The Iowa Communications Network, established in the 1990s, is providing hundreds of classrooms in the state with two-way and one-way video communications, affording public and private schools the opportunity to expand learning opportunities for students.
When it comes to connecting schools over networks, Iowa's initiative was one of the earliest and most comprehensive. In the early 1980s, Iowa community colleges claimed to be first to experiment with educational networks for distance learning. Several community colleges planned and installed separate microwave-based telecommunications networks. Things truly took off in mid-1989, though, when a state bill was passed and signed providing for the construction of a shared, statewide telecommunications network.
Construction on Parts I and II of the Network began in late 1990. This consisted of installing one fiber optic endpoint in each of the 99 counties, an endpoint at each of the three state universities, another at Iowa Public Television, and one on the state capitol complex, for a total of 104 endpoints.
Bringing Schools Online
Iowa Communications Network (ICN) was established in 1994, and expansion continued the next year the governor signed a plan for Part III, which added full-motion video delivery for public and private school districts.
By 1997, the 500th full-motion video classroom was connected to the ICN, followed by the 600th classroom the very next year. Currently, there are more than 700 MPEG-2 ICN video classrooms.
ICN's mission is continued enhancement of distance learning and providing Iowans with convenient, equal access to education and government. Through partnerships with education, medicine, the judicial system, government agencies, and the National Guard, the network brings live, full-motion video to those 700 classrooms, located in schools, National Guard armories, libraries, hospitals, and federal and state government offices. ICN services include full-motion video, video over IP, voice, data, WAN connections, and high-speed Internet. In addition, ICN offers a managed IP Video service, bringing the convenience of videoconferencing to your desktop or laptop.
Videoconferencing in a Single-Campus School District
One of the school districts benefitting from ICN is the Woodbury Central Community School District. Located in northwest Iowa, this K-12 district serves the communities of Moville, Climbing Hill, and the surrounding rural areas. One thing that sets the district apart is that the 600 elementary, middle, and high school students all attend classes in the same building.
Technology Coordinator Doug Kizzier said that because of the state mandate in the mid 1990s, videoconferencing is nothing new to his school.
"We have had videoconferencing for so long, the teachers take it for granted that it will be there for them," he said. "Elementary students get a real thrill out of talking with someone a hundred miles away. High school students are less enthused."
Over the years, Woodbury's videoconferencing system was used for expanding the high school curriculum at Woodbury Central High School without having to add staff. They used it to connect elementary and middle school students with subject matter experts at universities. They also connected third and fourth grade students with German students, who read in German to the Woodbury students then listened as the Woodbury students read the same text back to them in English. They conducted virtual field trips, professional development, and instruction. Videoconferencing provided students with the method for earning credits toward post-secondary degrees
"Probably one of our biggest successes was when we connected with an ethno-musicologist at the University of Cincinnati, who talked about Peruvian music with a group of fourth graders," said Kizzier.
Because all K-12 students are in the same building, it is easier than in most schools to share resources. "We have one videoconferencing room," said Kizzier "but we can push the audio and video feeds to other classrooms in the building. The other rooms are view-only and don't have interactive capabilities. Our room connects via a fiber network to the rest of the state."
Because Woodbury has such a long history with the technology, they have experienced the downsides as well as the benefits. Some videoconferencing activities were even cancelled.
"At one time, we had two dual credit classes (both high school and college credit) per day through the classroom, Kizzier said. He said the classroom is now used for one-of-a-kind sessions, such as connecting to the University of Iowa for a workshop with jazz musicians or distance learning activities for our faculty and staff. "We are not currently sharing any courses through VC. Some of the courses just aren't offered any more. Some didn't have enough students interested in taking them."
Or sometimes, the opposite response caused problems too. "The instructor for our two courses, Intro to Health Occupations and Medical Terminology, actually got burnt out on VC courses," he explained. "We reached a point where he had almost 40 students at 10 different schools. That was too heavy of a load considering all the prep that goes into a distance learning class. You have to send tests out ahead of time, get proctors for the remote classrooms, have them send or fax the exams back, then correct and grade them all. It just wasn't logistically feasible."
To those schools planning to incorporate videoconferencing into their curricula, Kizzier warned to keep expectations in check. "Don't expect the room/setup to be used all the time," he said. "It is great for educational enhancement, but don't rely on it as the sole means of curriculum transmission. There is a lot to be said for face to face interaction."
Kizzier said the school district has no current plans for expanding the videoconferencing system. "But the state is working on moving our state-wide network from dedicated rooms for classes to delivering the content directly to the desktop. This would make all of our computer labs virtual video conference sites."
Denise Harrison is a freelance writer and editor specializing in technology, specifically in audiovisual and presentation. She also works as a consultant for Second Life projects and is involved with nonprofits and education within the 3D realm. She can be reached here.