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Virtual Education | Spotlight

Rural Grant Propels Distance Learning for K-12 Schools

Fourteen school districts with 19 total campuses in Texas will soon be able to share information and connect with one another electronically, thanks to a $491,250 Rural Development grant. Awarded to Education Service Center (ESC) Region 12 in Waco, TX, the grant will used to purchase videoconferencing equipment and the related components that, once rolled out, will be used by 6,200 students and their teachers.

Kerri Coan, the ESC's video network operator, said the organization applied for the grant to help pay for the outdated equipment being used at some of the district schools. "A lot of them just weren't able to get the content that we were trying to push out to them," said Coan. "They just didn't have the capabilities to receive the information electronically."

The schools needed updated videoconferencing equipment and displays, as well as interactive whiteboards and other classroom technologies. The small size of many of those schools also presented a challenge, as did the geographic distances between them. "Some of our schools are very, very small and don't get a lot of funding to hire new teachers," said Coan.

To help fill that gap, the ESC administers student project and student development content that requires in-school videoconferencing capabilities. "Students basically take an hour or two out of their days to participate in these conferences," said Coan, "rather than having to drive to a service center to get the instruction."

The ESC also orchestrates dual-enrollment programs with several community colleges in Texas--a system that also relies heavily on distance education. "In order for the colleges to conduct those courses via video or using PowerPoint presentations and for students to earn their credits," said Coan, "the equipment must be up to date and able to receive the feeds."

That's not always the case at the ESC's districts, some of which are more up to date than others in terms of technology.

"Some of the equipment is five or six years old," Coan said, "and not even able to handle high definition or H.239 video capabilities, which allow students to see their teachers while the shows or PowerPoint presentations are running."

Currently awaiting final approval for the grant, the ESC is shopping around for equipment, a portion of which will be financed by matching funds from the respective districts. Sharon Henson, associate executive director, said mobile videoconferencing carts equipped with flat panel television monitors are at the top of the list for every district.

"Teachers will be able to move the carts around, and students will be able to see what's going on via the 42- to 45-inch monitors," said Henson. Also on the shopping list is a high-definition (HD) bridge that will be installed at the ESC's Waco headquarters and that will allow Henson and her team to conduct HD calls with all 14 districts.

In addition to the videoconferencing equipment, classrooms will be equipped with whiteboards; multi-user, multi-tablet interactive whiteboard systems; DVD players; laptop computers; and document cameras. Henson said these additional pieces of equipment will help the ESC create the "21st century classrooms" that the USDA grant centered on.

"We were thinking along those lines when we wrote the grant, knowing that this was a great opportunity to get our schools equipped with the latest educational tools," said Henson, whose team clearly spelled out in the grant those challenges that its rural districts' were facing in getting connected. She said Texas' sweeping educational budget cuts have made it difficult for most districts to advance technologically, thus enhancing the value of this particular grant for the ESC's schools.

"If we didn't have this grant, we'd be cutting back instead of spending on technology," said Henson. "Instead, we're able to give students the tools they need to not only see outside of their individual communities, but also to view the entire world."

For example, Coan said the ESC gets involved with a number of projects with schools located outside of the United States, in countries like Canada, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic. When the new equipment is in place, those interactions will be even easier to set up and orchestrate.

The ESC expects the grant to be distributed in the next month or two. Once that happens, "the equipment will be ordered and given out to the districts," said Henson. "Hopefully that will all happen by the fall of this year."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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