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Videoconferencing Takes Cape Elizabeth Middle School on a Distance Learning Adventure

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Imagine watching fifth-graders in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, examining and comparing the anatomy of zoo animals in their own classroom - while the animals are more than 200 miles away. Incredibly, that's what we did one day last March in a live videoconference with the Bronx Zoo in New York.

Our distance learning adventure began in 1999 when my students communicated with a group of their peers in another Maine school using desktop videoconferencing technology called CUseeMe. At the time, I was looking for ways to integrate technology into the curriculum that would offer my students a project-based approach to researching real-world problems. The thought of connecting students to the world outside of the classroom drew me to live video, and CUseeMe provided the first step. Our initial connections with another class made it clear that students were extremely motivated to pursue topics in greater depth when they had access to resources generally not available in school.

I knew that more sophisticated videoconferencing systems existed in the world of business, but until I viewed an educational video highlighting a small group of students working with a scientist live on camera, I had no idea what was happening with videoconferencing in K-12. It was time to find out, so I submitted my application for a year of sabbatical leave to do some research. The technical aspects of videoconferencing were interesting, but more exciting was the possibility for students to engage in interactive communications with experts outside of Maine. What better way to help prepare them for today's challenging society. Maine is basically a rural state with limited field trip opportunities for students; I hoped to be able to bring them more.

Technical Challenges

As I began my research in fall 2000, I contacted and received support from Verizon of Maine. The guidance I was given enabled me to learn about the basics of videoconferencing and to see what opportunities might be possible for students in our state. About the same time, someone directed me to the previous summer's National Education Computing Conference brochure, which included a classroom videoconferencing session given by Stan Silverman of the New York Institute of Technology. When I contacted him for information about his presentation, he invited me to visit the campus to see videoconferencing equipment more sophisticated than desktop systems and to explore potential classroom applications. My visit was not only exciting and informative, it also introduced me to a helpful distance learning consortium, the NYIT Educational Enterprise Zone (EEZ).

This was the beginning of significant technical challenges since Maine schools had no way to make videoconferencing connections to institutions outside of the state. Connections within the state were already underway using ATM technology, but there were no plans to establish a gateway outside the state for educational purposes, especially at the elementary or middle school level. Much of my sabbatical was spent meeting, e-mailing, writing or phoning technology consultants to find a method that might possibly work. Since I was a novice about the types of connections available, this was a real learning experience for me personally.

Establishing a Path to Success

Besides technical challenges, there were other obstacles within the school system. It was tough convincing the district's technology department to devote some of its limited resources in time and personnel to experiment with a brand new concept that might or might not be successful. This was at a time when there were already major technology initiatives taking a fair amount of everyone's attention. The first was a statewide initiative to provide every seventh-grader in Maine with a laptop computer. The second initiative was the proposed installation of ATM technology at our high school. Because I was still learning about equipment and connections myself, I wasn't able to answer many of the questions asked by the technology staff.

Fortunately, I did have the support and encouragement of my principal and our superintendent. Halfway through my sabbatical, they asked me to submit a midyear report to the school board informing them of my progress and, more importantly, to articulate the impact this project could have on the education of students in our district. Writing the report made me reflect on my progress - I had to decide whether or not to continue with the goal of bringing videoconferencing technology into the classroom. By this time, it was clear that continuing meant that other sabbatical goals couldn't be pursued because the videoconferencing project would take the remainder of my time for research and study. Would connecting to content providers and other primary sources make a difference in the education of children in Maine? My explorations thus far had already convinced me the answer was yes.

The reaction to my midyear report was overwhelmingly positive, even though a clear path to success hadn't yet been established. I had shared the EEZ's philosophy in the report: equitable access to resources for all students, connecting learners to people rather than to information, and application of knowledge to better understand real-world problems and issues. The collaborative efforts of teachers and content providers within the EEZ consortium convinced us in Cape Elizabeth that videoconferencing could offer students resources and expertise that would otherwise be unavailable. Having the support of the school administration and the school board was critical because there were no funds specified to finance the project.

Making Connections

I always tell my students that perseverance is the key to success. So, I was determined to bring educational videoconferencing to my classroom by the end of my sabbatical; although, I was running out of ideas to overcome the technical difficulties. Finally, at an EEZ meeting, I shared my frustrations with Steve Kohn of Verizon who suggested borrowing equipment from NYIT and using the institute's gateway for the purpose of a "proof of concept." The gateway might have been the solution for an Internet connection from my school to meet with an ISDN connection from a content provider outside of Maine. Silverman was willing to lend a videoconferencing unit to my school for an indefinite time period along with the ongoing assistance of his staff, which continues to this day.

The next step was to find a content provider willing to try the experiment. I eagerly flew to NECC 2001 in Chicago, where I met Linda Unger, then the distance learning consultant to the Bronx Zoo. Unger listened attentively to my story and invited me to become a test site for a new videoconferencing program the zoo was developing. I was fortunate enough to meet Unger who had great faith and patience, since at that point my equipment hadn't even been set up in Maine or tested.

In October 2001, a computer technician from our district connected the borrowed TANDBERG 500 videoconferencing unit to a TV monitor in my classroom. He also established a special Internet connection, which included taking down a firewall and making sure I had a static IP address. A time was selected for a test connection, and the distance learning instructor at the Bronx Zoo called into the NYIT gateway using an ISDN high-speed phone line. Back at Cape Elizabeth Middle School, I connected to the gateway at the same time using the Internet. What a moment: seeing and hearing the zoo instructor in my classroom and realizing she was more than 200 miles away. We had finally accomplished my goal of becoming the first school in Maine to make a connection to a content provider in another state.

Excited about the new venture, we invited then-governor Angus King to participate in one of our videoconferences with the Bronx Zoo in December 2001. This publicity, along with the enormous success of our numerous connections with the Bronx Zoo and its delivery of superb programs, helped me obtain grants from the Verizon Foundation, the Cape Elizabeth Education Foundation and our middle school parents' association. All tolled, the grants funded permanent equipment and professional development for a year, installation of high-speed ISDN phone lines in my classroom, and connection fees for four programs from other content providers.

New Goals

This past school year, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins met with Cape Elizabeth Middle School eighth-graders to discuss questions related to their U.S. government studies and to talk about current issues, including the war in Iraq. It was her first videoconference with students, and Collins felt it was such a valuable experience that she has requested to participate in another session this year.

I also worked with the school's French instructor to help students in my homeroom practice their French skills with a class in Slough, England. Both classes had similar proficiency in the language and enjoyed reviewing their skills. They especially liked chatting about the differences and similarities in their respective school systems and cultures. In addition, we have had several connections with other content providers such as The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee and the Mote Marine Laboratory's Aquarium in Florida. This school year we hope that all of our students in grades five through eight will have the chance to experience a videoconference.

Currently, we're shifting our focus to the benefits of interactive communication in our educational programs. We know videoconferencing can be used for a variety of purposes, including formal instruction, access to speakers and experts in many fields, school projects, community events, and professional development opportunities. These are our new goals. What's more, thanks to NYIT, Verizon and the Bronx Zoo, Cape Elizabeth Middle School is becoming a model for distance learning in the entire state of Maine.

Online Resources

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.

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