Using Skype to Meet with Students: An Adviser’s Guide

Anna Todaro, University of South Carolina

It’s 9:00 p.m. and Marie, one of your students studying abroad this semester, has just come home from a magnificent dinner and an opera performance in Rome. Marie pulls out a list of questions, boots up her computer, and signs on to Skype, a free videoconferencing program. While Marie typically uses Skype to keep in touch with her parents and friends, tonight she has an appointment with you, her academic adviser. It is 3:00 p.m. on the East coast of the United States when you log on to Skype and place the prearranged video conference “call” to Marie. Instantly Marie’s smiling face appears on your computer and you are able to learn about Marie’s adventures in Rome, help her determine what classes she should enroll in next semester, and answer her questions about a possible summer internship.

Whether students are studying abroad or simply minutes away from campus, their hectic lifestyles and multiple time commitments have increased the need for advisers to use video conferencing tools to effectively advise them. Thankfully, free Internet videoconferencing programs have made distance advising a convenient and cost effective way to communicate with students. However, not all advisers have had the opportunity to utilize videoconferencing tools. Thus, the purpose of this article is to share ideas about student subpopulations that could be candidates for distance advising, as well as introduce the basics of using Skype, a popular videoconferencing website and provide suggestions about effectively advising students via Skype.

Distance Advising Subpopulations

According to the National Academic Advising Association’s (NACADA) Standards for Advising Distance Learners, “Institutions engaged in distance learning education are expected to … Provide appropriate student support services for distance learners as they would for students on campus” (NACADA, 2010, ¶ 1).  Because academic advising plays an important role in student success, it is essential that distance learners receive the same quality of academic advising as students do who are able to meet in person with their advisers. Exactly who are distance learners? “These learners are considered at a ‘distance’ because they receive their instruction through various means ranging from asynchronous use of web-based course management systems to correspondence courses. These distance learners have characteristics and issues that are unique to them” (Steele, 2005, ¶ 1). Student population subgroups that are prime candidates for distance advising include commuter students, students enrolled in distance education programs, and students participating in programs on other campuses, whether domestic or international.

For many commuter students, education is just one aspect of their lives that they are balancing. Commuter students comprise a diverse group—some work full-time or part-time jobs, some are living at home with their parents, while others are raising their own families and/or caring for aging parents. One thing commuter students have in common is that their commitments outside the classroom are significant, so meeting with their advisers virtually from home can help them keep all the balls they are juggling in the air.

Like commuters, many traditional students choose to participate in distance education programs because they have outside obligations. Enrolling in online classes offers them flexibility in terms of when and where they complete their course work. These students may live in the same city as the adviser, or they may literally be located anywhere in the world. Thus, videoconferencing is likely the only way that distance-learning students may be able to talk with an academic adviser “in person.”

Whether students are studying abroad or participating in a national student exchange program, their time away from campus dictates that they will be unavailable to physically meet with their advisers.  Given that participation in these types of programs can be stressful for students in terms of ensuring that courses taken away from campus will be transferable and that they will still be able to graduate in a timely manner, access to quality advising is a must. While students will typically work out a plan with their advisers before leaving for the semester or year, sometimes plans change or questions arise that could benefit from a videoconference advising appointment.

Another large population of students who can benefit from distance advising is graduate students. Graduate students often conduct research at campuses other than their own or in the field. Therefore, videoconferencing can be an essential communication link between graduate advisers and their students.

Videoconferencing Basics

Video calls have become an increasingly popular mode of virtual communication. Most videoconferencing applications have similar features, but some of the most popular programs include ooVoo, TokBox, Google chat, SightSpeed, and Skype. Since Skype is the program that most college students use, this article is intended to serve as a primer for academic advisers interested in virtually communicating with students.

Skype is a free software application that provides users with the services to videoconference and place voice calls over the Internet. The application was developed and launched in 2003. Skype use has skyrocketed over the past few years. For example, Telegraphy Research reported that “Skype in 2009 accounted for 12 percent of the world’s international calling minutes, a 50 percent increase over 2008 when it accounted for 8 percent of international calling” (as cited in Malik, 2010, ¶ 2).

