Skype in the Classroom: Applications for the History Classroom

skype-logo-open-graphDepending on whom you ask, the introduction of technology into the classroom is either a blessing or a curse. The proliferation of technology has provoked some good discussions, in addition to expletives involving use (abuse?) of Powerpoint slides in lecture. For one senior (non-UNH) colleague, who shall remain nameless, the mere mention of the word “Powerpoint” is akin to a bell ring for Pavlov’s dog, though with incarnadine face and froth at the mouth the outcome rather than drooling.

Powerpoint pique aside, those interested in the pedagogical consequences of technology use in the classroom have asked questions such as, how much technology is appropriate? Are all mediums appropriate in all disciplines? What about humanities disciplines like history that, until the evolution of digital humanities tended not to incorporate technology.

A judicious and thoughtful use of technology can certainly enhance teaching. For history, I have found Skype to be a versatile pedagogical tool. I have used it to connect students with an author, much as Michael Creswell suggested in his 2011 essay for the Perspectives.[1] As part of their reading assignment, I required them to come up with 2-3 thoughtful questions for the author. For the most part, the students had been good that semester about completing their reading, but from the questions they produced, knowing that they would interact with the author, the students were quite motivated and got a lot out of this Skype session. The students got more out of the book that I have seen of seminar-style discussions, and the author signed off, knowing that a group of students appreciated her book.

In my public history courses, I use Skype to connect my students with professionals in material culture, archives, and digital history. As with the discussions with the author, they are required to come up with 2-3 good questions. I typically have our guest start with a brief overview of their background and how they got their current position. My aim for this exercise is to help undergraduate students to better understand these professions, and to provide a networking opportunity. Internships and interaction with current professionals in the field can go a long way to helping socialize students to potential careers.

And finally, I sometimes use Skype to bring in public speakers and experts that will enhance their understanding of a topic beyond what I can provide. In my Politics and Religion in American History course, for instance, I Skyped in an African-American Imam who could articulate not only the appeal of Islam to African-Americans during the Civil Rights era, but also help them to understand the factions among African Americans who chose to embrace Islam. Similarly, today, he will help me to discuss Islam in the African diaspora during my African History course.

When used thoughtfully, Skype can expand the classroom. In the age of shrinking speaker, travel budgets, and busy schedules, it can be used to provide students with learning opportunities that they might not otherwise have. Certainly, Google chat (which I’ve also used) is an alternative to Skype, and one that more readily allows the patching in of multiple speakers, and even the ability of speakers to go between themselves and visual aids as they “visit” and interact with students.

All instances of Skyping in guest speakers have been well received by the students. Perhaps there are other good applications, beyond what I have tried in my own classrooms. What have you tried?

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[1] Michael H. Creswell, “Using Skype in the Classroom to Connect Students with Authors,” Perspectives on History (April 2011).

10 comments on “Skype in the Classroom: Applications for the History Classroom

  1. I was, a few semester ago, the beneficiary of a professor using Skype in a graduate seminar. The class read monographs and we were able to Skype with more than half of the authors we read. Even for graduate student training, discussing a monograph with the author changes the experience entirely. As graduate student discussions so frequently tend towards “tearing a book apart,” having the take the authors’ ideas and work seriously and in a constructive and respectful manner was ultimately extremely useful.

    • Jessica Parr says:

      I absolutely can see how beneficial it would be in graduate courses! All the benefits of getting to chat with someone about their work in a manner that’s friendly to tight graduate student budgets! In the cases I describe, these were undergraduate courses – one was a survey, and the rest were the equivalent of a Sophomore-level course. One of the things that I liked about having students at this level engage with authors/guest speakers, is that for many of them, it really seems to pique their intellectual curiosity. I’ve had a number of students come to me asking me for recommendations for further reading, and that’s always a big win for a prof!

  2. I am intrigued by the idea of skyping with authors. Skype use for me has mostly consisted of people skyping in when they were unable to attend a seminar (either because of travel or a sick child). An unexpected side effect of this use was that everyone spoke much more clearly, there was less mumbling and fewer side conversations.

    • Jessica Parr says:

      It has worked out really well. The students were well-prepared and I think they got a lot out of it. part of my motivation was that UNHM is a small department. I really liked giving the students a chance to engage with the author, who was also a scholar, so in effect, we did a little bit of team-teaching. I did remind them that they’d be representing not only themselves, but the university. While this was a generally quite motivated class, they definitely put in the extra effort so as to make a good impression.

  3. Thanks for this post, Jessica. I’ve done this almost every semester in my upper-level courses and it tends to work out very well.

    As with your cases, I try to get students to write out questions beforehand and then bring in a scholar (someone whose work we’ve just read) to offer a brief outline and then answer questions.

    They do so well having to work to think of questions, and I find that they really enjoy seeing authors “come to life,” so to speak. They (and I!) also benefit greatly from the change of voice and the change of pace in approach to understanding.

    • Jessica Parr says:

      Absolutely, Joseph. Interestingly (and purely by coincidence) these Skype sessions have tended to take place in the last 5-6 weeks of a semester. I have definitely noticed an increase in their (lagging) energy that seems to last for at least a few class meetings afterward.

  4. polisciprof says:

    I, too, have used Skype to “bring” guests to my classroom. I am a political scientist and have used virtual guest sessions to great effect in my “Politics of Global Health” class with presentations by people (mostly my former students) working in government or the NGO sector.

    A technical note… Skype doesn’t work well on my campus. We can get audio but not video through our classroom network. I use a distance ed classroom and “Go to meeting” software. The guest can be seen on one screen and use the second to demonstrate software, show documents, etc.

    A highlight of last year’s class was a demonstration of how survey data can be mapped using GIS to identify connections not easily seen otherwise. That level of detail would not have been possible using Skype.

  5. Jessica Parr says:

    Neat. I too, have found that Skype works better on some campuses and in some situations than in others. One of my campuses has invested a lot of money into technology recently. Both campuses have a dedicated “rig,” for teleconferencing, but one campus has recently invested more in technology and has newer equipment. It makes all the difference.

    I’d be interested in hearing more about your use of distance ed and Go to Meeting software. One real limitation of Skype is that it’s finicky when you want to do a spliced screen and/or toggle back and forth between the video of the guest and a display.

  6. Dr. Kami Fletcher says:

    Skype is a wonderful tool to bring in speakers to your class. To this point, I have asked my former classmates, now with doctorates, to come in and share their specialized research which brings me to my question of honorarium. When you invite these speakers to speak by skype do you offer an honorarium? And you said that you require your students to ask 3/4 questions. Are your classrooms mic’ed, as in the students can speak out and be heard by the author?

    Great post! Thanks for sharing!

    • Jessica Parr says:

      As an adjunct, I haven’t been able to offer Skype speakers an honorarium. (In the case of professional colleagues, I’m always happy to return the favor.) Perhaps full time tenure track colleagues could speak more to this question of honorariums.

      I believe one campus where I teach has a special classroom that’s set up specifically for teleconferencing, and probably mic’d can be reserved. I haven’t used anything beyond the designated Skype rig so far, in part because both campuses have small class sizes. I believe the largest history courses at UNH Manchester enroll around 25, and it’s about 35 at Emmanuel. For the most part, aside from the occasional connectivity problems, we haven’t had too much difficulty with sound. I have taught in larger settings (lectures of 50-150), where I think the acoustics would make making some additional technical preparations would probably be necessary. My sense is that Skype may not work quite as well as a pedagogical tool for large lecture courses.

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