Eventually, I suspect, we’re going to have a learning component for every letter of the alphabet. In addition to e-Learning and mLearning and t-Learning — learning via Twitter, as described recently by Terrence Wing — we are also seeing increasing use of what can be called s-Learning — just-in-time learning opportunities delivered via Skype.

Like Twitter, Skype remains one of those ubiquitous social media tools that seem capable of surprising us with new possibilities, just when we think we have explored all there is to find.

Having been involved in a successful experiment to link a presenter with an across-the-country conference audience using Skype a few years ago, my own most recent moment of revelation came when a friend, on short notice, needed refresher sessions on using PowerPoint and Excel. Try as we might, we were unable to find a way to match our schedules in a way that would have allowed for face-to-face sessions within the 24-hour window of opportunity we had as she prepared for a job interview where familiarity with the two programs was a prerequisite. We were about to give up any hope of my delivering those just-in-time lessons to her until an intermediary asked the million-dollar question: “Don’t both of you use Skype?”

A few hours later, we were online together for a 90-minute lesson reviewing the basics of Excel. After taking a four-hour break so she could absorb what she had learned, we returned for a second 90-minute session—the lesson on PowerPoint basics. She was more than ready for the interview the following afternoon.

Getting started: exploring the new through the familiar

None of this would have worked within the timeframe we had if both of us hadn’t already been familiar and comfortable with online communication via Skype. That doesn’t, however, have to be a deal-breaker for e-Learning instructors and students who want to add Skype to their training-teaching-learning toolkit.

Since Skype is available as a free, downloadable service, there are no software costs; those who want to be a little more elaborate and creative can also download, at no cost, Skype’s document-sharing software — Yugma — so that they can incorporate PowerPoint slide decks and other presentation tools into their online lessons. For the situation described in this article, we kept it simple and did not use Yugma.

Trainers and learners with newer laptops or other computer equipment will generally be ready to proceed as soon as they have downloaded the software. Anyone with older equipment may need to buy a Webcam — serviceable Webcams are readily available online for less than $50—and a headset with microphone or a combination of a stand-alone microphone and stand-alone speakers within that same price range.

If the learner is new to Skype, an instructor will want to spend some time helping the student become comfortable with using Skype’s audio, visual, and typed-chat capabilities, since each of these tools provides a way to expedite the learning process. Using the typed chat window, for example, allows for the exchange of URLs or prepared segments of text that may be useful to the learner long after the lesson ends.

Expediting learning in Excel

Proceeding with the Skype learning experience uses much of what we already employ in face-to-face and online learning: having a good lesson plan that is appropriate for the delivery medium is essential — there’s no faking it here. Making the session as interactive as possible results in effective learning, and approaching the session with a great deal of flexibility so the learner acquires skills through hands-on practice keeps the entire session lively and productive.

For the Excel session, we started with a lesson plan I had used in face-to-face sessions where learners created and tweaked a rudimentary spreadsheet that they could use in their own workplace. What they needed to learn, after all, was the same in both settings; what was different was the delivery tool.

We each kept the Skype window visible in the lower right-hand corner of our screens and gave a much larger portion of our computer monitors over to a second window—one displaying our Excel spreadsheet. This allowed us to see and hear each other almost as effectively as if we were interacting in the same room while proceeding with the lesson.

The online challenge via Skype — which was extremely easy to overcome —centered on the need for patience and continual feedback from both of us since we did not use any sort of desktop-sharing software. Each time I introduced a concept — setting cell formats, setting font sizes and styles to produce an easy-to-read spreadsheet, writing formulas, using cut-and-paste functions — I would describe exactly which cells we were affecting, wait for the learner to complete whatever action was necessary, then ask her to describe, by spreadsheet cell location, what she had done and how it looked. In this way, we were able to create identical documents that we updated throughout the 90-minute session, and we checked our results at the end of the lesson by exchanging, via e-mail, copies of what we had produced.

An obvious benefit to working this way was that she left with a sample of what we had accomplished, and that sample served as a tool for any follow-up studying and learning she had time to complete.

Speed PowerPointing

Preparations for the PowerPoint lesson mirrored the level of attention we gave to our Excel preparations and learning. She wrote brief text for a presentation she could use during the interview itself so that she was producing something of value, and I drew from a variety of PowerPoint lessons I had previously delivered.

I also incorporated a technique I described months later as “Speed PowerPointing” — creating PowerPoint presentations within very limited time periods. After all, we only had 90 minutes for her to review the basics and create a presentation that met her learning and job-seeking needs.

When our lesson via Skype began, we explored the basics of making a PowerPoint presentation that incorporated effective text and imagery akin to what we see in Pecha Kucha, Beyond Bullet Points, and a variety of other visually interesting techniques. Our goal was to review the basics of creating PowerPoint slides by preparing five slides with a strong narrative flow within the time we had together. And we wanted to have some fun in the process.

Again, the lesson proceeded smoothly because we both already were comfortable with Skype. We described to each other exactly what we were creating and seeing on our screens; took whatever time was necessary for her to practice, explore options, and have her questions answered; and exchanged our finished products to be sure we had produced the same presentation and created a learning tool of lasting value to her.

When face-to-face and online learning meet

As I have suggested repeatedly in a variety of venues, many of us still remain convinced that there is a strong case to be made for face-to-face training in an onsite-online world, and it is equally clear that the term “face-to-face” is rapidly evolving. Tools such as Skype create extremely effective opportunities for virtual (and virtually) face-to-face learning if trainer-teacher-learners are willing to experiment and if those we help are willing to reach across the rapidly shrinking digital divide with our own equipment or through libraries and other gateways to Internet access.