About Mystery Skypes and why we need more - Ditch That Textbook

About Mystery Skypes and why we need more

Ed Tech

Ed Tech | Friday, April 24, 2020

About Mystery Skypes and why we need more

Mystery Skypes can break down a classroom's walls and open students up to the world. They're easy to set up and can be transformational.

One of the most transformative effects the Internet can have on classrooms is opening them up to the world.

Before the Internet, global communication was expensive and slow. Think long-distance phone calls and letters, even world travel.

Now, the world is at our classrooms' beck and call: 

  • Social media can connect us to anyone.
  • Video chat takes us to new places in the world immediately.
  • Blogs, wikis and websites help us create content that anyone in the world can see.

Using Skype (or any video calling tool) can connect classrooms to other classrooms, to other cultures, to experts in our fields.

Oh, and it's free (as long as your computer has a webcam or you purchase one inexpensively). And it's instant.

This kind of activity has great, great benefits -- but it doesn't appear to be used in the classroom enough, largely due to teacher anxiety and perceived lack of technical skills to do it. We'll talk about that more in a moment.

What is a Mystery Skype?

Mystery Skype is a global guessing game between classes. They meet up in a video call and try to guess each other's location through a series of yes/no questions. It's like a mix of Twenty Questions and Battleship! For more information on Mystery Skype, check out these resources on the Microsoft Educator Community.

Connect with another class. It's easy to find a partner class to play a Mystery Skype game. Use the Skype in the Classroom website to find teachers. Send them a request through the site. You can also put a post on the #mysteryskype hashtag with what you're looking for -- or browse the hashtag for someone to partner with. 

Set up the time and format for the call. Connect with the teacher of the partner class. Find a time and date for the call. Talk about how long you'd like to do the call and what you might do afterward (i.e. ask each other questions, present some information about life in your area, etc.).

On the day of the call, the classrooms connect to each other via Skype, Google Meet, Zoom, Teams, etc. They greet each other and start the game.

Classes take turns asking each other yes/no questions about their location. Examples: Are you west of the Mississippi River? Is your state touching a major body of water? After they narrow it down, they try to guess the other class's location on their next turn.

Mystery Skype isn't limited to just geographic location! There are LOTS of variations of this game, including:

  • Mystery Number (Is your number even? Is it greater than 10? Is it prime?)
  • Mystery Animal (Is your animal a mammal? Does it have four legs? Does it have fur?)
  • Mystery Letter (Is your letter a vowel? Does it have a straight line?)
  • Mystery Historical Figure (Was your person alive during the 1800s? Did this person live in Europe?)
  • Mystery Instrument (Is your instrument a woodwind? Is it bigger than a textbook?)

10 tips to more meaningful Mystery Skypes in the classroom

Skype is a powerful tool that can bridge a gap of a thousand miles between schools. It can make conversations and activities happen that never could exist otherwise.

But if you're not careful, it can lead to missed opportunities. I’ve missed Skype calls altogether. I’ve seen entire class periods squandered because of simple Internet connection miscues. But I’ve also seen the amazing learning that can be shared digitally.

So learn from my mistakes and the mistakes of others! Take these steps to ensure a smooth Skype call:

1. Schedule your call early and confirm it. Your calendar is your best friend here. Write the date down. Double-check it. Then check in with your Skype partner the day before (and maybe the day of) to make sure they remember. I’ve been the offending party on forgetting a Skype call. Trust me, you don’t want to feel like you’ve disappointed a teacher and a whole class of kids in a different part of the world.

2. Check and double check your time zones. Skyping with students in Spain was an awesome experience for my students. Remembering what time it was there could be tricky, though — especially when we changed our clocks for daylight saving time. I didn’t factor that in and almost missed out on the last call in a two-month Skype project because of it.

3. Consider the configuration of students to devices. My students often felt anxiety about being in front of a whole class of teenagers they’d never met hundreds (or thousands) of miles away. So we used the six iPads in our class and worked with two or three students per device. The smaller groups were less intimidating and gave students a partner so they didn’t feel alone.

4. Make a plan for Skype user names. For whole-class Mystery Skype activities, one class user name was great. When students split into small groups, I created a user name for each iPad in class and students shared. If students are doing one-on-one work with other students, individual user names would probably be best. Think about how students will use Skype accounts and make the best choice possible to manage them. It’s OK if you change your mind later, too.

