WEB EXTRA: Students use Skype to stay connected abroad

Zachary Schulman has studied abroad in both Panama and London, and has never paid a dime for long-distance phone calls.

The GW senior said that he used Skype, a free Internet phone service, to stay in touch with contacts in the States on both of his trips.

“In London they have Skype pre-loaded on computers in Internet caf?s there. To call home on a cell was $2.99 per minute, but computer to computer is completely free,” Schulman said.

While in Panama, his professor also had the program on his computer and allowed Schulman and his peers to call home.

Skype allows users to make unlimited voice and video calls free-of-charge to other Skype users around the world, and it has won the hearts of some students and professors at GW.

All a Skype user must do to access the program’s services and download its software. Then, users not only have access to chat with any other Skype user worldwide, but they can also call landlines and cell phones from computers in the United States and Canada free-of-charge. Skype, which was founded in 2003, charges a small fee for calls made to phones abroad.

“A huge population of college students likes the fact that it’s free. They spend a lot of time on the Internet, and this is a new way to use the Internet for phone calls,” said Jennifer Caukin, a Skype spokeswoman. “Users can talk through the computer directly, or plug in a phone or headset.”

Professors at GW are taking advantage of the system as well. Richard Robin, associate professor of Russian and International Affairs, has used Skype in his classes in order to host live conversations with people in Russia.

Robin said he tells his Basic Intensive Russian students that they will be speaking to a Russian family in Russia and that they should prepare questions to find out as much about the family members as possible. When students arrive at class, they phone the Russian family using Skype.

“We now have an independent study set up where two advanced Russian students will be doing Skype conversation exchanges with four students in Russia,” Robin wrote in an e-mail.

An early adopter of the program, Robin also uses Skype for personal calls.

“I talk to my friends in Russia and Israel,” Robin said.

Last month Skype participated in a technology fair at GW and handed out free headsets to encourage students to download and utilize its services.

“We participate in a technology tour that goes to 25 college campuses,” Caukin said. “It’s a great way to show students about Skype, and the free headsets make (the software) easier to use.”

Caukin said that Skype is the fastest growing Internet communication company today, boasting an increase from 44 million users last year to this year’s 113 million users. To accommodate this surge in popularity, Skype has expanded its repertoire of services to include instant messaging, online chat group, file transfer and text messaging, among others.

Caukin added that users can even purchase a personal phone number through Skype, allowing calls to be forwarded to a telephone instead of the user’s computer. The purchase of a telephone number also allows non-Skype users to place calls to these numbers.

Another long-time Skype user, Associate Professor of Human Services and Sociology Mary Anne Plastino Saunders, was featured on a local NBC news affiliate station earlier this year for her use of the program to keep contact with her husband living abroad.

“My husband has been in Sri Lanka for a year. Before that he was in Honduras for four years,” Saunders said. “We’ve already saved about $4,800 as compared to talking long-distance in Honduras.”

Like Robin, Saunders sees potential for Skype use in the classroom.

“Next semester I’ll be in Greece and Spain for conferences (and) I could hold regular video Skype (discussions) for classes,” Saunders said. “There are many capabilities that Skype hasn’t even thought of.”

GW is not currently planning to endorse Skype for regular classroom use or for any other University-related purpose.

“There are serious issues regarding the use of Skype,” Alexa Kim executive director of ISS Technology Services at GW, wrote in an e-mail. “Using Skype opens up your computer as well as the GW network to security vulnerabilities and therefore the use of this product is against the Code of Conduct for Users of Computing Systems and Services.”

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