Using Skype in the class


I love to find a new way to better engage students in the class for more effective learning experience. Having an opportunity to speak with guest speakers can spark more interest for students and it can make the class more interactive and entertaining. I have invited experts on various topics to my courses as guest speakers for this reason over the years. The results were almost always satisfactory.

Couple years ago, I began to extend this invitation of guest speakers by using the Skype video connection, taking advantage of the progresses in technology and in the university’s bandwidth support. The experts are usually busy to commit a significant chunk of their time to travel to visit to my classroom (worse yet, without any financial compensation) unless they work at the same university.

A simpler logistics of communication over a video connection turns out to be an attractive merit for both me and the invited experts.  With a simpler format of participation over the video connection, joining my class has become a lower-stakes activity for the guest speakers, while the students can enjoy the excellent learning opportunities.

On any class day when a guest speaker is scheduled to join the class over the Skype, I would need to do a little bit of leg work to make sure everything goes smooth. I usually arrange a time with the guest speaker in advance – a week before the class – and make a test Skype call to test the connection and its quality.

At that time I explain the class format and the way I would expect the guest speaker to engage the class with a select topic. I exchange our cell phone# just in case we lose connection. I also check with the university’s classroom tech support to make sure that the software on the console computer is up to date (in case I don’t use my own) and ask about bandwidth issue for video conference. I would have a chance to test the classroom computer, Skype setting, and others.

On the class day, I would need to arrive early (that is, as soon as the previous class ends) in the classroom to set up things in time before class begins: Power Point slides on the screen; clicker base connection and opening it up on computer; opening the Skype program and check the audio/video settings; connecting external microphone to the computer; and finally checking the audio input and output for the classroom console setting. With some practice, one can do this within the short class transition time.

Of course, there can be unexpected technical difficulties at any time for whatever reason despite the careful rehearsal and setting steps. I had a few sweating experiences during the last few years. One time, I messed up the sound output setting in the Skype program and that in the classroom console panel and could not put the guest’s sound on the speaker for over 10-15 minutes… Frustrating and embarrassing. Fortunately, the students were amazingly patient and understanding of this fiasco, until I finally figured out and re-established the normal communication.

The other time, the internet connection from the guest’s side became unstable and we frequently lost the connection. That was out of control from our side. One day when we lost the video connection with a guest speaker who was calling us from Montreal, Canada, the speaker kindly called again to my cell phone. I turned on the speaker of my phone and the students circled around me to listen and ask questions to the speaker. The other time, a guest speaker was traveling in Europe on the class time and he connected with us from a hotel room in Germany. He loaned a network signal booster from the hotel for the connection. Students and I were greatly excited and appreciative.

I learned that simplifying the communication format and maintaining a short connection time (usually <30 minutes) would make the meeting smooth and successful. Instead of asking the guest speaker to give a lecture or presentation, I usually ask them to respond to the students’ questions on the select topic.

I give an overview lecture at the previous class day, and ask the students to think about a brief and succinct question for the speaker. Once I collect all the students’ questions, I send them to the speaker on a previous day of the class, after doing some quick editorial check. The speakers are asked to pick some good questions (typically about 10-12) give us their expert perspective on those select questions. I give an extra credit for the students whose questions are picked by the guest speaker. Since we (even me) wouldn’t know what questions might be addressed by the speaker, everyone pays attention.

Some speakers are more engaging than others. They are more sensitive to the students’ responses and attention over the video connection. They may make a strategic pause during speaking or asking questions to the students in the classroom. Some even ask me to adjust the angles of the web cam so they can better see the students at various locations in the classroom.

Many of the guest speakers I invite are world experts in the chosen fields. Students know that and they are excited about the chance to speak with these scientific celebrities. Having other experts in the classroom have multiple benefits in effective learning. Not only their expert view itself is valuable, but also their explanations can reinforce the overview lectures that I gave earlier. Students experience more diverse and interactive classroom experience.

Overall, utilizing Skype in the class has been very rewarding and successful. Careful planning and appropriate class management would help to make the learning more effective and entertining.

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