5. Assign students to jobs. This is especially important with whole-class Skypes and Mystery Skypes. Having a specific role in the process keeps students engaged and makes everything run more smoothly. During Mystery Skypes, I adopted but modified Pernille Ripp’s list of student jobs based on my class’s Spanish-language questions. Number of students in each section is very flexible based on what kids want to do:

  • Question askers/answerers: One to three students in front of the camera interacting with the other class (with others cycling in if they really want to)
  • Mappers: Two students who use maps on iPads, maps on computers or physical maps to help with guessing location or creating new questions
  • Think tank: Students who process information coming in and help create questions or guess location
  • Question writers: Two students formulate the next question in Spanish and write it on a small dry eras board to display to the other class
  • Grammar checkers: One or two students check the accuracy of the Spanish in the question
  • Word Referencer: One student uses WordReference.com to look up Spanish words the group doesn’t know
  • Photographer/videographer: Takes photos/video of the experience for later (and returns to the think tank when not busy)

6. Hide the location. Skype displays the location of your contacts when you view them. If you’re engaging in a Mystery Skype activity, be careful to guard your students from that so you don’t ruin the surprise. Some teachers choose to remove their location or make it very, very vague.

7. Check your Skype connection (maybe twice). I suggest making a test Skype call with your Skype partner more than a day before (to have time to fix potential problems or ask tech staff to help you) and the day of the Skype call (to avoid last-second problems).

8. Be creative to make it happen. If a Skype experience doesn’t look like it can happen at first, a little creative thinking can change that. I wanted my last class of the day to Skype with our Spain partners, but it was past dinner time in Spain when our class met. We recorded video messages instead of using live Skype calls to communicate. We wrote each other in shared Google Documents. And on one day, with permission from their teachers, I pulled students out of a morning class so we could have one live Skype call. It was worth it.

9. Be flexible and understanding with the other class. This is especially important with international calls. Their social norms, communication customs, sense of time and connection issues may be very different. Factors out of everyone’s control pop up, too. This was the worst winter for school-day delays and cancellations in 20+ years for us, and it altered my Skype plans on a regular basis. I’m so thankful I’ve had very flexible and understanding teachers and classes in South Carolina, Florida, Canada and Spain to work with.

10. Talk to students about the experience. I like to have control and make all the plans, but that’s not always the best thing. I have to remember to keep my students in the loop. I ask them what they like about Skyping, what they don’t like, what changes they suggest and what topics they want to discuss. Then I do my best to incorporate their ideas. They have to be dedicated to the process to make it worthwhile.

Potential hurdles to video calls

After lots of conversations at teacher conferences and professional development workshops, I've heard Skype and Google Hangout mentioned as a valuable resource in many.

The thing that surprises me, though, is how few educators actually use video calls with students. I've reached out to educators via Twitter hashtags and through other channels in attempt to find class partners for Mystery Skype. The sparse results have surprised me a little.

I'm betting the lack of participation stems from three very common stumbling blocks in educational technology: anxiety, perceived lack of technical ability and lack of time.

ANXIETY: I'll lay the anxiety stumbling block to rest. I have participated in a lots of Skype/Meets like the ones mentioned here, I'll bet that it will generally be a positive experience for everyone involved:

  • For the students, who love to be involved in something new and exciting (especially if it involves technology)
  • For the other class, who gets a glimpse into life at your school
  • For you, the teacher, who sparks excitement and engagement in a new way in the classroom

I've found that even if my new ideas flop, my students often are grateful for the effort to try something different. And with a little planning, they probably won't totally flop, and you may have something that could transform your teaching -- or your students' lives.

PERCEIVED LACK OF TECHNICAL ABILITY: Skypes are really easy to set up, too. They mostly consist of connecting your webcam (if it isn't already embedded in your computer), adding the participating class's Skype/Google Meet account and testing the connection. If the other teacher has done video chats before, he/she may be able to give you some guidance.

Plus, much like almost any app or site, there's very little you can do wrong to break it or mess it up. Jump in and give it a shot, and if you can't figure something out, there's always Google!

LACK OF TIME: This can be an excuse not to try anything. The truth is that we make time for what we want to make time for. I took a few minutes here and there over the course of a weekend to gather the information I needed about video chatting. If we want to make a difference in our students' lives and provide them opportunities to grow and experience new things, we make it happen.

Resources to check out

Want to get started with Mystery Skype? Here are some articles, blog posts and other resources that can get you going!

Are you interested in using video chats in class? Leave us a comment to say how you'd like to use it! Or if you've used Skype or Google Hangout in class, please tell us how it went!

Looking for more ideas for using video calls in the classroom?

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  • Thanks for including information about the Mystery Skype activity. I’m hoping to put this idea in action. Great article.

  • Gina Felton says:

    Hello Matt,

    Sending this piece to my administration. They could use the information themselves!

    I have a class of 5th graders in Iowa. If you are looking for a Mystery Skype, let us know!
    We are always up for the adventure!

    Thanks for the article!


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  • Sofia says:

    A mi me interesaría un #MysterySkype donde mis alumnos (segundo grado, 7-8 años de edad) hablen en inglés y los tuyos contesten en español, así ambos pueden practicar su segunda lengua, ¿te interesa? mi correo es sofia.velazquez@cap.edu.mx

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