While online courses offer many advantages, both proponents and critics can agree that they lack the high level of interpersonal connection offered by traditional live classrooms. In attempting to address this issue for my Teaching Academy Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) project, I proposed using Skype in an online class. My hope was that a more directly interactive class might deliver an experience comparable to a live classroom, thereby creating a course that featured the best of both live and online teaching.
I based this hypothesis on my prior experiences. With students attending live courses, I typically award five extra points to schedule an office meeting in which we could talk about anything, course-related or not. What I discovered is that this simple experience of direct contact noticeably enhanced engagement. Students, having gained greater comfort and confidence, would subsequently raise their hands more often in class and would be less nervous with in-class presentations.
This successful intervention prompted me to consider the possible gains that might occur if I used technology as a surrogate for direct contact. Such interactions could conceivably take the form of requests for Skype “meetings” or even the scheduling of actual office meetings (the Holy Grail of online course outcomes, the actual meeting of the student in person).
My specific measurable hopes were twofold regarding incorporating a Skype element into the course. First, that my students would make better grades (versus students in my “control” non-Skype course). Second, that my students’ Skype experience might translate into enhanced evaluations of the course.
As for the mechanism of what the graded Skype exercise would be, I consulted the literature for ideas. To my surprise, in the 25 recent articles on online teaching which I reviewed, only eight reported the use of Skype. Moreover, none of these articles offered suggestions that made sense for my course “The Latino Experience in the United States.” In some articles, Skype was used in foreign language classes to allow direct conversations with native speakers in another country; and in other articles, Skype was used by remote observers to give real-time advice to teachers.
With these findings, I set about to design my own Skype intervention. First, I would require students to select a presentation topic from a list provided early in the course. Then, after they researched the topic, they would schedule a five-minute oral report with me, using Skype. This conversation would thus replace student class presentations, and it would count for 10% of their grade.
Results were mixed. My chief concern was that the five-minute Skype conversational reports would be widely divergent. Some students would be well-organized, while others would meander aimlessly trying to explain their topic. Actually, most presenters did quite well. They seemed to enjoy the chance to “meet” the professor and interact. And many were proud of their research and wanted to show it off.
A disappointment, however, was that only half of the students scheduled the Skype presentation. This represented a dismal response rate, one quite unlike the nearly 100% participation for classroom talks. Of course, I found this unexpected outcome sobering, given that half the class potentially lost a letter grade in the course (though they could compensate via extra credit, as offered in the syllabus).
Yet there was an upside that completely surprised me. As I came to know the students better, I found myself thinking differently about them. “I wonder what that exuberant liberal arts major, Maria, thinks of this week’s reading? It reminds me of her grandfather’s experience in Colombia that she shared with me.” “Or what about Johnny, the introspective business administration major? What was his reaction when he learned about all the businesses that Dominican dictator Trujillo owned, and how he used them to control the lives of the people he ruled?”
In the end, my hopes for a positive shift in attitudes toward the course were indeed realized. What surprised me, though, is that the greatest epiphany occurred for me, the professor. I discovered anew something exciting, that my online students—albeit hidden behind Blackboard—are real people after all!
 Ian Lancashire, ed., Teaching Literature and Language Online (New York: Modern Language Association, 2009).
 Marcia L. Rock, et al., “Can You Skype Me Now? Developing Teachers’ Classroom Management Practices Through Virtual Coaching,” Beyond Behavior, 22 (3), 2013, 15-23.