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TOOLS FOR THE TEKS: INTEGRATING TECHNOLOGY IN THE CLASSROOM

Skype in the Classroom

by Wesley A. Fryer
www.wesfryer.com

Internet connectivity in educational settings provides opportunities for interactive exchange and collaboration between students living on other sides of town or the other side of the planet. These synchronous, real-time discussions using free software like “Skype” can tangibly expand the walls of the traditional classroom and engage students to write, share, and communicate with an authentic audience inaccessible just a few years ago. Educators interested in helping motivate students to develop both traditional as well as twenty-first century literacy skills in the classroom can and should use audio conferencing technologies like Skype to literally plug their students into collaborative exchanges with global partners on a variety of projects.

WHAT IS SKYPE?

Skype (www.skype.com) is a software program using voice over IP, or VoIP, technology. IP stands for “internet protocol.” Cross platform, multi-lingual, and free to both download and use, Skype software permits users to make high-quality audio “phone calls” over the Internet. Skype can be readily downloaded and installed on any computer if the user has “administrative” access to install new programs. If your teacher login account at school does not have these access privileges, ask your campus network administrator to install the program for you. Teachers may want to download and try Skype first from home, and then try it at school. The slogan of Skype is “the whole world can talk for free.” The subject of this slogan includes the students in your classroom!

On the topic of VoIP, WikiPedia authors observe:

Voice over Internet Protocol (also called VoIP, IP Telephony, Internet telephony, and Digital Phone) is the routing of voice conversations over the Internet or any other IP-based network. The voice data flows over a general-purpose packet-switched network, instead of traditional dedicated, circuit-switched voice transmission lines.[1]

Once an emerging and unproven technology, VoIP has grown substantially in recent years. According to researchers at iSuppli Corporation in El Segundo, California, the estimated 4.8 million people using VoIP in 2004 are expected to grow in number to over 197 million people by 2010.[2] Some forward-looking school districts have already started implementing VoIP technologies in classrooms, installing phones (yes, real phones!) in every classroom in the district using wiring already installed for campus local area networks and Internet access. VoIP systems can prove to be more flexible and less costly than traditional phone lines for organizations of all sizes, including schools. In the case of VoIP software like Skype, the additional cost to install and use the software to make Internet-based phone calls is zero. Bandwidth, or Internet connection capacity, is utilized when Skype / VoIP calls are made, but the amount of bandwidth used for audio-only connections is much less compared to most videoconference connections which include both video and audio.

GETTING STARTED WITH SKYPE

Before using computer software, make sure your system is equipped with a sound card including a microphone jack or built-in microphone. Most Dell desktop computers come with a microphone jack identified on the back of the CPU by red coloring. Macintosh computers generally come with a built-in microphone, as well as a microphone jack. USB headset microphones can also be used with Skype, whether or not your computer has a mic jack or built-in mic. Many different models are available. The “Logitech Premium USB Headset 350” is a good choice, and WalMart has it listed on their website for $40.[3] Some type of audio input device is essential. Thankfully, compared to video camcorders, computer-compatible microphones are relatively inexpensive and easy to find. Teachers can also check their local Radio Shack store for inexpensive computer microphone options.

After determining the microphone / audio input option to be used with Skype, download and install Skype software (www.skype.com) on a computer and launch the program to get started. Users are initially presented with a login screen and an option to create a user account. Register for a free Skype account using your email address and name. After your account is created, write down your username and password, and keep this information in a safe, secure place like your wallet. Posting your Skype username and password on a sticky note attached to your classroom computer monitor is a very bad idea, and is sure to attract the attention of district IT security-oriented personnel as well as your students. Keep all your usernames and passwords secret and safe!

In addition to permitting VoIP conversations, Skype functions as an instant messaging software program like MSN Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, or Yahoo Messenger. Like each one of those instant messaging programs, Skype only connects to other users running the same program (Skype) for instant messaging purposes. You cannot presently use Skype to instant message MSN, AIM, or Yahoo users.

The best way to start using Skype is to get a friend or family member to also install the software and setup a user account. On a “real” phone or via email, exchange Skype usernames. Then in Skype, click the ADD button to enter the username and real name of your acquaintance. An instant message will be sent to your prospective “Skype buddy,” asking them to give permission for you to add them to your buddy list. Once permission is granted (by both parties) you will be able to see when your buddy is online with the Skype program running, and ready to talk over the Internet.

To make a Skype “phone call,” click on the CONTACTS tab in Skype and click once on a contact’s entry. Click the large green phone icon at the bottom of the Skype window to place an Internet phone call to that person. You will hear a ringing sound (by default), and once the other person clicks to “answer” the call, you can begin talking!

LOCATING SAFE CLASSROOMS FOR COLLABORATION

VoIP and Skype are exciting technologies, but the Internet can be a scary and dangerous place. How can a classroom teacher find other educators who want to use Skype and communicate across the state or the globe, and insure those communications will be safe and appropriate?

One of the best and most established Internet resources for connecting like-minded educators wanting to collaborate is ePals (www.epals.org). Register for a free ePals account on their website, including information about your school, it’s address, and phone number. Also indicate the type of collaborative exchange you are interested in, including a specific reference to the use of Skype software. If you want to connect with students and teachers in a particular country, also include that information in your profile description.

After your ePals account registration has been reviewed and approved (it may take 24 hours), use the FIND CLASSROOMS link in the left sidebar of the ePals website to search for other classrooms with which you want to connect. You can search for classrooms before having your ePals account approved, but you will not be able to electronically contact other ePals members until it is.

After locating one or more classrooms you want to connect with, send the registered teacher an email message using the CONTACT link beside that classroom’s profile in ePals. All ePals users have access to an internal messaging system, so you’ll need to log in periodically to ePals and check if you have any new messages from other users.

