Communication Currents

Current Commentary

Using Skype to Teach Videoconferencing Skills in Class

April 1, 2013
Instructional Communication

About 13.2 million people made a video call in 2011 according to an article in USA Today. The prevalence of video conferencing and its wide range of uses mean that students must develop fluency in this technology. There may be a tendency to assume all students are familiar with applications such as Skype, but making that assumption would be a mistake. Instead, teachers need to focus on teaching all students how to use videoconferencing tools, the advantages and disadvantages of videoconferencing, and potential unintended consequences that may accompany it. One way to accomplish that is to use videoconferencing as part of classroom activities. This essay describes such an activity designed to familiarize students with and to encourage them to think critically about Skype, a popular videoconferencing tool. 

About two weeks before the activity, I met with a graduate student who would be assisting me, and we tested the technology. We set up a webcam and Skype account in the classroom and used a laptop in another room as our remote location. After establishing a successful videoconference connection, we tested the classroom camera angles to ensure that I would be able to hear and see the entire classroom (a 60-seat auditorium) and that each seat could hear and see the classroom display without obstruction.

The class period before the activity, I introduced the topic of technology in organizations to the class.  Our textbook listed technological resources that organizations may use, presented three theoretical perspectives for understanding technology in organizations, and discussed utopian and dystopian perspectives of technology. We discussed reasons organizations may implement or not implement technologies and some of the unintended consequences that accompany those choices.

On the day of the activity, I was in a quiet room with a neutral background that would ensure student focus on the speaker. Approximately eight minutes before class time, I “called” the classroom computer, where the graduate student was stationed. Because our university allows ten minutes between classes, we chose to establish the videoconference connection early in order to address any technology problems before class time.

After establishing a successful connection, I interacted with students as they arrived; students seemed bewildered by the unusual class arrangement. I began class while the graduate student took attendance and remained to serve as a deterrent to distractions. Students shared updates regarding their semester projects and asked questions about those projects and upcoming assignments. Following that, I reviewed the previous class discussion about technology in organizations with students before focusing the conversation on the videoconferencing format. Students were first asked to identify the differences between videoconferencing and face-to-face communication. Second, the students identified similarities between the two formats. Students responded hesitantly at first, but gradually acclimated to the new format and participated in the discussion. I shared with the students how I had prepared for this activity to let them know the background work that goes into preparing for a video conference.

After talking about videoconferencing in a college class, we discussed videoconferencing in other organizational settings, highlighting potential advantages and disadvantages. I asked students to consider having a meeting at work with one member participating remotely and discussed potential effects on the meeting itself as well as relationships in the organization. I asked students what it would be like if they were the person who was remote rather than local.  Students also noted the importance of informal communication.

The next class period, I used the following questions to debrief the class:

  • “What did you think about the experience?”
  • “How was that different than if I’d been here in person?”
  • “How was class similar, despite the technology that we used?”
  • “What was most difficult for you during the meeting?”
  • “How might this technology change an organization’s communication?”
  • “What are some issues an organization should consider before implementing new technologies like videoconferencing?”

The first learning objective was that students be able to identify and evaluate differences between this medium and face-to-face communication in organizations. Students generally did not prefer videoconferencing over face-to-face class communication, primarily due to increased distraction.  My remote location during the exercise removed a sense of accountability. This was exhibited through several side conversations during the exercise, some of which I saw and some of which the graduate student and the class relayed after the exercise. Students also noted that, without the graduate student in the room, many would have been tempted to sneak out early.  

Also in terms of differences between Skype and face-to-face communication, students said that the most difficult part of the exercise was negotiating eye contact. Despite the close proximity of the camera to the display (on the classroom technology and my laptop), looking at the person who was talking required looking away from the camera and vice versa. Thus, eye contact took on a new meaning. Students noted that, because of the social norm of making eye contact to signify listening and respect, deciding where to look was awkward throughout the exercise.

Finally, the class discussed the issues that people in organizations might encounter when using videoconference technologies. Several class members mentioned the movie Up in the Air, in which employees are fired via videoconferencing, to illustrate inappropriate use. The class identified videoconferencing as a way of connecting organizations with geographically separate offices without the expense and hassle of travel. Also discussed were the potential effects of frequent videoconferencing on organizations with local and remote members. Students noted that remote workers might not “know what was really going on” and that they might miss out on informal, “water cooler” talk. Several students commented that establishing a relationship through face-to-face communication prior to videoconferencing may have affected the classroom interaction. Students predicted that the experience would have been different if people in organizations met via videoconferencing exclusively. 

As video technology becomes more common in classrooms and in organizations, it is increasingly important for users to understand the differences between videoconferencing and face-to-face communication. Testing technology that will be used is an extra step in preparation that can be the difference between successful communication and unsuccessful communication.  Consciously reconsidering eye contact is important as one wants to be seen as fully present in tele-meetings. For organizations, it seems key to be intentional about fostering informal connections between employees who work remotely and to think carefully about situations that might require face-to-face meeting rather than video conferencing.

About the author (s)

Johny T. Garner

Texas Christian University

Assistant Professor

Marjorie Buckner

University of Kentucky

Doctoral Candidate