MET:Using Skype to Increase Educational Communication

From UBC Wiki

Wanda Dechant and Iris Chan (2007)
Brian Farrell and Christina Hogan (2008)
Drew Murphy (2009)
Kristopher Tharris (2011)

What is meant by Educational Communication?

Computer mediated communication (CMC) in eLearning (referred to as educational communication in this article) refers to the ability to interact with other learners in order to achieve academic goals. Educational communication in e-learning can occur in one of two ways: synchronously or asynchronously.

Asynchronous communication occurs through interactive tools such as online forums, wikis, or message boards. In asynchronous communication, there is a time-delay between exchanges between learners or instructors; it does not require simultaneous interaction (Johnson and Johnson, 2006). According to Johnson and Johnson, asynchronous communication promotes and increases thoughtful exchanges of ideas (Johnson and Johnson, 2006). By giving the communicators the opportunity to truly reflect on the discussion at hand, the insights are better articulated and thought-out before being shared.

Synchronous communication occurs in real-time between learners or instructors. Synchronous communication tools include chat rooms or messenging clients (such as Skype). Synchronous communication is important in constructivist and problem-based learning environments as the learners are able to build upon one another’s ideas in order to create a solution. The potential for brainstorming and building a sense of community (Johnson and Johnson, 2006) is huge. Using Skype, there are four key types of synchronous communication and sharing capabilities: text-based communication, oral communication, auditory/visual communication, and screen sharing (essentially desktop sharing). Synchronous communication also increases the sense of community by helping the users to get to know one another and built a sense of accountability for their contributions to the learning process.

Skype is particularly useful when communicating synchronously, although it can be used asynchronously as well (messages sent while a user is 'offline' are received once the user logs-in). While there are other tools such as MSN [1], Yahoo Messenger [2], or even ICQ [3], Skype has taken the lead due to its other communication services. For minimal fees, Skype allows for calls between the Skype client and mobile or landline telephones, multiple video chat, text messaging, voicemail, file sharing, screen sharing, and more (see video from the Skype website here [4]).

In Towards a Theory of Online Learning, Anderson and Elloumi describe educational interactions. These educational interactions (described in the diagram below) are important in the design of any technology supported learning environment. Skype enhances the interaction of student-student, student-teacher, and teacher-teacher considerably with the functionality of audio calls, video chats, and screen sharing.



There are many important tools in the Skype application. Of note are the ability to make calls between Skype users (free of charge), screen sharing, video chat, text chat, and more. The multi-user functionality allows for more than two participants at a time. The ability to link Skype users with non-Skype users has set Skype apart from other communication tools.

How can Skype help increase educational communication?

Skype is one possible application that can be used to expand interaction and collaboration with the various groups involved in learning. E-mail and message boards (also called Internet Forums) are popular forms of online educational communication, and to supplement these asynchronous communications, Skype's chat and voice calling features allow for synchronous communication. These key features of Skype break down the traditional barriers of the classroom walls overcoming the distance that often restricts learners from global communication.

In addition to the increased in-course communication, the affordability and ease-of-use of Skype allow users to remain connected in a community of practice that might not be possible without Skype. In many Learn Management Systems, once the participants have completed the course they are no longer given access to the communication tools. By encouraging participants to use Skype, a free non-proprietary software, the networks that have been created can continue long after the course comes to a close.

Skype's Key Features for Educational Purposes


The Skype profile includes a variety of information about the user that is user-created and identified. The profile is optional, but when used creates a greater sense of community between the communicators; the profile helps users to open and share themselves through photos and self-identified information about the user. In academic circumstances, by either writing a time, a time zone, a phone number, or any other information that would be needed quickly without having to contact someone directly, communication can be greatly improved. Using the status updates, similar to Twitter [], users can leave short messages for anyone on their contact lists. An example of this use could be “(name) delayed 10 minutes- be right there”. By clicking on a contact, you can also see their profile picture, their time zone and where they are currently- providing this information is updated regularly by the user. As Beldarrain notes, the various forms of social software have, “added a new dimension to online learning” (2006, p. 140).

Audio Chat

The primary function of Skype is to refresh how we know telephone conversations. Aside from that, Skype also has a text-based communication of chat, in which typing stands in for audio. The chat feature contributes to educational communication by affording both students and educators interactions with up to one hundred participants through an online discussion. A key feature of Skype is how your chat sessions are stored and available for access at any time. This means that if there was some discrepancy about a project with your group members, you can simply return to the conversation and read the transcript. You also have the option of offline messenging which is quite a helpful tool when you are dealing with different time zones. Even if the contact is offline, you can send them an update which they will receive when they log on again.

As Cheng-Chang and Sullivan state, “the individual student is empowered to take an active and responsible learning role” when they are using Skype (2005). This is evident in the chat feature because students who enter into a chat are prepared with a mindset and purpose that they need to chat and have a discussion about the matter. This purpose increases the efficiency of the communication because students are much more willing to contribute and affords for immediate feedback and acknowledgement between peers and instructors.

Educators may find using the chat feature problematic when there are large groups of students because it may cause chat confusion. A common issue with chat is the notion of Co-text Loss where chat participants lose track of the conversation because of its immediacy and multiplicity and therefore may experience problems with responding to messages (Pimentel, Fuks, & Lucena, 2005). However, if chat participants are made aware of chat etiquette, then the success of efficient communication can be increased.

Conference Call

Skype’s calling feature allows for a conference call style interaction between as many as 5 computers at a time. Regardless of geographical location, if all participants have Skype installed there is no charge for computer to computer calling. Downloading Skype is free of charge and available for all major platforms.

