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Bringing Composers into Classrooms Through Skype

Two Pennsylvania teaching colleagues with an interest in music and technology are bringing remote experts into classrooms at almost no cost, using Skype's free videoconferencing technology.

Joseph Pisano, a music professor and conductor at Grove City College, and Travis Weller, a composer, instrumental music instructor, and director of bands for grades 7-12 at Mercer Area Middle School and High School, are working together to explore the teaching potential in Skype, the well known Internet communication tool owned by eBay.

Using Skype, both educators have invited experts in the music industry into the classroom for two-way conversations from remote locations. Students and guest speakers can see and speak to each other through a broadband Internet connection using Skype software along with a Web camera and a microphone connected to a computer. In addition, the classroom includes an LCD projector along with the Webcam and microphone in order to project a view of the guest speaker.

In a May concert, Pisano and Weller teamed up on a presentation that integrated real-time interviews with composers into student performances. Weller was conducting the students live in a concert hall before an audience of some 500 students, parents, and educators. The composers were included via Skype videoconferencing into a two-way interface with the audience, where composers commented on and addressed questions about the work being performed.

"We brought three noted composers live into a concert setting," Weller said. "We used Skype to bridge the gap between composers and audience and performers.... It made for such a more meaningful concert experience."

"Skype is a well known quantity" that almost all his students are familiar with, Pisano said. "It's very reliable and allows us to do things for free.... I've brought in a number of composers, some technology experts, and even some conducting experts."

Using Skype requires downloading the free software and entering a name to set up a Skype account. Users can then make free calls via a broadband connection over the Internet to anyone in the world with a Skype account using a computer's built-in microphone or a purchased headset. Calls can also be made through Skype to conventional landline or mobile phones for a small per-minute charge. Video connections require a Web camera connected to the computer; once Skype detects that a Webcam is attached, any call can include video images as well as voice. Skype also offers features such as file transfer, text messaging, and call forwarding.

For conference calling, Skype can include up to five people in a call. According to the Web site, if callers are using a computer with an Intel Duo Core Processor, the call can include up to 10 people. Multiple people can connect for audio conferencing or chat sessions; currently, anything beyond one-to-one video conferencing requires some sort of third-party support.

Both Weller and Pisano laud Skype's ease of use--so simple that participants in classroom discussions, such as the composers who were invited to speak at the May concert, have been able to set up a Skype connection in minutes. Adding the video component, Pisano said, is as easy as sending video cameras to participants, then walking them through the simple connection process.

"Skype is a phenomenal video learning tool," Pisano said. "Just think--there are 9 [million] to 11 million people online at any one time.... It doesn't matter what operating system you use, and it's such a user-friendly interface. All it requires is a functioning Web camera, which is built into [many] laptops."

For students, adding Skype to the classroom is often an obvious step, since many of them, especially in colleges and universities, are already taking advantage of the service for free long-distance phone calls via the Internet or for Skype's instant messaging abilities. Most of his students at Grove City College are already using Skype, Pisano said, making introduction of the technology into his classrooms easy. Weller added that his high school students have picked up the technology quickly once he introduced it. He's starting to see his students sending instant messages using Skype, for example, or asking him questions about its use.

Cost is a big plus with Skype--assuming a broadband connection is in place and both sides have a Webcam and microphone, the technology is free. Both educators also said that a key point in choosing Skype rather than one of the many other distance learning technologies available is ease of setup. "Skype gives control back to the teachers," Weller said. Instead of submitting a request for IT assistance, he said, then waiting for the appropriate application to be approved, purchased, installed, and working, just about anyone can install and set up Skype. "As long as a couple of ports [on the network] are open, you're set."

On his Web site, Pisano encourages educators to consider the possibilities opened up by Skype. Because a Skype session doesn't require travel time and is easy to set up and conduct, a wide range of talented musicians and educators can be invited to speak to classes without a big time commitment, Pisano said. "There are many possibilities for bringing experts from various fields into the classroom using this type of technology.... 

"How awesome would it be to have an expert musician Skyped into your classroom for a two-way virtual lesson?"

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at [email protected].

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