interactivity and User-Friendliness:

Skype and Skype in the classroom enable synchronous and asynchronous communication among language teachers and learners. The built-in functions of Skype and Skype in the classroom are easy to operate and facilitate interaction among users from different parts of the world. Moreover, language teachers and learners, once becoming Skype users, can stay in contact even after Skype lessons are over, which encourages other learning opportunities as well.

Organizational issues

Since Skype and Skype in the classroom have not yet been widely used in language teaching and learning, teachers in some contexts may need to get the approval of their institutions to use Skype and Skype in the classroom.

Novelty

For regular users of the Internet and electronic devices, the skills and knowledge required to use Skype and Skype in the classroom are not particularly new. However, for those who lack access to electronic devices and the Internet, teaching and learning via Skype and Skype in the classroom could be an entirely new experience. Regardless of the user’s level of technological proficiency, the experience of using Skype and/or Skype in the classroom to engage in, for example, video chats for language learning purposes will be novel for most users.

Speed

Once Skype lessons are set up and planned, both teachers and students can start classes quickly. Class materials can be updated and adapted easily and quickly, which is an advantage for language teachers wishing to tailor their lessons according to students’ learning pace.

Limitations

Although Skype and Skype in the classroom provide an intriguing option for language teaching and learning, there are some limitations as well. First, there are minimum download/upload speeds required for using Skype. For example, video calling and screen sharing require 128kbps/128kbps as the minimum download/upload speed; group video calling requires 4Mbps/128kbps as the minimum download/upload speed. Therefore, Skype users need to check whether their Internet connection meets such requirements to avoid video and audio lag during Skype lessons.

In addition, when teachers and students from different countries around the world try to use Skype and/or Skype in the classroom, setting up meeting times can be an issue.

Conclusion

Skype increases opportunities for communication, and Skype in the classroom makes a global classroom possible. When combined, Skype and Skype in the classroom become powerful tools for language teaching and learning. They facilitate cross-cultural and global communication as well as interactions among people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Using Skype and Skype in the classroom is a way to not only engage students in language learning, but also encourage them to focus on their own learning interests. All of these factors should enrich language teaching and learning experiences and promote lifelong language learning.

References

Bates, A. W. (1995). Technology, open learning and distance education. New York, NY: Routledge.

Blankenship, M. (2011). How social media can and should impact higher education. The Education Digest. 76(7), 39-42.

Educause. (December, 2007). 7 things you should know about Skype. Educause Learning Initiative, 1-2. Retrieved March 14, 2013, from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/eli7032.pdf

Elia, A. (2006). Language learning in tandem via Skype. The Reading Matrix, 6(3), 269-280

Foote, C. (2008). See me, hear me: Chat with authors, record podcasts, and cover reference—all online and for free—with Skype. School Library Journal, 54(1), 42-43.

Lombardi, M. M. (May, 2007). Authentic learning for the 21st century: An overview. Educause Learning Initiative, 1-11. Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/eli3009.pdf

Messner, K. (2009). Met any good authors lately? School Library Journal, 55(8), 36-38.

Messner, K. (2010). An author in every classroom. School Library Journal, 56(9), 42-44.

Protalinsk, E. (2013, January 9). Microsoft confirms Messenger will be retired and users migrated to Skype on March 15. The Next Web. Retrieved from http://thenextweb.com/microsoft/2013/01/09/microsoft-emails-messenger-users-to-let-them-know-the-service-is-retiring-on-march-15-and-to-upgrade-to-skype/

About the Reviewer

Ying-Hsuan Lee is a doctoral student in Language, Literacy, and Technology program at Washington State University. She is also a student assistant working on Wallis and Marilyn Kimble Northwest History project at WSU Libraries. Her research interests include children’s literature, second language writer identity, and writing voice.

<ying-hsuan.leeemail.wsu.edu>

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