In 2010 I stumbled upon a Wikispace site about authors Skyping with classrooms, aptly named “Skype with an Author.”
Intrigued, I put it on my to-do list for the summer of 2010 and quickly realized my only dilemma: I didn’t have a web camera. Unfortunately, once I had access to one, there were problems downloading the software on my school-based network. The summer ended, a new school year started, and I lost my momentum.
Nearly half a decade later I learned about “mystery Skype” and became more intrigued than ever by the one that got away.
I soon discovered that Skype has now entered the educational realm with a website, lessons and trained teachers to aid in the implementation of activities to be shared with students (and professionals) across the globe. The simple Wikispace page seems like ancient history now with a full Skype for Education database meant to serve teachers who are hoping to engage their students with an authentic learning experience. This authenticity is the number one reason I gave my principle for wanting to use Skype in the classroom.
“This authenticity is the number one reason I gave my principle for wanting to use Skype in the classroom. Authentic how? Because it’s real. The students are communicating and collaborating in a real context, both as a group and with the other students.”
Authentic how? Because it’s real. The students are communicating and collaborating in a real context, both as a group and with the other students. See how I implemented, and soon learned to love, Skype as a classroom tool so you can explore authentic learning as well.
Creating a Plan
I spoke with an expert teacher before my first mystery Skype session, where she gave me resources and links to sites she used. I had no idea the depth and intricacy of the game—it was far more than a simple conversation, students needed access to materials and resources; they needed roles and they needed rules.
Before our first session I created different roles and descriptions. I focused on a range of skills to include every learning style, and gave students time to review each job and sign up for the one they wanted. You can see the jobs and roles I created on my Skype website: Mrslongsclassroomskype.weebly.com.
- I use a Google Calendar to track the sessions we’re booking. Within a month, I was able to secure multiple sessions for all five of my classes. I also use a spreadsheet to track teacher contact information: names, schools, locations, and email addresses.
- Since our school is enrolled in Google Apps for Education, I use Google Docs to create a shared document for my students to use during the game. For the first session I compiled a list of resources and added them to the sheet; these resources provide tips on how to navigate Google Maps, a World atlas and a map of different time zones, among others—this is a helpful resource for students to prepare for every session. Try to keep this resource simple to encourage students to engage their own research as well.
- As with any literary lesson, I create a list of sample questions for students and give them time to practice entering questions on the shared document by themselves. The questions themselves are just as important to practice as the process, allowing students time to see what it is like to collaborate on one, shared document.
- I remind my students that the key to good questioning is establishing order; questions are only as relevant as the information you have. Once you start narrowing down a location one student needs to delete questions that no longer relevant and add questions that can keep you guessing.
How It Works
Mystery Skype is a critical thinking challenge that teaches students to generate thoughtful, “evidence-based” questions. The goal is to Skype with another class, somewhere in the world, and then guess the location (country, state, city, school) before the other class does. Other “Skype lessons” are more transparent, and focus on connecting classrooms globally using Skype as a discussion and collaboration tool.
Here are some of the benefits of Mystery Skype that I’ve discovered along the way.
The game appeals across all content areas, making it an excellent trans-disciplinary activity.
Speaking and Listening
It isn’t always easy for students to know what to say when they can’t prepare ahead of time, so this teaches them how to hold live discussions based on real-time information they’re receiving. As many times as we practice in class, nothing emulates the real world for students better than hosting an unscripted conversation.
During a Mystery Skype session, students are forced to narrow down a location, anywhere in the world, asking only yes or no questions. To do this they work with maps and websites, while configuring their questions in a way that can help them win the game. They can’t know what to ask ahead of time, so they must look at what information they have before determining their next move.
“The best part: we’re actively experiencing how education and technology can come together to create a truly authentic and engaging learning experience.”
Students work as a group to complete this activity, so they learn to communicate as a group and to contribute to the “good of the whole” as an individual. Having the ability to use web tools like Google Docs makes this easier because they can work together at the same time from their own seats.
Critical Thinking and Research Skills
The core of the activity is getting students to think critically and practice their research skills. Mystery Skype forces students to use research skills in real time, within a specific time frame. This requires them to weed out unnecessary sources, find answers to questions asked of them, and locate different resources to formulate questions of their own.
A Worthwhile Experience
Masked as a game, students will leap at the opportunity to work with classrooms around the world. However, as their language arts teacher, I know I’m also teaching them—and applying in context—lifelong learning skills that will prepare them for the real world.
My students will be able to use different styles of resources effectively, hold conversations, and think critically without extensive preparation. As if I (Or any other teacher!) needed any more convincing, my students are also exposing themselves to other classrooms and cultures around the world.
To date, my students have worked with classrooms and professionals in:
- The United Kingdom
- All across the United States
As I look at our journey so far, I’m reminded that we have we gone from shy and mumbling in front of the camera to a bold and confident team. The best part: we’re actively experiencing how education and technology can come together to create a truly authentic and engaging learning experience.
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