Social software, such as Skype, can contribute to the construction of knowledge through the affordance of peer interaction. These interactions, including online conversations can give people a space to explain debate and understand their own ideas as well as the ideas of others. Interaction with others can assist in construct meaning (Sherman and Kurshan, 2005) and social software such as Skype can be a valuable addition to an online learning experience.

The interpretation of material can vary greatly depending on previous knowledge, so if students are able to share and discuss their interpretations then each participant can contribute to the understanding of the other students (Carr-Chellman and Duchastel, 2001).

Video Chat

Video conferencing was first added to Skype in 2006, and has continually improved to now offer full screen modes and high quality video. Skype seamlessly accesses an installed webcam or the built-in camera that is now becoming a common feature on most laptops. The ability to see who you are communicating with has obvious advantages, and lends itself to teachers displaying and interacting with physical objects with their students in real time. Further, this technology will eliminate a major barrier for deaf students and teachers, as it will now be possible to have the same valuable real-time chat experiences using sign language.

For a small fee, Skype video chats can also be used in conference calls.

Screen Sharing

Skype 5.0 now allows for even more synchronous communication by enabling the users to share their screens with one another. This now allows for teams of people to work together not only through audio calls, but also by working with the same document in front of one another. Pictures, presentations, and even the desktop can be shared while continuing an audio conversation. The educational potential for this tool is excellent as it encourages and allows for users to problem-solve and work collaboratively in real-time on assignments and solutions.

Using Skype

There are no fees for Skype from computer to computer while using the basic features(no voice mail, etc). However, more and more people are using Skype as a home phone. Credits to your Skype account and even let that credit be updated automatically when it is low. Skype is attempting to provide a long distance service alternative, with very reasonable rates (including flat-fees). It is important to note that Skype is not intended to be used to completely replace a landline and should not be used as such.

Follow this link to view the specific computer requirements on Skype's download page.

Skype has continued to evolve, and now allows its users to access service on their mobile device or cordless phone which are designed to operate in the same manner as their conventional counterparts.

A specific example of Skype's potential usability in education is the Peace Academy of Virtual Education (PAVE) in Alberta, Canada. PAVE is a grade 4 - 12 online public school. After teaching with PAVE for the past 4 years, I can see the potential community building benefits of a program like Skype. PAVE students are spread across a large geographical area (Northern Alberta) and if voice interactions through Skype can lower the monetary cost, then this might make a difference for some families in allowing students to verbally discuss their studies. Many other examples of using Skype in the classroom are noted in Skype’s Journal.

Potential Educational Issues

Of course, using Skype as educational communication has its drawbacks. You do need to be on time for meetings- although many students live in different time zones or are unable to utilize Skype to its best capacity due to slow internet speeds. It also may inhibit introverted learners and allow extroverted learners to dominate the conversation. Although the opposite is said of online threaded discussions; introverted learners are generally more successful in this environment (Palloff and Pratt 1999). Perhaps utilizing this tool will allow for a greater balance among learners.

Once students have logged in, they enter an environment where the freedom to contact someone through chat or voice becomes their decision. Due to the potentially chaotic nature of the conference calls or chats, educators may have difficulty in managing the interactions and maintaining records or transcripts. As much as the educator can request to have a space within a chat session or a conference call to monitor progress, students can choose an alternative time and space to carry on interactions because of Skype'saccessibility.

Technical Considerations

In preparation for Skype in the classroom, educators should be made aware that there are reports of Skypeconsuming a great amount of bandwidth causing delays and traffic for the network used (Auckland, 2005). Furthermore, educators should always consider discussing security and privacy issues if students will be using Skype in the classroom, because this piece of social software is also their phone to the world. Consultation of Skype's resources on security and privacy is recommended.

If your network has a presence of a firewall, it may prevent Skype from operating due to certain Informational Technology policies of your school, district or geographical region.

See also


Anderson, T. & Elloumi, F. Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Athabasca University.

Auckland, J. (2005). Skype supernodes sap bandwidth. Computerworld. Retrieved Saturday, February 17, 2007 from

Beldarrain, Y. (2006). Distance Education Trends: Integrating New Technologies to Foster Student Interaction and Collaboration. Distance Education, v27(n2), p139. Retrieved Wednesday, February 21, 2007 from the ERIC database.

Carr-Chellman, A., & Duchastel, P. (2001). The Ideal Online Course. Library Trends, v50(n1), p145. Retrieved Thursday, February 15, 2007 from the ERIC database.

Cheng-Chang P. and Sullivan, M. (2005). Promoting synchronous interaction in an eLearning environment. T.H.E. Journal. Retrieved Saturday, February 17, 2007. from

Johnson, G., & Johnson, J. (2006). Personality, Internet Experience, and E-Communication Preference. Online Submission, Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Palloff and Pratt, (1999). Building learning environments in cyberspace, chapters 1- 2.

Pimentel M., Fuks H., & Lucena C. (2005).Mediated chat development process: avoiding chat confusion on educational debates.Proceedings of the Computer Supported Collaborative Learning Conference, p499-503. Retrieved Sunday, February 18, 2007 from http://groupware.les. 2005.CSCL.Pimentel.MediatedChat.pdf

Sherman, T., & Kurshan, B. (2005). Constructing Learning: Using Technology to Support Teaching for Understanding. Learning and Leading with Technology, v32(n5), p10. Retrieved Thursday, February 15, 2007 from the ERIC database.

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