In 2011, Microsoft bought Skype for $8.5 billion and today its user base numbers over 663 million people. Many students and teachers are already confident Skype users and feel comfortable communicating via video conference and exchanging instant messages. So why not take things one step further and use Skype to learn and teach English online?
You will need a computer or tablet, a fast internet connection (not 3G), a webcam with microphone and the latest version of Skype. Visual and audio quality can be improved by using an external HD webcam with built-in microphone and headphones. Some users prefer a Skype headset – headphone and microphone in one. In order to teach effectively via Skype, you will also need materials in electronic format (Word, PDF, etc.) that can be easily sent to students. It is also worth keeping lists of useful websites and other online teaching resources that can be shared quickly and easily via IM and email.
VIDEO CONFERENCING – When you log in to Skype, you will see a list of contacts on the left-hand side of the application. Click on the contact you wish to call, making sure that he or she is online (see icon), then simply click on the green video call button to start a conference call with video and audio. If you have problems with either your video or sound, click on the settings tab (graph icon) and select the correct setup for your machine. It is always worth checking your Skype setup before starting an online English lesson. Calls without video can also be made using the green call button, but where possible it is advisable to turn your webcams on as non-verbal communication aids understanding in the virtual classroom.
INSTANT MESSAGING – The IM or chat box can be used to send instant messages between student and teacher. This is a useful tool for correcting students’ errors without having to constantly interrupt them and break up the flow of an interesting conversation. Remember to include the student’s mistake and the correction after it, e.g. “I must to go to work at 10am (–>no TO after must, phrasal vb)”. Notes and comments of this type can be copy-pasted at the end of each Skype lesson and printed for the student’s reference. Over time, these records build into a collection of typical mistakes made by the given student and can then be analysed to find key areas for additional study. IM is also good for scheduling classes, staying in touch between sessions and sending files.
Secret function: Few users know that it is also possible to edit/remove messages you have typed in the Skype chat box. If you have made a spelling mistake or wish to amend or delete a message, simply right click on it in the chat box and select either “Edit Message” or “Remove Message”. Once this is done, a small icon will appear to the right – a bin for deleted and a pencil for edited messages.
FILE SHARING – To share a file (PDF, MP3, video, etc.) just drag and drop it from your desktop or folder into the space directly above the typing field in the Skype chat box. When you let go of the left mouse button, the file will automatically be sent to the recipient. To receive the file, the other person will have to click on “accept file” and download it to their computer. Once downloaded, the file can be opened quickly by clicking on the “open” button next to it in the chat box. Remember that large files can take a while to download so you may want to send big files to students in advance or via email.
SCREEN SHARE – With this interesting function you can share your computer’s desktop with students so that they see exactly what you see. This is useful for presentations and visual explanations but note that watching videos together in this mode can be problematic due to the data transfer speed (i.e. there is often a time lag). To turn on screen share mode, turn off you webcam by clicking on the camera icon, click on “Call” in the top menu of Skype and then select “share screens…”. To turn it off, repeat this sequence in reverse order. Note that unless you have paid for Skype Premium, you will not be able to use screen share and your webcam at the same time.
USEFUL APPS – Skype offers many free apps, several of which can be useful when Skype teaching. For example, idroo allows both teacher and student to draw and write on a virtual whiteboard in real-time while continuing to communicate via audio conference. Other apps like the various call burners make it possible to record online English lessons as MP3s and video files. New apps are constantly being developed so it is worth checking for updates from time to time (menu: Tools-Apps-Get Apps).
Skype has a number of additional paid functions that may be of interest to some users. Purchasing Skype credit will allow you to call landlines and mobiles via the internet and send SMS at reduced rates. So if a student’s connection goes dead during a class, you can call him or her on the phone. You can also pay to have your own custom landline number on Skype – i.e. people call you from a landline or mobile and you receive the call via Skype regardless of where you are in the world. Skype Premium offers multi-video conferencing involving several participants. This may be good for group classes when the students are in different geographical locations but it comes at a price with bandwidth and computer speed also being an issue.
When teaching English using Skype there is always the risk that the connection will fail at one or both ends. If your wifi signal is weak, you may want to consider plugging straight in using a cable or moving closer to the router. Some teachers may wish to have a 3G or 4G dongle in case of an internet failure, although mobile internet is seldom fast enough to support video conferencing. Both students and teachers need to be relatively computer literate to conduct online English lessons effectively so spending the time to get acquainted with all Skype’s functions is a good idea. You may find that sometimes you message a student but he or she does not answer immediately. This can be a problem if the matter is urgent so always have a back up contact method, i.e. email, mobile number, etc. Skype only sends messages via IM when both users are online at the same time – this is the reason behind the occasional delay in message delivery. General sound and video call problems can usually be solved by restarting Skype, calling the person back or altering the settings manually (graph icon). Remember to keep you version of Skype up-to-date to avoid unnecessary difficulties when teaching online.
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