10 tips to more meaningful Mystery Skypes in the classroom
Skype is a powerful tool that can bridge a gap of a thousand miles between schools. It can make conversations and activities happen that never could exist otherwise.
But if you’re not careful, it can lead to missed opportunities. I’ve missed Skype calls altogether. I’ve seen entire class periods squandered because of simple Internet connection miscues. But I’ve also seen the amazing learning that can be shared digitally.
So learn from my mistakes and the mistakes of others! Take these steps to ensure a smooth Skype call:
1. Schedule your call early and confirm it. Your calendar is your best friend here. Write the date down. Double-check it. Then check in with your Skype partner the day before (and maybe the day of) to make sure they remember. I’ve been the offending party on forgetting a Skype call. Trust me, you don’t want to feel like you’ve disappointed a teacher and a whole class of kids in a different part of the world.
2. Check and double check your time zones. Skyping with students in Spain was an awesome experience for my students. Remembering what time it was there could be tricky, though — especially when we changed our clocks for daylight saving time. I didn’t factor that in and almost missed out on the last call in a two-month Skype project because of it.
3. Consider the configuration of students to devices. My students often felt anxiety about being in front of a whole class of teenagers they’d never met hundreds (or thousands) of miles away. So we used the six iPads in our class and worked with two or three students per device. The smaller groups were less intimidating and gave students a partner so they didn’t feel alone.
4. Make a plan for Skype user names. For whole-class Mystery Skype activities, one class user name was great. When students split into small groups, I created a user name for each iPad in class and students shared. If students are doing one-on-one work with other students, individual user names would probably be best. Think about how students will use Skype accounts and make the best choice possible to manage them. It’s OK if you change your mind later, too.
5. Assign students to jobs. This is especially important with whole-class Skypes and Mystery Skypes. Having a specific role in the process keeps students engaged and makes everything run more smoothly. During Mystery Skypes, I adopted but modified Pernille Ripp’s list of student jobs based on my class’s Spanish-language questions. Number of students in each section is very flexible based on what kids want to do:
- Question askers/answerers: One to three students in front of the camera interacting with the other class (with others cycling in if they really want to)
- Mappers: Two students who use maps on iPads, maps on computers or physical maps to help with guessing location or creating new questions
- Think tank: Students who process information coming in and help create questions or guess location
- Question writers: Two students formulate the next question in Spanish and write it on a small dry eras board to display to the other class
- Grammar checkers: One or two students check the accuracy of the Spanish in the question
- Word Referencer: One student uses WordReference.com to look up Spanish words the group doesn’t know
- Photographer/videographer: Takes photos/video of the experience for later (and returns to the think tank when not busy)
6. Hide the location. Skype displays the location of your contacts when you view them. If you’re engaging in a Mystery Skype activity, be careful to guard your students from that so you don’t ruin the surprise. Some teachers choose to remove their location or make it very, very vague.
7. Check your Skype connection (maybe twice). I suggest making a test Skype call with your Skype partner more than a day before (to have time to fix potential problems or ask tech staff to help you) and the day of the Skype call (to avoid last-second problems).
8. Be creative to make it happen. If a Skype experience doesn’t look like it can happen at first, a little creative thinking can change that. I wanted my last class of the day to Skype with our Spain partners, but it was past dinner time in Spain when our class met. We recorded video messages instead of using live Skype calls to communicate. We wrote each other in shared Google Documents. And on one day, with permission from their teachers, I pulled students out of a morning class so we could have one live Skype call. It was worth it.
9. Be flexible and understanding with the other class. This is especially important with international calls. Their social norms, communication customs, sense of time and connection issues may be very different. Factors out of everyone’s control pop up, too. This was the worst winter for school-day delays and cancellations in 20+ years for us, and it altered my Skype plans on a regular basis. I’m so thankful I’ve had very flexible and understanding teachers and classes in South Carolina, Florida, Canada and Spain to work with.
10. Talk to students about the experience. I like to have control and make all the plans, but that’s not always the best thing. I have to remember to keep my students in the loop. I ask them what they like about Skyping, what they don’t like, what changes they suggest and what topics they want to discuss. Then I do my best to incorporate their ideas. They have to be dedicated to the process to make it worthwhile.