I have been using Skype to make cheap calls to friends and family abroad for ages now. While making these free international calls, I’d often wondered whether it would work well in the language classroom for e-twinning. Well yesterday I got the chance to find out.
Thanks to the wonderful Enza Antenos-Conforti of Montclair University, New Jersey, I  did some Twitter twinning between my 5th year social sciences class and her Italian language and Italian Studies university students this year. Using the micro-blogging service, Twitter, the initial e-twinning went  really well. Our discussions ranged over subjects as diverse as; the right to die, favourite dances and music, politics and Berlusconi, sexism, the media and all sorts of other rich and interesting topics.

After a good three or four months of text-based chatting both Enza’s and my students thought it would be a shame to finish without ever seeing or hearing each other. Proof, if nothing else, that the Twitter twinning had raised our students’ interest in what they were learning. This is where we came up with the idea of an online meeting using Skype.

video-conference

Although it was great fun, the Skype meeting took a little bit of organising.  I thought I might share what went well and what didn’t go so well for anyone else who’s thinking of doing the same in the future:

How we organised the lesson

Setting it all up (the technical bits)

We installed Skype on enough computers for all of the students to have a computer each (10 in total in Italy, 12 in the U.S.) The US students already used Skype, so they signed in with their own Skype IDs. I set up 10 generic accounts for my students. I got the computers working and logged in to one of the generic Skype accounts on each computer before the lesson. I also added one of the US students as a “Skype contact” on each of the computers in the ICT lab.

What went well:

The students didn’t have to think at all about who to call, who to add as a contact and how to start a call. They didn’t all end up calling the first alphabetical name in the list either. Basically each student had one ready-made partner. Although by setting up each computer with one Skype contact we cut down on confusion at the beginning, it did make life difficult later in the session when the students were doing the one to one calls.

What I would do differently next time:

Basically one of the US students didn’t manage to make it to the session, and one wasn’t added to my students’ list of contacts (my fault, oops!) This meant that one of my students and one of the US students were both without someone to talk to for the first 10 minutes or so until we sorted the problem. Next time I will add all the contacts from the other school to each of our generic accounts. Then to make sure no-one gets a call from two of my students I’ll give them a piece of paper saying who to chat to.

Group Introduction:

We did a 10-minute introduction where each of the students from the US and from Italy took it in turns to introduce themselves, say who they were on Twitter and say one or two facts about themselves as a kind of mini “bio.” We did this part as a class-to-class video conference. We used our IWB to do this, but any beamer attached to the computer would do just as well.

What went well:

It was great to be able to see each other at last. The placing of the webcam was a tricky choice. In the end I taped it to the wall above the projector screen. It was also nice to have a whole-class warmer so that the students were able to get their foreign language practice going. My students presented themselves in English, The U.S. students presented themselves in Italian. Me and Enza, and my colleagues from Martino Martini presented themselves in both langauges.

What I would do differently next time:

At first we used the microphone built in to the webcam for our students to speak. This was great to begin with, but as the students towards the back of the class started introducing themselves, the US students complained that they couldn’t hear very well. In the end we plugged in a microphone to the computer and passed this round whoever wanted to speak. I’ll do this straight away next time.

One-to-One chats:

After this each of the students sat down at a computer to have a chat, one to one, with a student in the US. This was the part of the lesson I had most been looking forward to from the point of view of a teacher as I thought it would give each of the students the maximum time to talk with someone in a second language. To help them do this they had a list of suggested topics to talk about (based on conversations we’d had throughout the term.) These topics were all based around our school’s and the university’s curriculum. The students also had to take notes about their partner’s answers while they were talking to them. As all language teachers will know it’s always a good idea to have a task to achieve when doing a listening or speaking exercise.

Students in New Jersey, USA.

Students in New Jersey, USA.

What went well:

The students got over their initial nerves about talking in a foreign language and spent a good 40 minutes chatting away to their partners. Both the U.S. and the Italian students seemed to have a lot of fun as you can see in the photos. As we were twinning with a class learning Italian (and they with a class learning English) there were lots of opportunities for the students to fall back on L1 if they ever got stuck. The whole session was pretty much bi-lingual, though (to be honest) I though I heard much more English than Italian being spoken, though to be honest, this could be as I’m used to having to struggle to get my students to use L2 so I was just pleasantly surprised (Enza, did you think this too?) The students also showed an amazing knack to multi-task so common with “digital natives.” While they were chatting they were also sharing favourite music videos on Youtube, adding each other to Facebook accounts and lord knows what else! Our students were also talking about core-curriculum areas too (politics, social issues, the theses they are preparing and so-on) as well as the traditional get to know you chats.

What I would do differently next time:

My students were really nervous about chatting in L2 at first were pleading to be able to do only a group chat. I really felt that this would only give the stronger students a chance to talk, so I refused this. I think that if the students had had more time to prepare for the chat they would have been less worried about the whole one-to-one chat business. I did actually give the students some time to prepare, but I think I overloaded them with tasks when dong their prep (talk about subject, not down key vocab,write follow up questions) which didn’t leave them to feel free enough to chat in L2.

Students in Trentino, Italy

Students in Trentino, Italy

Overall Experience:

Personally I really think that yesterday’s experience was a great success. Sure there were one or two rough edges to smooth over next time, but I think that the sheer fact that a whole class full of high-school students were speaking a foreign language for more than an hour speaks for itself. If we get a bunch of webcams and a higher bandwidth internet connection I’d love to try a full-scale video chat where each of the students could see each other to add to the experience. Overall though my students left the classroom with big smiles on their faces after staying behind late at school after a hard day of exams. In my book that’s a lesson that has worked well!

Finally, a big thank you to the following for all their help getting this together:

Silvana Devigilli (my class’ tutor, Martino Martini), Diego (ICT Technician, Martino Martini)  Michael D. Heller (Director of Emerging Instructional Technology, Montclair) AJ Kelton ( Director of Language Learning Technology, Montclair) and last but not least, my inspiring colleague Enza Antenos-Conforti, the tutor from Montclair University.

Now we’ve had this experience getting a Skype conference call and individual calls together, I’d be really happy to help out with advice, hints and tips or to answer any questions you might have about getting something similar done. Leave me a comment here if you’d like to chat about this :)

All the best,
Seth.