Saturday, 10 November 2012

Skype Teaching: core tools

Virtual Teaching and Learning Environment:  my core tools for Skype teaching

In an earlier post, I discussed tools and devices that constitute my personal learning environment (PLE). Since then I've had language teachers inquiring about what core tools I use as a Skype teacher.

As with my PLE, the tools I use as a virtual language teacher vary depending on my needs and most importantly those of my students. The development of new web-based tools and applications also has an influence as I can sometimes replace a couple of simple tools with a multifunctional application, thereby enabling me to work more efficiently.

I've created a list here of core tools and devices that I use regularly in the context of my virtual teaching and learning environment (VTLE) and embedded an image for a quick overview. 


 Mac: with dual platform installed so I can switch to Windows if need be.

 iPad: I always have this beside me on the desk in case I need to research something quickly without having to lose visual contact with my student. For those of you with several screens, this wouldn't be necessary. (I think that will be my next digital investment.)

 iPhone: students can contact me via mail or sms through this and other devices. I frequently use the video and camera functions to capture and create educational material. This is certainly an enormous advantage with mobile devices as I  can create educational material practically anywhere, anytime and it's authentic.


Email: as mentioned above, I make myself readily accessible to my students as they come to me on a private basis. Email is a simple form of asynchronous communication that I also use to deliver feedback and homework. It's a feasible means of  keeping in touch as I don't have hundreds of students wanting my attention.

Skype: my lessons are mediated through this medium. I use Skype Premium because it supports group video calls. (Headphones with integrated microphone and a good bandwidth complete the setup.)

Jing: Speaking, listening, viewing. Collaborative and individual. Asynchronous tool.
 Jing is a screencast and screenshot software which requires downloading. It's a relatively new addition to the set of core tools in my VTLE and I'm very impressed with it. I use this to give audio visual feedback, create tutorials and set homework. Students seem to respond well to this  method of feedback, perhaps because it's easier to avoid ambiguity with audio visual feedback as opposed to written. After creating a screencast or screenshot with Jing, I send the student the URL for the video which they can view  as often as they like. This  means they can actively engage with the video and archive it for future use. Jing is very user-friendly and a tool that I use on a daily basis.

Voxopop: Speaking, listening. Collaborative and individual. Asynchronous tool.
(See below.) This web-based audio tool is a favourite of mine. I can create private talk groups so that students can communicate with one another as they please, or respond to prompts that I record. It's useful for feedback, dictation, storytelling, vocabulary games etc. Additionally, students can explore public groups for listening practice. The advantage here being, that they're exposed to numerous accents and authentic language which can challenge them. If they feel confident enough they can participate in public talk groups of their choice. 

Google Docs / Drive: Writing. Collaborative and individual.       Synchronous and asynchronous possibilities. I use this tool as a private space where students have their own individual wiki  and group wikis for collaborative work. During the lesson, we practice writing skills here or I upload images for speaking and writing prompts. Students complete their homework in this space and I can access it at will in order to prepare feedback. This saves precious lesson time.

Linoit: Writing, reading, listening, viewing audio visual material. Collaborative and individual. Synchronous and asynchronous uses. This is a virtual corkboard  or canvas where I and my students can post images, texts and videos. Hence, an extremely useful tool which can be implemented for numerous activities. I find this tool works well with mixed language levels. For example, I can insert an image, attach a coloured piece of paper with a writing prompt and students can post their answers here or in Google Docs, depending on whether it's a collaborative or individual activity. I can also prepare work in advance on my private canvas and then copy it to the students' boards when I'm  ready.

YouTube / iTunes U/ Websites: Listening, viewing. Collaborative and individual. Asynchronous and synchronous activities. 
I find authentic audio visual material invaluable as it exposes students to authentic speech with all its nuances and global accents. Of course, this means that I have to filter as part of the selection process, but being web-based (except for  iTunes U which is an app) it means that I can access these sites on the go, providing accessibility is not a problem. Apart from YouTube Edu and ItunesU, some of the regular sites that I use for selecting podcasts or videos are BBC Learning (UK), english4today and learnenglishfeelgood (USA).

Wordle: Writing. Collaborative and individual. Asynchronous and synchronous activities. 
Wordle is a fun web-based tool and not necessarily designed for education, but nevertheless, an effective language tool. It produces word clouds from extracts of text that I or my students choose and paste into a box. Once again, there are no limits to how this can be implemented. It can be utilized to reconstruct texts, invent new ones, increase vocabulary, create small semantic structures, build collocations, design grammar guessing games etc. It's only a matter of being creative with it. I use this tool during the lesson, in preparation for a lesson and as homework, for writing and speaking activities.


 I frequently use apps such as, Evernote, Skitch, MentalCase, AudioNote, MailVu and Twitter etc, but these are not always used on a daily teaching basis. I have written about several of these in previous blogs. Your list may look completely different depending on your teaching context.

My VTLE 2012

Virtual spaces

The core tools discussed above, enable me to provide virtual spaces where all the literacy skills that are so vital for language learning i.e. reading, writing, speaking and listening can be practiced. The advantage of having virtual spaces and meeting points is that material can be archived for review, thus students can compare for themselves their progress over a period of time; I have an overview of the work students are producing individually and collaboratively; students do not feel so isolated; I can cater for various learning styles or preferences; the work areas enable flexibility; students are empowered with a certain responsibility for their own learning; creativity is promoted; the lessons are more student-centric, something that is not always easy to achieve in a VTLE and apart from improving their language skills, students' digital literacies benefit. This is a positive side effect as these skills can be transposed into their work,  school or private contexts.

When choosing tools such as the above mentioned, I feel it's important to consider the needs of  your students and whether the tool is going to hinder or enhance their learning experience. If  you are teaching virtually like me, don't introduce them to too many tools at once. Take it step by step and move on to others when you're sure that they're confident and that their digital literacy skills are adequate, otherwise you might cause your students to experience unnecessary frustration or anxiety.
   Keep in mind that you should have a strategy for implementing information communication technologies, such as the example posted here for using videos in the classroom. From experience, I'd advise against using certain tools just because you can. Take time to reflect on what it is you are trying to achieve with your students and put their needs before yours.

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