Student Conferences using Skype

Skype 3.6 Beta running in Windows Vista.Image via Wikipedia

This past week I held Skype calls with 14 out of 16 of the students enrolled in my online “Teaching with Technology” course.  I have two more scheduled for next week.  I wanted to have a video call over Skype with each student early in the course for several reasons.

  1. Since I grade on a contract system, I like to have individual conferences with my students to clarify course expectations.  A video call is the best option I have in an Internet course.
  2. I’m trying to expose my students to as many free tools as possible, when they are appropriate to course goals.  Skype seemed a natural fit for hosting a 2-way video call.
  3. I really want to see my student’s faces at least once.
As I conducted these conferences, here are some of the things I noticed:
  1. Most students wanted to schedule conferences after 3 PM and provided only one available time unless I specifiacally asked them for more options.
  2. For some reason, I could no see my students’ video feeds if I started my video feed first.  I got the best results when students started their feed, I clicked the option to pop the video into its own window, and then started my own feed.
  3. Most conferences lasted between 10-15 minutes.  Scheduling myself an hour between conferences was unnecessary.
  4. Three students had serious technical difficulties.
Things that I learned:
  1. I should provide students a list of available sign up times and have them choose from those rather than trying to accomodate their preferences.  (I am 2 time zones ahead and it isn’t much fun to still be working past 5 or even 7 PM).
  2. I need to follow a certain sequence in order to watch incoming Skype feeds (see above–I really don’t know why).
  3. I should schedule only 30 per conference so I don’t end up with such a fragmented day.  It made things hard to get done and I felt harried by the end of it.
  4. Students who followed my instructions to test the equipment a day before their scheduled appointment did fine.  I was very annoyed to get crisis emails from students who unwittingly admitted to not following directions.
  5. Seeing student’s faces (even those who had annoyed me through email) made me think more positively about them as people and as students.  (They were smiling, they seemed bright and cheerful.  I have to admit my biases).
  6. When I couldn’t get students video feeds, I felt that using chat ended up being more successful than audio.  The conversation got much more focused.  However, it took a lot longer.  I only conducted one chat conference, so I don’t know how much value to place on this conclusion.
  7. All of 14 students indicated that the course is very organized and the instructions are easy to follow.  I must be doing something right.
I’m not sure whether or not I’d do the conferences again.  They were very time consuming for me (compared to my normal interaction with students via email).  Students had relatively few questions, so I’m not sure that they felt the conference was worth their time.  However, many, if not most students had never used Skype before and now have gained exposure to the tool.  Additionally, I liked seeing my students as people rather than as digital artifacts.  Did my students like seeing me?  Did having a chance to talk to look their teacher in the eye have any impact on their feelings toward their online course?  I don’t know, but it might be a question worth asking.
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About Kimberly McCollum

I'm a former middle and high school science teacher and current stay at home mom.
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6 Responses to Student Conferences using Skype

  1. I have just been told about a tool called ‘Doodle’ that allows you to make appointments with people.

    The other thing: why ‘one on one’ meetings – would a group meeting be a better use of your time?

  2. I’ll have to check out Doodle, thanks for the tip!

    Good question.

    I did ‘one on one’ meetings for several reasons.
    (1) First, the class has no “set meeting time”. I’m working with 16 students all enrolled as full time students on campus, some doing their practicum experience in schools at the same time, and most having outside jobs. They signed up for the online course for the flexible schedule it offered. I don’t know how feasible it would have been to get them all in at a single time, especially with me being two time zones ahead.

    (2) Second, when I taught the face to face version of the course, students just didn’t “get” the idea of learning contracts until I talked it through with them one on one. I thought I might save myself time in the long run by holding individually conferences in the beginning.

    I never even considered a large group meeting because of the scheduling nightmare, but thinking about your question, it might be worth it to try doing a few small group meetings. I could probably save myself some time if I were able to get all of the dance teachers (or science, theater arts, home economics, etc.) at once. Those groups might be small enough to schedule and the discussion of possible content applications wouldn’t remain focused. What tool do you use to hold group meetings?

  3. sarajoypond says:

    Really interesting, Kimberly!
    Sounds like at least once in the semester, the time investment is worth it for the transformation it effects in terms of your perceptions of/relationship with the students…also for the exposure/familiarity with the tool. Good work.
    How are you thinking of gauging the reaction, the perceived value to the students?

  4. @SaraJoy – well, at least I feel like it’s worth the investment. I’m really not sure about how to gauge the reaction. I mean I could do a survey or student interviews, but I’m a little worried that my nice little BYU students might try to spare my feelings and potentially bias the results. I think I need to get someone else to ask them whether or not they felt it was valuable.

  5. How about a quick & easy surveymonkey survey?

  6. @Sarah – A survey is a good idea; I’m just concerned about getting candid answers while the course is ongoing and the students know that I have power over their grade. Mainly, I’m concerned that the Institutional Review Board at my school will have a problem if I am collecting data from my own students during an ongoing course, even if I set up the survey as anonymous.

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