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Topic: Do You Skype?
Peter Travis celebrates the many opportunities that online communication offers.
This is adapted from an article that first appeared in the ETP (English Teaching Professional) in Issue 56.

Page 1: Skype as a communication tool
Page 2: Starting and using Skype
Page 3: Things to watch out for

Starting Skype
Begin by installing the Skype software on your computer; this should really have a broadband connection for Skype to work at its best. If you’re intending to use Skype from within your institution, there are bandwidth considerations which your local technicians will want to think about first. An overview of these can be found at www.ja.net/documents/services/vas/skype-janet.pdf.
If you’re planning to use Skype on your own computer, then head over to www.skype.com and download the latest version. The Skype window will eventually contain a list of your contacts with an icon to the left of each ID informing you of the person’s availability. To start building your list of contacts, you simply click the ‘Add contact’ button and search for a person’s ID. You then request the individual’s contact details; they will be asked to accept this request, and if they’re happy to be your contact, they agree and their details will be added to your list. Once they’ve agreed, it’s simply a case of highlighting their name in the list and clicking the green ‘Call’ button to start a conversation. When you’ve finished speaking, you end the call by clicking the red button.

Using Skype
Your learners will need to create a list of contacts interested in practising English. To start with this could be other members of the class and your students can simply swap Skype addresses. You could extend this to include students at another school you have close links with. To connect with a wider audience, there are community sites where your students will be able to join and request speaking partners. They can do this independently, for example through our own Splendid Speaking Facebook group, details of which appear on the Splendid Speaking website, or as part of collaboration with other classes (seeMixxer below). There are of course dangers in connecting with strangers online and the extent to which you encourage your learners to do this independently will be determined by your student profile. The younger your learners, the more likely it is you’ll prefer to adopt a managed, class/school collaboration approach.

When you’re ready to try Skype out with your learners, the uses of instant messaging are limited only by your imagination. Here are a few suggestions you could use ranging from communication between class members only through to wider connections:

- A good start might be a learner independence session on safe chatting, including choice of ID, what to post in a user’s profile and issues about connecting with strangers. See Vicki Davis’s blog for a nice overview of how she managed this with her students: coolcatteacher.blogspot.com/2006/10/using-skype-inclassroom- or-just.html.
- If you’re looking for engaging websites that cover safety issues which you can use with your students, try these:
- Before they take part in conversations with strangers, a gentle introduction for students new to Skype can involve discussions with their colleagues. Organise out-of-class pair or group discussions in Skype with a clear task focus to run prior to or after a face-to-face session.
- Set up an exchange with learners from another city in the same country. Students can interview each other for project work and even prepare for a visit to each other’s school.
- Set up an international exchange with another school and pair your class up with students wishing to study your students’ mother tongue. For learners studying in a non-English-speaking country, the chance to converse with native speakers will be very motivating. Exchanges with schools in different regions of a country will also introduce your learners to a range of accents. A fantastic site to help you do this is ‘The Mixxer’ at: www.language-exchanges.org.
- Make your timetabling more flexible by organising out-of-hours tutorials, especially for students with access to the internet at home.
- Organise a ‘conference call’ for up to five people for an out-of-hours session on an exam the group are preparing for or a language ‘question and answer’ session.
- Do you need to practise your presentation skills? Do you have an area of expertise you’d like to share with a wider audience? Organise a ‘Skypecast’ around a subject of your choice and advertise the subject and time on the Skype website. You’ll get up to 100 guests arriving. Listeners can text comments during your talk and you can open the discussion up to the audience towards the end. You might choose to script or semi-script your talk since speaking to a microphone with no feedback from others can prove quite difficult without the help of notes. Find out more at: https://skypecasts.skype.com/skypecasts/home.
- With the addition of a third-party product like Powergramo (www.powergramo.com) or Audacity, you can record these conversations. You will, of course, need the consent of the people taking part and should never record someone without getting their permission first. Powergramo is particularly easy to use; it installs itself within Skype and records automatically. When the conversation is over, you simply save the finished file in MP3 format and distribute it on your institution’s network, or intranet. Failing this, email the file to your students for them to listen to on their PC or MP3 players. If you’re feeling really adventurous, the recording could even form the basis of a podcast. Our own Splendid Speaking site has many examples of recordings of students participating in exam-style tasks, which were recorded using Skype and Powergramo: www.splendid-speaking.com.

In addition to these pedagogic uses, Skype can be employed by your institution for more strategic purposes. With a school Skype address, initial enquiries could be made for free by prospective learners. Your school could even carry out informal assessment of prospective students using short Skype interviews. And, of course, if your institution is looking into the possibility of running distance or blended learning courses, then instant messaging tools like Skype will be an invaluable addition.

Page 1: Skype as a communication tool
Page 2: Starting and using Skype
Page 3: Things to watch out for