What is Skype?
Skype is a free downloadable program (available from www.skype.com) that allows users to communicate with each other. One, two or even ten different users can connect and talk in a variety of ways. Users can chat and share files with each other through instant messaging. If they both have microphones they can talk like they would over the phone. Skype is most often used (and really shines) in how it lets users video-conference if they also have a webcams and a microphones.
This allows people far apart, even thousands of miles apart, to not only be able to talk to each other, but to see each other as they do it.
What's the Catch?
Even the coolest tools have their drawbacks. While the software is free, using Skype to its full potential does require devices that can cost money. Not all computers come with microphones or webcams, so you may need to dip into your funds to purchase them. Also in my experience using Skype to video-conference can be temperamental at times. Slow internet connections, satellite problems, webcam issues and other things can all effect the quality of a video-conference.
What Use is Skype in a Classroom?
Imagine your class has a pen pal class with another school in the district. Your students write to them and hear about these students lives and experiences in their classroom, and writ about theirs back. Now what if your students could put a face to their pen pal or have a conversation with them face to face. What if your whole class could take a tour of their pen pal class's room? Using a laptop with Skype, your class and students can do all of these things even if the other class is in a different school, they could do this even if they are in a different stat or even a different country.
Skype can connect classes on an instructional level as well. Multiple classrooms linked by Skype could watch a teacher present a single lesson. This could be especially useful for specialists, who normally would travel from class to class, but now can teach them all at once or in more manageable groups. This would open up their schedule to work on the many projects they more than likely have.
You can use Skype to bring special guests into your classroom. Everyone knows special guests bring new information and excitement to lessons and units. Scheduling time and getting these people to your class is always difficult, especially if they live or work somewhere far away. With Skype, they can visit your classroom without having to leave their work at all. This lowers the amount of time and effort speakers would need to commit to, and as a result increase the amount of people willing and able to add to your lessons. And unlike a movie, where students would hear from experts only passively, Skype would allow them to ask questions and interact with these knowledgeable people.
I had also heard of teachers during my student teaching days that used Skype and their boundless creativity to bring historical and fictional special guests into classrooms as well. These two teachers would bring their two classes to one teacher's room where he would would the whole group. The other teacher would return to his classroom alone, put on a costume and then Skype with the students as a historical person they had been studying in their current Social Studies unit or even as a character in a book they had been reading. This allowed students to "interview" these individuals with the questions they had been thinking about when reading about these people, along with making a very memorable and enjoyable experience.
Skype presents many opportunities for teachers to bring outside educators, speakers, and other people into the classroom, using a free and easy to use program. With only a few buttons to push, teachers and students can talk with people from around the world to learn new things and get new insights on lessons. New teams of educators can be made to improve and share instruction when time and distance used to be obstacles. For the low price of nothing, the opportunities Skype gives teachers are well worth a download. I highly recommend it.