Saturday, 18 April 2009

Is there anybody out there? - video calls for foreign language classes

A foreign colleague asked me last week, if, instead of the proposed second chat session (see previous blog post about the first one) we could arrange Skype calls between our students to give them the chance to practise their spoken English. I didn't need any convincing. Naturally, adding voice to our chat sessions would enhance the benefits for EFL classes tremendously. Little did I guess, though, how challenging putting this jigsaw puzzle together would turn out to be.

First incompatible piece: we don't have Skype in our school computers. Our ICT responsible said it could possibly be installed in some computers, but not in the special units in the small classroom I had in mind. And to complicate matters even further, he had booked the large computer classroom for 20 students at exactly the same time I had in mind, so I could only have 2 computers computers for my students anyway! Two Skype connections, with perhaps two students per computer - better than nothing, but disappointing, since my foreign colleague would like to involve all of her 22 students. I could add my own school laptop, if I managed to install Skype on it. You see, even though technically your own, the laptop is still the property of the local government, and consequently, there is a blockage of installing any new software yourself.

More missing pieces: how to register students, as none of them have a Skype ID? Some colleagues warned me against getting students individual IDs, at least not without asking their parents' permission. Maybe I could register the students as a group through my own Skype account? More research needed there.

How about other options then? Last year I attended a training course introducing some net-based video conferencing services, but all of them involved booking 'online conference rooms' and other such special arrangements that I just found it too complicated. What's more, when we had a test go during the course, most of the time was spent on people in different countries repeating: "Can you hear me?" And mostly nobody could hear anything, nor see the video, and after all the trouble and hassle, we ended up doing ordinary text chatting after all. Not worth my time and effort, I concluded then. Possibly technology has progressed a lot since, as it seems to do very fast these days, but for the time being, I'm giving such video conferencing a miss. Mind you, Skype didn't prove to be much more reliable a couple of weeks ago, when I tried it with a colleague and her students in Italy (see previous post).

Then considered Messenger, which most teenagers are well familiar with, and where, apparently, you can add voice, too. I felt very positive that this would be the solution, until I got this message from my foreign colleague:
the students at our school are not allowed to use Messenger, or other social networks (such as Facebook) at school. I hope you'll manage to have skype installed by your technician

While we here in Finland are fairly free and easy about allowing Internet access at school, it is not the same elsewhere. So we are back to square one really. And with only 3 days to go to the planned chat date. From past experience I have learned that the date and time of these sessions need to be set weeks in advance, and checked and reaffirmed several times to have even the remotest chance of having somebody at the other end of the line at exactly the right time, especially if you are dealing over different time zones. Too many times before I, as the teacher, have had to totally lose face in front of my students, whom I've motivated and prepared for the event, and gathered in the computer room ready to start, only to then find out that, to our great disappointment, our partners hadn't managed to be there after all.

For now, it looks as if it will be the old text chat version, or nothing at all. Frustrating, isn't it?

Photo: Incompatible by Rutger Blom on Flickr

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