Creating a Global Classroom

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A NASA videoconferencing program knocks down traditional educational boundaries, drawing together teachers, students, and field experts in a single virtual setting for the benefit of all.

THEY MAY NOT HAVE known it, but in January 2004, when students from Oxon Hill Middle School in Oxon Hill, MD, met face-to-face with students at Princess Anne Middle School, in Virginia Beach, VA, without either group ever stepping outside of their own classroom door, new ground wascrossed in the continuing passage into 21st century education.

The meeting was conducted via NASA LIVE (Learning through Interactive Videoconferencing Experiences; http://live.larc.nasa.gov), a free series of videoconferencing programs produced by NASA’s Langley Center for Distance Learning in Hampton, VA (http://dlcenter.larc.nasa.gov). NASA LIVE is designed for K-12 educators and students, allowing teachers and students to interact with NASA experts in a virtual setting as they engage in a variety of topics and hands-on activities connecting science-, technology-, engineering-, and mathematics (STEM)- related content to NASA research and careers.

The two sets of middle school students were participating in the first joint NASA Connect/NASA LIVE event, “The Nutrition and Exercise Challenge.” [Ed. note: The “Challenge” was a collaborative project led by program moderators Chris Giersch, NASA Connect program manager, and Katrina Townes-Young, NASA LIVE program manager.] Accepting the challenge presented by the NASA Connect program, titled “Better Health From Space to Earth,” students worked in groups to develop daily meal and exercise plans for individuals with special needs.

NASA LIVE offers 30- to 60-minute videoconferences among its researchers and students throughout North America and beyond. Each videoconference incorporates a variety of multimedia and hands-on activities that enrich classroom instruction. Teachers and students participating in a NASA LIVE event have the opportunity to establish real-world connections with experts in STEM areas as they interact with and learn from the researchers who play an important role in aeronautics and space exploration (such as the Return to Flight, the Mars Exploration Rovers, Hyper X-43A, geospatial technologies, and weather and satellite tracking). Past participants connecting to NASA experts have represented various geographical areas including Hong Kong, London, New Mexico, New York, New Zealand, Norway, Puerto Rico, Texas, and a host of other locations.

Extending the Classroom
The NASA LIVE program points up the capability of videoconferencing to carry student learning beyond traditional, desk-bound methods. For centuries, teachers and students knew their places in the classroom: teacher at the fore, students at their desks, facing forward. Lecturing was all anyone knew, or was capable of, since the instructor was theonly one with a copy of the book in use.

The globalization of learning has changed education methods and resources. Today, educators are neither tied to the four walls of the traditional classroom nor to the language of a single book. And with the advent of videoconferencing,they’re no longer even tied to one group of students.

Videoconferencing is a telecommunications medium allowing individuals or groups of people at different locations to transfer video and audio in a real-time or face-to-face setting. Originally used by the military to encourage interaction among soldiers abroad, and by corporations to facilitate communications between personnel and business clients, it is now finding a home in today’s global classrooms. By traveling beyond the physical classroom, K-12 educators are beginning to recognize how videoconferencingbecomes an extension of the classroom.

In the past, distance learning with two-way video and audio was inaccessible for many professional and academic organizations. Videoconferencing allows educators and students at all grade levels to introduce and reinforce subject matter with real-world experts from various educational and professional organizations and institutions, as well as withpeers from around the world.

Advantages of Videoconferencing
An ideal tool for the digital generation, videoconferencing is in step with education’s shift away from short, isolated, teacher-centered lessons to a student-focused, interactive experience. Sometimes called electronic field trips, videoconferences (such as the ones held via NASA LIVE) take students on virtual tours through research centers, zoos, and historical and cultural sites, bringing them face-to-face with experts and other students with whom they would otherwise never have direct contact because of the substantial transportation andadministrative costs involved in bringing the groups together.

