Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Skype Teaching:sharing experiences

 Reflections on teaching via Skype: context ELT




Entry 1


I've posted previously about using Skype as a medium for language teaching but due to an increased amount of interest from fellow teachers, particularly those that I've met at conferences recently, I've decided to commence writing brief reflective posts which will focus on my experiences of using Skype to teach English as a foreign language (EFL). I'm hoping that other teachers who are using Skype, or a similar technology to teach English as a language, will share their experiences of what is working for them, or what they've found to be particularly challenging and whether they've been able to resolve problems. 

First to my context as it is very specific. I teach English as a foreign language (EFL) primarily on a one-to-one basis. Lessons are mediated through Skype. Some of my students may have little external exposure to English, whilst others are fortunate enough to have English speaking friends, or have the opportunity to use it at work or university.
    At present, my students are all adults and can communicate on a level of English that rarely requires me having to fall back on their native language to explain something. Having said that, I've no qualms about code-switching if I feel it's appropriate to do so. 
I've found this to be an effective strategy, especially when introducing students to new technologies, and one which minimizes disruption to the flow of the lesson. Sometimes you just need to switch and blend between L1 and L2 to make the lesson less bumpy for the student. I'd like to think that mine finish off the lesson feeling excited about using and reviewing what we've explored rather than feeling confused and demotivated. However, this might not always reflect the reality. This brings me to my first reflection.

What you see may not be what they see


Unless I'm travelling, I use my Mac with a large screen to communicate with students. So I teach from the same office and  the same device for all of my lessons. And what about my students? Are they also having their lessons in the same place and from the same device every week? In some cases, no. You're probably thinking, 'so what's the difference. I don't care where they are and what they're using, as long as we're both Skyping with a robust connection.  We're both using the same tool; both looking at the same screen!' This assumption is the same one that I had when I commenced using Skype for English language teaching (ELT) and actually only discovered that it was a bad assumption on my part after having already taught for quite a period with this technology.

I should know better. I'm quite adept with information and communication technologies but I hadn't thought to trial Skype on my mobiles devices (iPhone and iPad). Facetime, yes, but Skype, no. I assumed that students would be working from desktop devices because of connectivity issues. This assumption was proven wrong  during the course of a lesson. 


The revelation 


The scene went something like this. I wanted my student to write in the chat box. He'd already told me it wasn't visible.


 'Josh, can you please click on the little symbol that looks like two arrowheads. It's in the black bar to the right of the screen. That'll  minimize the window and open your chat box.' (Student frowns) 


 'Try run your cursor over the space below my image.' (Student's eyes at this stage are moving rapidly in all directions.) 'Just
 move your mouse around until a black bar appears.' 

'I've got a  tablet.'


'Oh. Well in that case try swiping or double tapping and see if any icons pop up.' (Student leans into the screen, probably hoping that this manoeuvre will help make the dreaded search for the black bar easier. I wiggle back in my office chair as his sweaty brow fills my screen.)


(I hear a sigh. I can feel his frustration seeping through the screen. 
Time to intervene.)

'Josh, be my eyes for a moment. Tell me what you can see on your screen.'


'Umm ... you're in the middle. I'm in the corner.' (Eyes flicking between images. Brow looking slightly smoother.)

'And what about the menu bar at the top?'


'No. Nothing.'


'Try double tapping.'


(Tap tap) 'Ahh ... down the bottom ... found the chat box. But no menu.' 




Could have kicked myself. What did I learn from this incident? Depending on the device the Skype window will look different. And as illustrated above this becomes a problem when you ask students to start clicking on various symbols, such as opening up the chat box, minimizing the screen, zooming into another window, or using the drop down menu to share screen. Additionally, their drop down menu might not be in English but most likely in their native language, so requesting them to click on 'share screen', is not going to work. And functionality is also not the same across all devices. So how can you avoid putting your students through unnecessary frustrating moments like the one above?

How to avoid making the same mistake



  1. With each student, I now ask at the beginning of every lesson what  device they are using as this will have an influence on what we can do during the lesson. In some cases I might have to approach some tasks differently, or leave them out all together and just be more spontaneous. I have a couple of students who often swap between devices depending on where and when they can have a lesson.   With these students, if there is something that I know will run smoother with a desktop device, then I'll plan ahead with them to ensure that the right device is at hand. And just in case they forget (despite reminders), it's always helpful to have extra material prepared so you can put Plan B into action.
  2. With new students, their first planned language lesson will include Skype orientation. We play with everything, practice jumping in and out of Skype to other windows, write in the chat box, click on links, jump back into Skype and so on. I ask  students to describe what their screen looks like and what options and language they have in their drop down menu.


In summary:

  • know what devices your students are using and their functionality
  • give them an orientation lesson on how to use Skype, reverting to their L2 language if necessary. Don't assume they are digitally literate
  • give them time to adjust to this technology before introducing them to other tools as working spaces
  • be very patient and encouraging. I find that particularly with adult students who are challenged by the language, that they can become very embarrassed if they feel their digital literacies are inadequate as well.

Links to my previous posts relating to Skype and ELT

Using Skype to teach English


Why teach via Skype?








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