I've posted previously about why I prefer to use headphones when giving English language lessons via Skype. In this post I'll outline why using a webcam is useful, as opposed to audio only lessons.
A typical comment I hear when I speak to other teachers and students about the potential of giving language lessons via Skype is that, it's not personal and they need face-to-face contact. When I prod for an expansion on this it's not uncommon to discover that the people making these comments haven't experienced any kind of formal instruction via Skype. So their opinions are not grounded in experience as such. Nevertheless, I do understand how instruction via Skype might be perceived as a learning environment that is lacking in a personal or human touch, particularly when compared to classroom teaching where the opportunities to build diverse relationships abound. This brings me to my first reason for making video calls to my students, as opposed to audio only calls, for the purposes of English language learning.
Being able to see students adds a level of social presence that is absent with audio calls. When they accept my call and the screen opens, I always give them a warm smile, welcome them to the lesson and commence with some informal chat. This initial visual contact serves a couple of purposes. First, it enables me to make students feel at home in this environment and second, it provides me with the opportunity to assess there appearance in terms of whether they are looking fit for the lesson or whether they seem a bit worn down. These are conscious observations that can impact on how I proceed with the lesson.
During the lesson, we often move to other virtual spaces for writing or listening activities where we work with audio only for short periods. If I gain the impression that a student is struggling with something, or for some reason doesn't seem to be quite with it, then I call them back to the Skype screen where we have each other in full view again. This strategy is useful and can be an effective way of helping to lessen any tension that the student may be experiencing and of course a great way to gain their full attention again. The level of social presence increases, eye contact is resumed and I have the opportunity to read their body language and resolve any issues before we continue with our activities in other virtual working spaces.
It's easy to forget that language learning is not just about the voice or acoustics. Which is why utilising the video function can be a real aid in the process of language learning. I'm speaking about paralinguistic features, in particular physical features such as, gesturing, facial expressions and posture. These features signal meanings, some specific to individual cultures, and are powerful in terms of visual communication. In the case of language learners, we as teachers can make conscious use of all of the voluntary, physical paralinguistic cues to aid the student's comprehension. In addition, we should also make the student's aware of how to read certain gestures and expressions in order to better understand other speakers. The analysis of specifically selected videos is useful for this. Try it with and without volume. Another and perhaps more obvious reason for using the video feature is that you can hold up physical artefacts i.e. images, flashcards, objects etc in front of the screen as learning resources during activities. And the students can do the same. It might encourage them to select artefacts that they can relate to for discussion purposes. Very simple, practical and in relation to the latter point, it can be empowering for students.
In summary, using the webcam helps to bring in that personal touch that is not to be underestimated in the learning process. It enables you to assess your student's well-being throughout the lesson. Visual contact aids in maintaining a comfortable working atmosphere and is useful to regain the student's attention if you feel it's waning. Physical paralinguistic features are an important visual, communicative instrument and as such should be included. This is only possible if you have visual contact. And finally, being able to see one another means you can hold up physical artefacts that are deemed useful as resources to promote the stimulation of language. Experience has shown me that with time, the visual contact contributes not only to a heightened sense of social presence, but one of co-presence as well, where teacher and student perceive each other as actually being there to the extent that the tool, Skype, is not consciously perceived as an instrument through which communication is mediated.
Macaulay, R. (2006) The Social Art: Language and Its Uses, Oxford University Press, New York.
Hauber, J; Regenbrecht, H; Hills, A; Cockburn; A and Billinghurst, M. (2005) 'Social Presence in two and three dimensional videoconferencing'.
Other posts of mine that relate to teaching English as a foreign language via Skype:
Skype teaching: sharing experiences
Why teach via Skype?
Using Skype to teach English