There’s almost no end to the benefits of this technology:

  • Videoconferences enable educators in different locations to share information, resources, and any costs involved without traveling long distances. And students in various locations can participate in classroom activities without being physically present.
  • Videoconferencing provides access to a vast array of information and resources to better meet students’ individual needs, while encouraging high levels of interaction.
  • Face-to-face interaction increases student motivation and participation and facilitates the students’ grasp of difficult or abstract concepts.
  • Positive relationships between educators, students, and community members are cultivated through effective utilization of local and distant real-world experts (presenters), who, because of long distances, difficult travel conditions, or busy schedules, are unable to visit schools or classrooms as guest speakers. As a result, schools operate more efficiently due to reduced administrative expenses.
  • Conversation and body language enhance communication when educators and students see and hear remote learners in real time.
  • Educators can meet and match the educational needs and abilities of their students.
  • Various learning styles are considered when emphasis is placed upon long-term, interdisciplinary, student-centered activities integrated with real-world issues and practices (US Department of Education, E-Learning: Putting a World-Class Education at the Fingertips of all Children, 2000). These styles are addressed by a variety of educational materials available through videoconferencing. Animations, audio, graphics, and video clips enhance the visual learner’s learning experience; audio communications appeal to the verbal or linguistic learner; and kinesthetic learners benefit from audio and video communications. Meanwhile, hands-on activities like “Building an Edible Comet” demonstrated via NASA LIVE appeal to all students, including special-needs students.
  • Academic and social skills are improved. Through group collaboration and interaction, students develop their communication and management skills. As students prepare, present, edit, and provide feedback on projects, their presentation and speaking skills improve.
  • Interviews with field experts, as in “The Nutrition and Exercise Challenge,” provide students with opportunities to sharpen their listening and note-taking abilities.
  • Opportunities to learn about cultural differences emerge as students work together with other students and adults throughout the world, promoting cultural diversity and tolerance.
  • Synchronous video communications and teaching strategies such as question-and-answer sessions or project-based learning encourage high levels of interaction.

In effect, the magic of videoconferencing is that it removes so many substantial obstacles to learning, including cost, time, space, distance, physical disabilities, as well as personal and professional responsibilities. And having removed those barriers, videoconferencing links students with experts in a previously inaccessible field as they learn from a primary source rather than a textbook, as well as gain access to resources and information that they would otherwise be shut off from.

Teacher Benefits
Imagine that a particular school district requires all of its science educators to attend a one-hour staff development workshop on tracking weather. Scheduling conflicts make it difficult for all the teachers to attend the session. The district’s solution is to set up a videoconference, or a series of videoconferences, on the given topic, allowing all teachers to attend.

As in that example, a great benefit of videoconferencing is that it ultimately negates time conflicts or location difficulties that would create scheduling impasses. Educators also have the flexibility to participate in staff development activities without leaving their home schools.

Thus, videoconferencing can alleviate the difficulties associated with staff development programs by providing unlimited, inspiring opportunities for professional activities. It enables teachers to share teaching strategies, lesson plans, and assessment methods with their colleagues nationally and internationally. The face-to-face communication encourages the exchange of ideas and suggestions concerning which lessons or projects work best, in or out of the classroom. Finding that other teachers are experiencing similar difficulties with a particular subject area can restore lost confidence, as well as foster collaboration. Face-to-face discussions in real time allow educators to resolve problems and discover new ways to teach material in order to better prepare students for success in the workplace.

A Lasting Impact
As a tangible matter, linked through NASA LIVE, the students at Oxon Hill and Princess Anne middle schools were provided with real-world examples of the nature of research and the range of knowledge within NASA’s Office of Biological and Physical Research. But they came away with considerably more than that. Document sharing, exchanging ideas, problem solving, and decision-making between the students demanded a high degree of collaboration, resulting in increased student participation and higher retention of material, and a greater understanding of cultural differences. Upon completion, the students presented their plans to the presentation evaluators, Scott Smith and Don Hagan, researchers with NASA’s Office of Bioastronautics at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX.

Using videoconferencing resources like NASA LIVE provide educators, students, and parents with the opportunity to connect classroom content to related research and careers. In turn, professional experts help validate understanding, provide instantaneous feedback, and introduce practical examples, greatly improving student motivation as students become active participants. The rewards experienced by educators who embrace and employ videoconferencing are well worth the time spent becoming familiar with a form of technology that is becoming the norm, rather than the exception. Educators must pass this knowledge on if they are to prepare the first and subsequent digital generations for successful roles in society.

Katrina Townes-Young is the NASA LIVE program manager. Virginia R. Ewing is a NASA educator with the NASA Center for Distance Learning at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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