A wealth of additional ideas for using the ePals website and the personal connections you make with other educators and students around the world is available on the “Teaching With ePals” webpage (www.epals.com/resources/). Although ePals does offer commercial services like “SchoolMail” for providing filtered email for student use, ePals is free to use to make classroom connections like those described in this article.

TECHNICAL ISSUES WITH SKYPE

If the person you are trying to talk with using Skype cannot hear you or you cannot hear them, use Skype’s instant messaging features to communicate. Rather than double click the person’s contact information in Skype (which will initiate an audio connection to them) right click (Mac users control click) the contact and choose SEND INSTANT MESSAGE.

Check your Skype program preferences to see if the correct audio input and output sources are selected. You might verify these settings in your computer’s control panels / system preferences as well. Try using the speakers and microphone with another program to troubleshoot whether the problem is with the hardware configuration or the Skype program settings. Try quitting Skype and launching it again. Restart your computer and try again if needed.

One common technical obstacle encountered by teachers wanting to use communication technologies like instant messaging and VoIP programs is the district’s IT department policies. Some school district IT personnel have configured school networks to specifically block the “ports” used for programs like Skype to function. Port blocking can be justified in some cases in educational settings. One example is blocking the use of P2P (peer to peer) file sharing programs like KaZaa, Morpheus, and Limewire which students may attempt to use to download pirated music and commercial videos.

The instructional use of communication technologies like instant messaging and VoIP programs including Skype should not be prohibited by the district’s IT department and/or administration, however. Totalitarian regimes like the current Chinese government block the use of software programs like Skype to prevent open communication and stop the spread of universal ideas like democracy and respect for human rights.[4] Sadly, some school districts have information technology use policies as enlightened and empowering as the Chinese government’s.

If Skype works for you at home or on the local coffeeshop’s free wireless connection but not at school, chances are good the district is blocking Skype ports. Here are some specific steps you can take to negotiate use of Skype in your classroom:

  1. First, check to make sure the computer you are using at school does not have a local firewall setting preventing Skype from working. Refer to www.skype.com/help/guides/firewall.html for specific steps and guidelines.
  1. Get your campus principal involved and on your side. Explain the instructional benefits of using Skype to safely connect with other students across the state, nation, and globe. Give your principal a copy of this article. Give it to parents and ask them to talk with your principal. Ask district instructional technology staff to speak with your principal and the superintendent, advocating on behalf of you and your students. Ignorance often breeds fear, and hopefully by helping your administrators understand the huge potential payoffs for your students in terms of motivation to write and communicate more effectively, they will support your proposal to use Skype in the classroom.
  1. With your administrator’s knowledge and support, contact your school district’s IT department and ask about using Skype. If the program’s use is blocked district-wide, ask to have it unblocked on your classroom computer. Many school districts use dynamic IP addressing to permit increasing numbers of computers on campuses to connect to the Internet more easily. You may need to request a “static IP address” for your classroom computer, and request that district firewall ports be unblocked for your specific computer’s IP address. District IT personnel will likely be more willing to make this type of firewall change, which will only affect your classroom computer, rather than change a policy for the entire district if Skype ports are blocked. Refer your IT people to the Skype Security Center (www.skype.com/security/) and Skype Network Administrator’s Guide (http://www.skype.com/security/guide-for-network-admins.pdf) for technical details about opening ports in firewalls so Skype can function properly.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

Be safe using Skype and any other type of Internet communication technology. Refer to the Staying Secure with Skype User Guide (www.skype.com/help/guides/staysecure.html) and Skype Privacy FAQ (www.skype.com/help/faq/privacy.html) for helpful suggestions about using Skype as well as other computer programs safely when online.

Skype is an example of a potentially “disruptive” educational technology tool because it can fundamentally change the teaching and learning environment. As Wayne Morren, principal of Floydada High School noted recently, teaching and learning in the 21st Century can no longer be a traditional experience of “sit and get.”[5] Teachers as well as students must strive to creatively employ technology tools to access, evaluate, synthesize and communicate information. Only by engaging in this active process can “information” from the Internet be translated into “knowledge” in the minds of learners. Classroom teachers can leverage the potential of disruptive technologies like Skype, weblogs, podcasts, or one to one technology immersion initiatives to increase student motivation to communicate with authentic audiences, spend more time on assigned tasks, and develop essential literacy skills needed for vocational and lifetime success in the twenty-first century. Translated, this means increasing student achievement, while simultaneously encouraging students as well as teachers to engage in worthwhile and creative tasks. Twenty-first century educators should aspire for nothing less.

Wesley Fryer is an educator, digital storyteller, and creative podcaster. Catch up on his latest thoughts at www.speedofcreativity.org



[1] "Voice over IP." WikiPedia. 29 Sep. 2005 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voip>.

[2] Hines, Matt. "Experts Say Applications Will Drive VoIP Growth." 09 2005. eWeek. 29 Sep. 2005 <http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1895,1861510,00.asp>.

[3] "Logitech Premium USB Headset 350 Review." 06 2005. Everything USB. 29 Sep. 2005 <http://www.everythingusb.com/logitech_premium_usb_headset_350.html>.

[4] "Skype Blocked in China." 09 2005. Red Herring: The Business of Technology. 29 Sep. 2005 <http://www.redherring.com/Article.aspx?a=13516&hed=China+Telecom+Blocks+Skype>.

[5] Morren, Wayne."Podcast8: Educational Vision in Floydada ISD." Speed of Creativity Podcasts. www.speedofcreativity.org, Lubbock, TX. 14 2005. Broadcast. 29 Sep 2005 <http://www.speedofcreativity.org/2005/09/14/podcast8-educational-vision-in-floydada-isd>.


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