Reach Out and Touch Someone

Up until about a month ago, my primary use for Skype was for facilitating video chat between my parents and my 3-year-old son. While that’s a great use, it wasn’t until very recently that I’ve begun using Skype for more educational purposes. Students in my Honors British Lit class just completed one very successful Skype interaction, and are about to embark on another.

While the course is called “Honors British Literature”, in all honesty we skew very English in the literature we read. In addition to wanting to give my students some exposure to non-English British culture for balance’s sake, I also wanted to satisfy their curiosity at seeing some street signs in Welsh. I turned to fellow teacher, Twitterer, and ex-pat Englishman in Wales Dave Stacey for help.

Over the course of a few weeks, Dave and I corresponded via email and arranged for him to Skype into our class on 13 March, when he spent about 45 minutes speaking with my students. In preparation for the chat, they brainstormed questions for Dave, using a page on our class wiki as their “scratchpad”. Dave obligingly researched (and posted answers to!) every question my kids could throw at him prior to our chat. Dave and I had a test run to make sure both of our school networks could handle the Skype-y awesomeness, then linked up for the real deal at 11:15am EDT / 3:15pm GMT. Dave fielded questions from my students on the Welsh language and pronunciations, culture (popular and otherwise), and even his personal experiences moving from the south of England to Wales for university and eventually settling down and starting a family there.

I was impressed on a few levels: first, at Dave’s willingness to make himself available to a bunch of American high school kids long after his work day ended (not always easy for a new dad). Second, my students could very easily have sat there and been passive learners. They chose to engage themselves in the process, more or less interviewing Dave the entire time. They shaped the discussion, the lesson, and, ultimately, their own learning.

In our session debrief, I asked my students what the value of an experience like this was for them – not why it was cool, or new, but what value it held for them. Responses centered around these major concepts:

  • first-hand access to a living primary source
  • interactivity & having the ability to probe and ask for explanations & clarifications
  • hearing a non-American perspective; combating ethnocentrism
  • greater investment in preparation
  • greater overall engagement due to all of the above

It was such a positive experience that when Christian Long contacted me to brainstorm some ways to link up our British Lit classes, Skype was my first thought. For this experience, my students will be leading his sophomores through discussion of issues pertaining to Hamlet and Shakespeare’s tragedies. They’ll be meeting each other in a few weeks; I’ll be sure to post reflections on that shortly thereafter.

How do you use Skype in your classes?


  • I love this idea. I’m going to pass it on to my English teachers. I have not yet used Skype in the classroom. I would love to give it a try with some of my teachers! The Freshmen English classes read Kite Runner – I would love to get someone from/in Afghanistan to talk to them. Any ideas on how I could find someone?

  • @liz, SoZiety is a global network of people who are interested in honing their foreign language skills via Skype; I know it’s not exactly what you’re looking for, but it may be a good place to start.

    Other than that, I’d suggest the usual text-based channels (Twitter, nings, blogs, etc.) first, and then once you find someone, see about setting up the Skype connection – I “met” Dave and Christian through blogging and Twittering. Maybe try searching TweetScan or hashtags for “Afghanistan”?

    Any other suggestions for Liz, folks?

    PS: Probably should have put this in my post, but I would be more than happy to set up future “Skype-Ins” with other teachers, either with my students or just me alone. Leave a comment or drop a line if you’d like to knock some ideas around.

  • You might want to check out a teacher/soldier in Afghanistan. I know he’d love to help out.

  • damian –

    what a great lesson you did there. i especially like the use of your wikispace as a scratchpad prior to the interview.

    skype in my classroom, i’ve used it twice to add members of my family to our class conversation. for one, we emailed a list of questions about the renaissance to my sister (who has a degree in art history and knows tons more than i do). she wrote back, i gave each student a copy of our questions and her answers, then we called her and she elaborated on a few of her answers. another time, during pastoral ed, we called my dad and asked him to share about his career.

    i don’t think i gave those phone calls the necessary prep time re: interviewing…my students are younger than yours (middle school) and much more hesitant / unsure of how to ask follow-up questions. but i did notice that they took a heck of a lot more notes when my sis was sharing than when i deliver lectures / powerpoints.

    wondering, did you have webcams set up?

    and of course, i offer myself/any contacts i can share if anyone reading this ever wants to hear about hong kong. almost four years here, and i’ve managed to develop a broad network in this city, expat and local alike.

  • @dean, thanks very much for that resource; I’ll be following his blog closely.

    @jeff, we did have cams. I took my Logitech camera and attached it to the cork strip over my whiteboard with thumbtacks and masking tape (hey, any port in a storm), then had all my students cluster together in three rows in the center of the room. It’s a smaller class (18), so it was a tight squeeze, but we got everyone in. Dave had his laptop-mounted cam, and we projected him on our 6’x6′ screen and had his voice coming through our wall-mounted speakers.

    I debated whether or not to use it, but I think the visual element gave the kids one more thing to latch on to.

    Love the fact that you pulled your family members into the mix. In addition to calling upon expert sources, it probably also helps your students to see you as more than just a teacher, but also as a brother and son – never a bad thing.

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