Thursday, 18 April 2013

Why Teach Via Skype?

 Are there any benefits?

 I'm doing an MA in Online and Distance Education (Educational Technology) at the moment and my tutor prompted me, via Twitter, to respond to Donald Clark's blog, 'Skype Learning - 7 great benefits', as she thought I might have something to contribute. And after reading his post, I felt I did. Perhaps you'd like to take a moment to read Clark's posting before reading what I consider to be additional benefits to his list, as this blog is a direct response to his. It was his article that made me reflect on my own teaching practices via Skype and what I perceive to be positive or beneficial factors with relation to my teaching context. 

A brief recapitulation of my working context. I teach English via Skype primarily on a one-to-one basis. My students are mainly Swiss and live in Switzerland, so I'm teaching English as a foreign language (efl). This means my students have in some cases minimal exposure to the English language, as opposed to English as a second language (esl) where the learner is living in a country where English is the native language or spoken by the majority.

Clark lists as Skype benefits:

- Death of distance
- Increased focus
- True dialogue
- Prevent peer problems
- Shared learning resources
- Extras

I suggest extending the list with the following:


Clark discusses the elimination of geographical boundaries, which is certainly plausible providing users have the necessary prerequisites in the form of compatible devices, connections and broadband width. Let's assume for the purposes of this post and this list, that these factors are in place. In this case, time also becomes flexible. I not only save time but can be more flexible with appointments. Of course this also relies on having some notice in advance in order to do a bit of rearranging, but I've done everything over the years. I've taught students at 5.30 am, lunch hours and way past sunset hours.  
    As Skype is now mobile compatible, place is no longer an issue. If I'm away from home or my student is, I can still give English lessons providing a stable connection is at hand, as stated above. I'm no longer bound by my home office. And if Skype doesn't work then I've found Google Hangout and Facetime to be viable options.
     I've just experienced this first-hand. I had a period of approximately three weeks of shifting around between hotels, internet cafès and farmhouses. The hotel wifi was strong enough to support Google Hangout whereas the cafès and the farmhouse connections were weaker, but Facetime was still possible . This meant spontaneously adjusting my lesson plans, as Facetime is solely video chat, you don't have screenshare options or the possibility to enter other virtual rooms, but that didn't prove to be a hindrance. I consider myself very fortunate to have students who are digitally literate enough and willing, to switch between digital tools at my request in order to have a language lesson.

Promotes learner autonomy

Clark comments that lesson time is considered more valuable due to the fact that the lesson is mediated through an online tool and as a consequence the lesson is more focussed. I agree that the time is perceived as valuable. However, in my context this is not necessarily because we're using this resource, per say, but because the students are paying for private lessons and they want to get as much out of the available hour or hour and a half, as is possible. And being primarily one-to-one lessons, I find that they are willing to come prepared for the lesson so we can utilize the time effectively and productively. 
    The approach that I use in some cases is similar to that of the flipped classroom method of teaching. Without preparation on the part of the student, we can still work, but the challenge then for me is to avoid being too explicit and taking up all the talking time. This is why with Skype teaching it's useful to have extra resources bookmarked or links prepared in a document. You can then upload these on screen and shift to more student-centric work. I always provide some kind of asynchronous feedback after a lesson, by mail or video mail (such as MailVu), and as well as setting homework I list the learning outcomes for the next lesson with links to resources so that they can come prepared.

Improved digital literacies

When using Skype to teach English, I shift with the student/s between a number of virtual rooms to practice reading, writing, listening and speaking skills e.g. Google Drive, Linoit and Realtime Board. They are introduced to these spaces gradually, but with time become very fluent at navigating across various media and platforms which in itself is a valuable skill. These newly gained skills are a positive side effect that can be put to use elsewhere, such as the workplace. 


I find that creativity is stimulated when working within this environment. On one hand, as a teacher you have to be very spontaneous if some technical issues turns up and be able to dig into your bag of tricks, or you might have to totally rewrite the script in your head if you can't access your links. And on the other hand, due to the focussed work together where my role often shifts between varying identities, it becomes a creative learning place. Students may come up with an idea and we'll follow it and produce something together or I'll learn something from them, which is always inspirational.

A Door to Many Rooms

I visualize Skype more like the entrance to a house. It's the place where I meet and say goodbye to students but our creative and productive time together tends to occur in all the adjacent rooms, such as the image in second life illustrates below. It's within these other rooms that my students are able to hone their language literacy skills and digital skills. 

  (Me waiting for a student to arrive. 2013.)

Of course using Skype or a similar tool is not limited to any kind of formal teaching context, it could I feel, be used more often in the workplace and privately for communication. Perhaps you've had other experiences within your teaching context that you'd be interested in sharing? 

This is a link to a previous posting about my experiences as a Skype teacher.

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