Video calling for learning: Spanish, guitar and fitness

It’s all very well connecting with your friends and family when making video calls but there's a lot more to these social platforms than pure fun. As part of Skype Week on Pocket-lint, we've been catching up with people all over the globe who use video calling in more innovative ways then most.

Today, it's all about learning. Virtual learning. So, here are three professionals who've each found interesting, effective and profitable ways of maximising their time and their client base using technology.

Marc Thompson, virtual personal trainer

Marc Thompson has been using Skype to keep his VirtuFit clients fit since June of 2008 and if he’s a pioneer among his profession, like most greats in the field, it’s not because a grand vision of the future had led him there from the start.

“It really came out of necessity more than anything else,” he tells us from his South Florida home. “My wife passed away at the time and, as a trainer, I wasn’t able to go to gyms and do housecalls like I could because we have young children at home. So, I had to come up with an innovative way to still do what I love to do. I didn’t want to change jobs.”

Now, four years on, more than 75 per cent of Thompson’s classes are over Skype, with clients as far flung as Switzerland, England, Australia and most recently in New Delhi, where the client is blind. One of the major differences between teaching in person and teaching over internet video calls is that your verbal commands have to be different and far more accurate. Marc cannot physically manipulate his students into the correct positions and they’re not always best placed to be able to see him while exercising.

“I’ve been training him a month," he says of his Indian client. "Obviously, if a trainer is going to train him, you have to be articulate. The whole thing about Skype is that you have to be articulate and non-demonstrative. Otherwise, as long as he can hear me and I can see him, then there’s no real difference between training in person and training over the internet.”

According to Thompson, there are no real equipment issues - either with the connection or the exercise itself. A reasonable ISP and any kind of video chat device from the past five years will do the trick. The most important thing seems to be to have an up-to-date version of Skype otherwise, Thompson has noticed, it can slow things down.

“All you really need is the space of a yoga mat and everyone has at least that. I get my clients to use stairs, chairs, tables, other people; whatever’s around. If you’re a mother with children, go grab your kids and you’ve got some weight.”

By the same token, Marc and his clients might find each other in all sorts of different locations for each class. Some are trained at their desks at work with other people in the background, one group is always in a barn and another client seems to be in a different hotel room every week. Marc has even enjoyed the benefits of virtual work by fitting in a few classes while travelling on holiday in Costa Rica.

“I can even do multiple locations at the same time with group video chat. So, I teach a couple at the same time where the husband’s in one place and the wife in another. That’s eight bucks a month for that on Skype but you can do it for free on Google’s service as a back up.”

The bottom line to all this, of course, is whether it works for the clients. Do they get fit? The answer from Marc is an emphatic yes, and it seems that it’s the real-time element that’s key.

“You can give people instructions and videos to work out with but you really need that live interaction, otherwise they just won’t do it; plus there’d be no variety in it either.”

A few steps on from 80s work out videos, then.

Andrew Morrison, virtual guitar teacher

For guitar teacher Andrew Morrison, the Skype story is a little more recent. While he’s been offering one-to-one tuition from a music store in Southern California for the past 27 years, it’s only been a matter of months since he got his wife to build him a website, hired an SEO consultant and got his search results for guitar lessons over Skype virtually to the top of Google’s page rankings with Learnguitaronskype.com. In no time at all, he’s picked up customers in New York, Hawaii and the Netherlands.

“That’s what I like about it,” he tells us over a video chat from his home studio. “It can be anywhere.”

“I started using Skype because I wanted to branch out and live in other places and travel but I can’t really do it with my job. It takes so long to build up all the students. But I can do that on Skype and take my clients with me.”

Sitting at home, rather than having to travel to the music store, Morrison uses just the built-in camera on his studio iMac and few documents of music and pictures of chord diagrams which he can email to his students as they need them. They either print them out and have them in front of them during the lessons or put them on the screen side by side with the Skype application. So, after 27 years of face-to-face lessons, has the jump to the virtual world been a big change of culture?

“At first I found it a little strange and you want to reach through the computer and grab their fingers and put them in the right spot but, once you get over that, it’s very similar really.”

There are a often few basic issues to sort out, it appears. A classic is to make sure you’ve got your microphone and speaker at the right levels to avoid feedback issues but, other than that, there’s only really one major drawback to virtual tutorial sessions.

“Playing along with the other person is probably the one slight drawback," says Morrison. "You can’t play together because the time lag doesn’t allow for that. You can’t rely on the synchronisation because of the slight delay. It’s okay for talking because you don’t really notice the millisecond or so difference but it doesn’t work when you’re trying to play music.”

We decided to put Morrison to the test with something simple which, in this instance, was helping us to tune our new guitar. He passed with flying colours and what had taken us about half an hour using a free mobile app, only to end up with some terrible-sounding chords, he sorted out as pitch perfectly as we can hear in a matter of minutes. In fact, it’s Morrison’s opinion that you could teach pretty much any musical instrument in the same way.

“If you’re teaching piano, you’d really need to make sure that someone could see the keyboard and it would be difficult on drums, too. So you’d probably need multiple cameras for both of those, but it could work on most instruments, certainly stringed ones.”

Fiona Dunmore, virtual Spanish teacher

While both Marc and Andrew above are enjoying relatively virgin snow as far as advertising their services on Skype goes, there is one area of learning above all others where Skype lessons are a very crowded market.

Meet Fiona Dunmore and her Viva Languages Services. She’s been teaching Spanish for eight years and three years ago took on her first virtual students.

“My first customer was a student at Sheffield University. She couldn’t find a good local tutor and she contacted me. It was something that I knew people were doing and I was reluctant to do it because I’m not a very tech savvy person. I’d put it off and put it off but I knew it could open a lot of doors for me but when I actually had to do it, I found it really easy.”

Again, there’s a familiar story. She has more clients now than ever before. She teaches to students all over the world and something that really appeals is that she is not tied down to working and living in a single location. For Fiona, however, there's to be a wider plan at work.

“I have a group of tutors that work under me now. I have teachers for Portuguese, Italian, French and Mandarin too. So, if people are looking for tutors in those languages, I’ve got them too. What’s more, some of them are native speakers actually living in those countries which is what some students are particularly looking for.”

“For example, I once had a client who was planning on doing business in Buenos Aires, Argentina, however the accent and grammar in Argentinian Spanish is quite different fom Castilian Spanish, so I put him in touch with a Spanish tutor in Buenos Aires who was able to teach him the specific language and accent that he needed via Skype.”

With language learning, there isn’t the physical element that exists with both personal training and playing a musical instrument, of course, and that’s a considerable advantage to Fiona and others like her. Apart from the lack of personal contact, she says the lessons are exactly the same. And it’s more financially effective for her because she doesn’t need to print out sheets for her clients or travel to other people’s homes, places of work or schools. Most importantly, the progress rates for students are exactly the same. But that doesn’t mean that teaching languages over Skype isn’t without its drawbacks.

“If we’re doing a listening exercise, I can’t see how much they’ve written, when they’ve finished or what gaps they got. If I’m testing vocab, I can’t see if they’ve actually got it in front of them and they’re cheating.”

Although a level of honesty is required, it does seem well worth it for the customers for one important reason: with the right piece of software, you can record the lesson and then play it back as many times as you like to get as much out of your lessons as you possibly can.