Skype is a very interesting application that could be a very useful tool for an online educator. Skype is a VoIP or voice over internet protocol. Allowing users to call other Skype users free of charge. Users can also call landlines and cell phones for small price. Skype is know as internet telephony service but it really does much more, the newest version has improved web conferencing function and a very fast file sharing feature, chat and the ability to send text messages.
This application is not expensive or complicated to operate. The costs would include a USB headset which can range from $16-$100, but for $25-$35 you can have a very high quality device that can last many years. The other cost would a webcam and these have also dropped in price dramatically over the past year. Or just a webcam with a built in mic does the trick too. Skype is free when calling another computer that uses Skype, but you can connect to cell phones and landlines for a fee. Text messaging is also an option.
How can Skype serve people like us in an educational setting? Here is a list of things I think you could do with Skype in an online class. I am considering a 10th grade social studies class and the use of Skype is a supplementary resource not the primary medium of instruction.
– Class conference calls that could serve as question and answer sessions.
– A file distribution center where ‘handouts’ of assignments could be given.
– A text message relay center where an instructor could send reminders, grades, updates and other useful information right to students cell phones.
– A chat center where simple quick questions could be asked and responded to.
– A video conferencing tool that would allow an online educator a chance to hold online ‘office hours’ where he or she could have meaningful face-to-face conversation with students.
To me this is one of the new Web 2.0 tools that are starting to make real headway in how students can learn online. The learning process can be directly improved when you consider a student learning something that does not translate in written word, like learning a language. In Skype they can actually speak to a person that speaks the language they are trying to learn. Here is a great example: Language exchange in Dickinson College. Also, the ability to have a conversation with a person while being able to see them give both people a much better understanding of the information trying to be shared. The ability to make that final connection, where students produces written or spoken word, in the learning cycle is crucial and Skype provide a wonderful opportunity to do just that.
The use of this tool in formal education is apparent but it does not appear to be widespread. Jeff VanDrimmelen wrote an insightful article and used Skype to hold a discussion on technology in education in November of 2006, and there many other examples of educators who have used the tool to talk with other educators about the potential of Skype in education. One special example of students using Skype can found at the Learning is Messy blog. Click on the picture to see the video about how Skype was used for inclusion of a very special student.