See Me, Hear Me: Skype in the Classroom

Chat with authors, record podcasts, and cover reference—all online and for free—with Skype

“Who’s your favorite character?” “Where do you get ideas?” Imagine your students having the opportunity to ask an author these questions directly—without breaking your library budget. You can do this—and a whole lot more—with the free Internet telephony service called Skype (www.skype.com). Through Skype, my students at Westlake High School in Austin, TX, were able to “visit” with Cynthia Leitich Smith, award-winning YA author of Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001) and Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007). Smith, who is based in Texas, believes that events like these “reinforce the idea that books and technology don’t have to compete. They can be celebrated together,” she says. Because her books frequently center on Native American themes, Smith has discovered other benefits of a direct, online connection with students. “Mainstream images of modern-day Indians are murky to nonexistent,” says the author, herself a member of the Muscogee Creek nation. “So it occurred to me that one of the most effective and positive ways to bust the inaccurate stereotypes of Indian people as “primitive” was to embrace technologies that would help me connect with young readers.” That resonated with my students, including Callie Wendlandt. “When you read the book, you form your own opinions,” she says. “But when you talk to the author, you get to hear her opinions and understand the book better.” In November 2007, Wendlandt, along with teacher Kristy Robins’s sophomore English class, “met” Smith in our school computer lab, where I had previously created several Skype accounts. After downloading the free software, Skype users can talk, chat, or make calls for free to others on Skype. (Calls to non-Skype numbers cost about two cents a minute.) For purposes of the class, we opted for a text chat. After setting up a private chat between Smith and myself, I invited four students into the conversation. These kids were the scribes, responsible for posting questions to Smith on behalf of the class, while the others viewed the proceedings via LCD projector. We saved our chat for later review and discussion. The students liked the immediacy of the session, in which they discussed how Smith created her characters, how she deals with writer’s block, and whether or not she likes garlic (she does!) “You were able to interact directly with the author instead of having to wait on an email,” says sophomore Emily Furnish. And what could be better than chatting in class? Swetha Kotamraju, another student, says Skype is an ideal tool because teens already “use instant messaging and are comfortable with it.” And “it’s easier for shy kids to ask questions,” says Furnish. What about having students record their conversations with authors or other interview subjects for later broadcast? An ideal springboard for podcasting, Skype has some built-in recording features. However, Australian educator Chris Betcher, creator of the Virtual Staffroom podcast (virtualstaffroom.net), suggests using additional tools, such as Audio Hijack Pro and GarageBand (both Mac only), and the free, Web-based programs Audacity and Levelator to reduce noise and add special effects. You can hear an example of a Skype podcast that we made for this article on Betcher’s site Virtual Staffroom (virtualstaffroom.net/2007/11/22/episode-19-beyond-the-filters). Skype can also be used for book discussions with other schools or libraries. Clarence Fisher, a teacher in a remote area of Manitoba, Canada, is using Skype along with a blog to help his students discuss S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders with eighth graders in Barbara Barreda’s class in Los Angeles. (Publishers, too, are getting into the act. See Annick Press’s Skype program in “The Buzz,” pp. 26–27.) Skype can even enhance reference service. Ohio University, for example, offers Skype-based research assistance at kiosks in its Athens library. Patrons can also call in questions from off campus. This service could work just as well in a K–12 setting, especially in districts with limited library staff. Even within a single campus, Skype reference helps put a “face” on library services and is less cumbersome than email. You might post your Skype ID and extend virtual reference service to students one or two evenings a week. If you’re considering Skype for your school, you’ll need to decide first where to install it: in the library or media center, on teacher workstations, or in the computer lab. Some schools may balk at installing the program at all, due to bandwidth or security concerns. In that case, propose using Skype on stations with restricted access and assign student “scribes,” as we did, to do the actual posting. Or students could use one supervised computer to contact an expert with the librarian’s assistance. There may also be privacy concerns related to student accounts. Anne Smith, an English teacher at Arapahoe High School in Littleton, CO, had her kids register on Skype with a certain naming protocol, so they could easily identify classmates who might contact them. As with any tool, we need to help students develop good practices around using it. By the time you read this article, my library will be closed for renovation, so I’ll have to set up temporary shop in another media center. Even at a distance, I will remain accessible to teachers, thanks to Skype. When they have a question, they can initiate a chat right from the classroom. With my webcam, they can even see me during our conversation. If I happen to be unavailable, the text chat “holds” the message until I return. Work environments in the 21st century demand connectivity. I think our schools are no different. Our students must learn to communicate effectively in an ever-more global environment, and they need our help. You can start the conversation with Skype.

Skype at School

Want to bring Skype into your library?
Here are the basics:
  • Install the software. It’s a free download from Skype.com.
  • Get a decent-quality microphone/headphone set and, if you plan to make video calls, a webcam.
  • Create an account, then upload an image or select one of the images provided.
  • Search users by name or Skype account and invite them to join your contact list.
  • Make a call by clicking on the green phone icon. Click on the red one to disconnect. It’s common practice to arrange a Skype call in advance or to send a text message via Skype’s chat feature to be sure the person is available for a voice call.
Author Information
High school librarian Carolyn Foote was profiled in our October 2007 feature “A Little Help From My Friends,” pp. 44–48.
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