The Microsoft-owned videoconferencing software, Skype, has finally reached critical mass in education. It has emerged beyond experimental uses in universities, graduated to providing routine classroom instruction for online classes offered by most colleges and finally matriculated to reach the third grade classrooms of most public elementary schools. Unless an individual has earned an IT degree or is pursuing an online education through a Skype-based or similar program, chances are good his Skype experience, if any, has been personal and recreational. For both children and adults entering a current educational program, some form of communication over the Internet is automatically assumed. The same assumption will be true for Skype or other VoIP systems within the next five years.
Skype in the Elementary Classroom
Despite having reached elementary school classrooms last, it’s at this level that Skype seems to be generating the most excitement. Elementary schools have two primary hurdles to overcome before joining the Skype bandwagon: obtaining the necessary technology and overcoming the protective Internet-use restrictions designed to protect young students. Once these barriers are overcome, the sky seems to be the limit as far as positive Skype learning programs. During a time of budget restraints, Skype-boosters rightly boast of the cost savings from “virtual” field trips free of supervision, transportation, insurance, lodging and meal expenses. Social studies, for example, no longer are stalled in textbooks and worksheets, but can include real children self-reporting from the geographic area or culture under study. Unlike films or even DVDs, real-time Skype “field trips” allow children to ask questions and receive answers from their tour guides as such queries arise.
Skype in the Secondary School Classroom
Skype has many additional uses at the secondary or high school level in addition to those used for younger children. The technology can be used for home-bound students who can’t attend classes for health reasons, individualized educational plan restrictions (IEPs) or disciplinary issues. Foreign language class study is said to be enhanced enormously by utilizing Skype for verbal exchanges between native speakers on both sides of the exchange, allowing for body language cues, slang, natural accents and the opportunity to engage in more normal conversations. Skype sessions also allow for individualized tutoring sessions with students who require additional study and review time due to learning disabilities or other missed classes.
Skype in the College and University Classroom
It’s perhaps in institutions of higher education that the scope of potential for Skype was first recognized. Coming to the public’s attention at approximately the same time that schools such as American InterContinental University started offering online education and college degrees. Skype provided a more sophisticated means of “attending” a class online. For classes or seminars provided in real time, both students and professors are able to communicate back and forth, despite geographic distances. Class reports or debates can be engaged in, watched and graded as students present their arguments from their own homes.
Skype and other forms of VoIP systems have only begun to alter the public’s idealized notion of taking a class or even earning a college education. A place of ivy-covered brick becomes secondary to the content of a completed degree. College is less a place to attend and complete a rite of passage than it is to complete to move on to employment. More importantly, it may well be a markedly less expensive option for students.