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#47-Using Skype and Blackboard to Improve Oral Communication for Distance Learners

November 17, 2005


Finding an inexpensive way to effectively have voice communication with students in the online statistics classes I teach has not been an easy process, especially since my interest is in having a two-way communication along with the ability to share a series of slides with students. There are technologies available that permit such communication to occur, but the cost is often prohibitive. In addition, the technology involved is not always the most reliable.

LTA Credits

Charles J. Ansorge
Professor, Department of Educational Psychology
College of Education and Human Sciences
University of Nebraska-Lincoln


I have discovered technology tools that now make it possible to permit the kind of communication described above and not break the bank in doing this. This LTA is about a combination of two tools that have been tried successfully to improve communication with students. Information will also be presented in this LTA regarding additional tools that might be explored if this topic is of interest.

I teach online statistics courses on a campus where a Blackboard course management system (CMS) is available for faculty and students to use. I have found there to be considerable student interest for those enrolled in the statistics classes to have voice communications with the instructor. Students want to ask questions regarding content being taught; they especially are interested in reviewing material prior to major examinations in classes. In recent years, online chats have been scheduled the night before each of the examinations and students were invited to be involved, if they wished. The online chats used tools that were available in the version of the CMS available on campus. A white board could be used and all of the communication was via keyboards. Material was reviewed, but the process involved to facilitate the communication was far from being effective. Frankly, it was missing an oral component.

Skills Involved

There are no special skills involved in using the system for establishing student-faculty oral communication other than an ability to download and install a free application program that permits faculty and students to communicate with each other. The assumption is made that users of this system will be able to create a set of PowerPoint slides and be able to save the slides in a format that will make it possible to attach to an e-mail message and be sent to students.

Software and Hardware Needed

The application program needed by both the faculty member and students to permit voice communication is called Skype. It is a VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) system that makes it possible to carry on voice communication with anyone else in the world that has a connection to the Internet. Skype is free software for Mac, Windows, and Linux, and even Pocket PC users. A microphone must be available for facilitating the voice communications and a headset microphone is recommended because of ease of use. Headsets may be purchased for approximately $20-30. The price for a microphone is less.

Skype supports computer-to-computer audio communications and automatically cancels (to a large extent) echoes so that it can be used with a microphone and speakers plugged into the computer’s sound card or integrated sound system. Because Skype works through a computer’s sound system, it is easy to set up teleconferences using the computer as a “speaker phone.”

If there is an interest in sharing online slides with students, a logical choice would be PowerPoint. However, there are other presentation programs that might also be considered. For example, Keynote is a presentation program for the Macintosh that is widely used. What is important is to select a presentation application program that is easy to use and permits the printing of multiple slides on a single page.

It is also recommended that a saved document of slides from a presentation program be converted to a PDF. This makes it easier to share visual information with students. There are various ways that documents can be converted to a PDF format. Macintosh users running OS X have a built-in capability for saving all forms of presentation program documents in this format. PC users may purchase a copy of Adobe Acrobat so that they have this capability. Another alternative is to download a FREE software program that is called cutePDF. With this program it is possible to convert files to a PDF.

Practical Applications

I maintain virtual office hours for the distance classes I teach. Students are advised that I will be available during certain times each week to answer questions they might have. My preferred way to answer questions is via e-mail, but there are times that this is not the most convenient way to respond to questions. I encourage my students to download Skype to their computer and then use this program to contact me. Since the Skype service is “free” an increasing number of students have begun to use this technology. Students are able to easily add me to their contact list in order to reach me. This application substitutes Skype for a telephone and, for now, permits free oral communication for my students.

A second application and one that I consider a better use of Skype has involved using the application along with a series of PowerPoint slides to assist students in their review of material for the major assessments in the online statistics courses I teach. As was mentioned above, the former procedure used involved scheduling a “chat” using the tool that is available in Blackboard. With Skype, I am now able to schedule conference calls that currently may involve up to five individuals being logged on at the same time. The graphic below shows what the screen looks like for establishing a conference call. It is very easy to initiate the conference call.


One of the current weaknesses of Skype is the modest number of individuals who may be involved in a conference call. It is an inconvenience to have to schedule several review sessions because of the limitation for the number of individuals who can be involved at one time, but this limitation is one that I am willing to put up with for now because Skype is currently developing their software to permit up to 50 concurrent users. For now I schedule several different review sessions for the class and have students select the 30-minute time slot they prefer.

I usually prepare a series of PowerPoint slides to permit visual examples of class content and have tried two different ways to share these slides with the students. One of the ways is to save the slides as a PDF and e-mail the document to all of the students in the class prior to the review session. If the size of the document is not too large this system works very well. An alternative to this strategy is to save the slides as PDF, transfer the document to a web site that I have access to and then open the document in the Virtual Classroom of Blackboard in order for everyone to be able to review at the same time. The added benefit of this method of sharing is that there is also a white board available where I am able to create images for the students after the slide information has been shared. The graphic below is an example of what the web site looks like when the PDF document is opened.


Other Applications for Skype

There are numerous other ways that Skype might be used in an academic setting. The most valued of the uses from my standpoint are those associated with teaching students at a distance. I believe when the Skype technology makes it possible for more than five individuals to be involved in a conference call it will be possible to teach a synchronous class. So far the system has been robust and has worked very well. The sound quality has been excellent and the greatest distraction thus far has been the echoes that are occasionally created when someone is using a microphone that is in close proximity to a speaker. This is why the use of a headset is recommended.

Campuses that offer graduate degrees to distance students have the need for meetings to be scheduled to do such things as approve a program of studies for the degree, to consider a proposal for a masters thesis or a doctoral dissertation, and to have a student defend his or her thesis or dissertation. What has been described above would work well now and may save the student a significant travel expense. It is not a face-to-face meeting, but there are situations where this is not necessary.

Another possible use for this technology is for students to collaborate outside of their regular class. Students might also make presentations to others where previously this was not done very easily unless the students were face-to-face.

Limitations of Skype

Skype is not a perfect tool by any means, but it appears to be one that is undergoing improvement on a regular basis. How long it will remain as a free application is unknown. The company does seem to have a sound business plan that makes it possible to bring in resources and sustain itself without charging for the service. For example, it is possible to use the application to call regular telephone numbers to individuals who have only land lines. There is a cost for this service (SkypeOut) and it is very modest. I have found the service to be less expensive than nearly all long distance plans I have studied and currently use Skype for all of my personal long distance calls.

Skype works best for individuals who have a broadband connection to the internet. The number of my students that have this connection is growing all of the time. Before long I will not be reluctant to add a broadband connection as a requirement for the classes I teach. Skype is marginally acceptable for users who have a 56K connection, but if the true speed of the connection is much below that speed the audio is not very good.

Other Alternatives to Skype

There are alternatives to what was described above, but the cost has thus far been prohibitive for some campuses. I have been involved as a presenter using a system called HorizonLive and also used another system called Elluminate. They both work very nicely and it is possible for one person to speak to many.

Another new product that has been receiving attention lately is called Gizmo. This product is also free and is available for Macintosh, Windows, and Linux users. The user base for this application is not as great as that of Skype, but it is a program that should be considered if there is an interest in having voice communication with students using a system that is inexpensive and reliable.

It is likely the technology will continue to improve and what is the latest and hottest application program today may be replaced by another in the near future.



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