Skype software can be downloaded for both Mac and Windows users at http://skype.com. While a computer’s built-in microphone can be used to make free voice calls, a web camera (webcam) is necessary to take advantage of Skype’s videoconferencing capabilities. Many laptops have a built-in webcam, but accessory webcams can be purchased separately and affixed to the top of your computer screen. Accessory webcams can be purchased for as little as $29.00. In addition to the online application, Skype Mobile is a downloadable program for popular smart phones such as the Blackberry, Android, and iPhone.

Once the program has been downloaded and installed on your computer, Skype is a user-friendly application that is simple to use. Once installed, Skype gives users the opportunity to test their microphones and webcams. The program will ask new users to establish an account and create a username and password. Next advisers will need to add users to their Skype contacts list in order to communicate with them. When first signing into Skype, it will prompt advisers to add contacts though searching the directory or importing their e-mail contacts. Advisers can either ask students for their Skype usernames, or they can search users by name, e-mail address, or Skype name. If the contact has filled out a profile, the adviser can view the contact’s city, state, and country in the search list, which helps ensure that the correct person has been identified.

After a user has been added as a contact, open up a conversation when he or she is online, which means the Skype icon next to the student’s name is green; if a user is offline, the icon will be gray, or if the user is online but idle, the icon will be displayed in yellow. After clicking on a contact, the interaction can occur as an instant message chat, a voice call, or a video call. There are two green buttons marked “call” and “video call” to initiate these features, which will literally call the contact. First-time users need to beware of the ringing sound effect. Additionally, every chat window has a gray box in which “Type message to [contact name] here” is displayed to initiate an instant message chat. All of these services are available at no cost to the user. Skype will even store conversation logs and chats for up to three months so that users are able to keep track of previous communications.

Suggestions for Virtual Advising

Once the adviser has learned how to use Skype, he or she should learn how to make the most of this communication medium. There are some important differences between meeting with students in person versus via a videoconference. The following suggestions are provided to help advisers optimize their videoconferencing interactions with students:

  • Include your Skype username in the signature block of your work e-mails, so that students are aware you are available on Skype.
  • Proactively notify students who will be studying abroad or who are distance learners that they can schedule Skype advising appointments.
  • Before a Skype appointment, ensure that any resources you might need during the appointment are close at hand to avoid getting up and leaving the camera to retrieve them.
  • Pay attention to what is in the background. Make sure the student will be not be distracted by anything behind you.
  • Set all other work aside during the videoconference so that you can focus on the student.
  • It is important to remember to smile.
  • Pay attention to your body language and gestures. It does take a while to get used to talking to students virtually, but try to be as natural as possible.
  • Pay attention to any nonverbal cues that students may display during the conversation. After all, this is one of the advantages of doing a videoconference instead of a phone call.
  • Some offices have established office Skype accounts as well as Skype “office hours” when students know someone in the office will be available to answer quick questions.

Conclusion

With increasing numbers of distance-learning students and further advances in technology, advising through videoconferencing will continue to become more common. Remember that videoconferencing advising sessions have the potential to be just as impactful as meeting face-to-face. Many distance learners can feel disconnected from the school, so working to ensure that these students feel as valued as any other students on campus will be greatly appreciated. Understanding how to use Skype and properly advising through a virtual setting are vital to providing an equal experience to all students. If your students have these innovative resources to succeed, maybe you will get a video call from the streets of Rome!

References

Malik, O. (2010, April 20). Skype by the numbers: It’s really big. Retrieved from http://gigaom.com/2010/04/20/skype-q4-2009-number/

National Academic Advising Association (NACADA). (2010). NACADA standards for advising distance learners. Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Commissions/C23/documents/DistanceStandards.pdf

National Academic Advising Association (NACADA). (2005). NACADA statement of core values of academic advising. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources: http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Clearinghouse/AdvisingIssues/Core-Values.htm

Steele, G. (2005). Distance advising. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources: http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/clearinghouse/advisingissues/adv_distance.htm

About the Author(s)

Anna Todaro, University of South Carolina

Anna Todaro is a graduate student in the University of South Carolina’s Higher Education and Student Affairs program. She is also a graduate assistant in the university’s Career Center. She can be reached at todaroa@mailbox.sc.edu.

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