How do you teach English via Skype?
I'm writing this in response to several queries I've had from English language teachers who are curious to know how I teach via Skype.
In an age where educational debates are rife concerning technology enhanced learning; the use of information communication technologies (ICTs) in and out of the classroom; innovative forms of assessment and thinking beyond institutional teaching etc, I am surprised that so few private language teachers in my surrounds, have not considered using Skype to teach English. I tend to find it's usually 'away from home' teachers like myself (an Australian living in Switzerland), who are confident using Skype because of having used it with friends and family around the world on a regular basis.
If David Graddol (ELT researcher) is correct with his prediction, that demands for English language learning 'will peak at around 2 billion learners in the next 10 to 15 years' (cited in Peachey, 2011), then I think it's time for teachers in this field to start thinking about alternative methods of providing instruction outside the traditional classroom. Skype teaching is just one solution.
If we agree with Goodhue and Thompson's task-technology fit theory (1995), then using a voice over internet protocol system such as Skype, for language teaching, would seem an appropriate tool for this purpose. Skype is perfect for oral communication; it's synchronous which means authentic, real-time interaction; you can see one another which means body language can be read to a certain extent and a sense of presence is highlighted; it doesn't require high-level digital literacies (which means most students won't be cognitively challenged with the medium and can concentrate on language learning) and it's free. I use Skype Premium (monthly or yearly subscription possible) because of extra features such as group video calling and group screen sharing. However, what you choose will depend on your own requirements.
You'll need to download the software that is compatible with your computer and follow any instructions given regarding password and profile. A webcam is essential if you don't have one built-in and I'd suggest buying a headset with combined microphone so as not to be disturbed by any external background noises when teaching. When using a headset I find I can concentrate better on the student's pronunciation. If you've never used any kind of web-based video conferencing system before, then find someone to test it out on e.g. family, friends or a fellow teacher and play with the system. Practice navigating around the screen; try out the chat box; test screen share mode and swapping between websites; upload and send documents and photos; copy and paste links into the chat box and while you are doing this, think about how you can use all these features in a lesson and what will work best for you.
Working with students
Ensure your student has Skype software installed and all the necessary hardware. You will need to accept each other as contacts before you can give them a video call. I always do a test run with students before the first official lesson in order to check connectivity and reception. I also inquire about their experience with Skype and which ICTs they are using on a regular basis so as to gain a brief overview of their digital competency and additionally to see if any of their uses overlap with mine. No point in throwing your preferences at them if they are using something with similar features. Oral communication is the easy part. Locate their name in your contact list, click on video call and when they appear on your screen, start speaking. You can use the chat box to assist with vocabulary building; to demonstrate how to break words into syllables when pronunciation problems occur; to play word games; give prompts etc.
What about reading and writing skills?
I've heard of Skype teachers who only use this tool for general conversation. However, reading and writing skills don't have to be neglected. I use Google Docs, which enables real-time collaboration for writing exercises during the lesson, so screen share mode is unnecessary. I create a doc for each student and use this space both during class and as a place for setting written homework. In this manner, students don't have to mail homework as I can open Google Docs and check myself if it's been completed. I correct homework either out of lesson time or with them during the next lesson. You can use docs to upload images; draw your own; make presentations and do spreadsheets, so writing activities can be as creative as you like. Use your imagination.
With reading, as you would in a face-to-face setting, you can work from a set book or search the Web for articles suited to your student's interests and the purpose of the activity. I prefer the latter as it's more authentic i.e. you can select up-to-date articles and choose from a very broad range of topics and styles. When using websites, do the searching beforehand and either add them to your reading lists, bookmark them, or have the URLs at hand so you don't waste lesson time. I use screen share mode for reading activities. Sometimes I have control of the screen or I hand it over to my student, especially if I want them to follow hyperlinks; do a quick WebQuest or any learner-centred tasks.
Listening skills and more
I give my students a link leading to sites such as this one from the BBC and let them listen to a selected podcast or video, depending on the pedagogical purpose of the activity. I limit the time or break the listening time into sections in order to check comprehension in between and build on the text. This type of work can also be set as preparation for a lesson or as homework. Additionally,YouTube EDU has a rich pool of video resources to test comprehension; to use as a basis for discussions and debates and if you're feeling creative, try your hand out at making a literal video with your students (an extended activity over a couple of lessons). Once again, search for your material in advance and have the links at hand.
Preparation is the key
Use a lesson plan. Even if you're an experienced teacher, having a lesson plan will not only ensure that you have all the necessary resources at hand, but it will help you reflect on what you are trying to achieve with each lesson, as it provides a visual overview of your pedagogical approach. You'll be able to see if the lesson involves too much explicit teaching; or whether your student has enough speaking time and whether specific problem areas are being given enough attention etc. Always have a few extra activities planned in case technical problems arise such as, no access to Google Docs or a podcast not functioning; a link gone missing etc.
My students appreciate the flexibility. They don't have to travel, which is a time and cost saver and they don't have to stick to a fixed schedule, as is often the case with language schools for obvious reasons. The lessons are very intensive being mainly individual and occasionally pair or small group sessions for special activities, hence, motivated students progress quickly. I offer feedback on the same day via mail, video, audio, or a combination of these methods and organize group talk sessions via Voxopop between lessons. This type of support assists in keeping their motivation high, encourages them to take responsibility for their own learning and enables them to practice speaking and other literacy skills between lessons.
What about textbooks
This will depend on who you are teaching and their objectives. Clearly with any students working towards exams such as First Certificate you'll need to buy the set material. In this situation, I ask the students to prepare work in advance so we can use lesson time to expand on this, in conjunction with external resources. The Web is overflowing with open educational resources, so if you're short of time make use of sites such as one stop english. Whether you're using a text book or not, I think it's invaluable for a student to have a good dictionary and a grammar book for reference, irrespective of the form of representation i.e. paper or electronic.
Is it suitable for all learners?
I could answer this with a counter question. Is the classroom suitable for all learners? Invariably, there will be students who love learning via Skype and engaging with ICTs and there will be those who prefer more traditional methods and more social contact, as is provided in a classroom setting. However, it's a tool that enables you to work effectively with different types of learners i.e. whether they are more visual, auditory or a combination. You can set up collaborative activities through web-based sites like Voxopop, Twiducate and Glogster and use various ICTs to assist building literacy skills outside of lesson time, thus providing all- round support.
It suits me
Teaching via Skype requires preparation, different pedagogical approaches and creative thinking. It's suits me as a teacher. My students are learners who were initially searching for a learning environment that is flexible, individual and innovative and seem very satisfied with their choice. ( I constantly ask for feedback and to date it's been positive.) Skype is the solution for my teaching environment at the moment and I can recommend it to those of you who feel drawn to this method of teaching; who are prepared to work outside of regular office hours and who enjoy working with ICTs. Don't be anxious about using new technologies. It's like anything else, through practice and trial and error, you'll find your skills will improve and you'll have fun doing it.
Peachey, N. ( 2011) ' Online alternatives to language classrooms open up to students', The Guardian,5th July.
Online at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/jul/05/online-english-language-learning-peachey (last assessed 23.06.2012)
Goodhue, D. L. Thompson, R. L. (1995) Task-technology fit and individual performance. MIS Quarterly, 19 (2) 213-236