Staying Connected Is a ‘Breeze’
An ed-tech specialist explains how a versatile Web conferencing tool is helping hissprawling district remove the distance between teachers, administrators, and staff.
THE SCHOOL DISTRICT OF PALM BEACH COUNTY (FL) places a heavy emphasis on ensuring that all its staff and faculty—from principals and teachers to coaches and media specialists—are able to collaborate on a regular basis. But with a district numbering about 12,000 teachers and 650 administrators, who serve 170,000 students across 162 schools spread over an area about the size of Rhode Island, getting everyone to meet seems nearly impossible,not to mention costly.
At least it used to. That’s all changed since Kim Cavanaugh, education technology specialist for the district, rolled out the Macromedia Breeze Web communications system from Adobe Systems, allowing Palm Beach County educators to meet more often without having to leave their schools.
The technology enables schools and districts to deliver online communications and training to anyone who has access to a computer loaded with the Macromedia Flash Player. Specifically, the district uses Breeze Meeting, installed on a Dell dual-processor server in the district’s data center, for online meetings and training. The district also has multiple copies of Breeze Presenter installed on classroom computers so teachers can use their accounts to publish student presentations onto the district server.
POINT MAN: Palm Beach County’s
Kim Cavanaugh brings the district staff together.
Palm Beach County is in its first year of implementing the Breeze solutions—conducting training with district staff, school administrators, and teachers, and raising awareness of what the software can do. The district has also created Palm Breeze Café, a weekly Webcast in which members of the district’s ed-tech team discuss with teachers the different uses of common technology tools, such as blogs and Google. At many Palm Beach schools, media specialists have even set up projectors to enhance after-school training sessions.
Since launching the Web conferencing solution, the district has continued to find new uses for the Breeze technology. For instance, a Palm Beach elementary school class recently used Breeze to receive a lesson on the solar eclipse from its teacher, who was in Turkey viewing the eclipse. Other international collaborations include an upcoming project in environmental studies in which schools in the district will collaborate with schools in Costa Rica to examine environmental problems and concerns the two areas share.
Ultimately, Cavanaugh would like to see teachers using Breeze to host their own meetings and to create presentations for parents. But for now, he’s pleased to share with fellow educators and tech coordinators how his district has used the technology thus far with such success.
What is Palm Beach’s technology budget? As you’d expect in a district as large as ours, our technology budget is considerable. Certainly, we spend more than $3 million on hardware every year, but with our support and training budgets, that figure is much higher.
What were your biggest challenges before implementing Breeze? Time and distance— the time it takes for teachers to meet together to share and learn from each other—and distance, since it can be very difficult in a district as large as ours simply to get everyone together. District trainers must either travel to different schools to conduct training, or teachers and administrators have to take time away from their school to attend training. Having an online training service allows us to meet more frequently and more efficiently.
Why did your district embrace the Web conferencing solution? We had a number of things in mind. We wanted teachers to be able to collaborate more frequently and easily. We wanted to foster a sense of community so that teachers would know that they face the same challenges in their classrooms as other teachers in the district.
Teaching can be a lonely profession at times, and we wanted to use Web conferencing technologies to help alleviate this sense that the teacher is alone. We also see rising costs for travel as a major issue. In a district that is geographically dispersed as ours is, there is increasing pressure to reduce travel expenses. Thus, having online meetings and conferences that require no travel was a major consideration.
How are you using the technology? Currently we use Breeze primarily for staff development. In the future, we hope to use the technology for student presentations that will be published online, for teachers to do exam and classroom reviews with students after school, and for the district to provide parents with online training on topics such as Internet safety. Those are our goals for our second year of implementation.
What results have you seen? We think the results have been excellent. We see many different uses for online meetings developing as we train our staff and roll out accounts. For instance, we have members of our construction services department meeting with architects and builders to discuss school construction projects.
How has the system been accepted by the community? We still have a ways to go before we see a complete saturation in our use of Breeze, but that’s about what we expect at this point. We haven’t really noticed any reluctance, but it does take a little training on the part of those who will present before they feel comfortable.
What problems have you had with it? We haven’t been entirely satisfied with the voice features [VoIP] of Breeze, but we have been able to overcome some of those challenges through training. But since one of the nice things about Breeze is the low impact it has on our district network and the bandwidth going to our schools, those things are worth working through.
How do you maintain the system? We have one person responsible for creating user accounts who also handles training of staff. The server itself is maintained by our network support staff.
What sort of training do you provide staff and faculty? We conduct a threehour training session on Breeze that focuses on how to maintain accounts and create meetings, and that provides an overview of the Breeze Meeting interface. We also include about 45 minutes on Breeze Presenter as part of that three-hour block, so the total training time needed is fairly minimal.
Did you consider any other similar products before choosing Breeze? We looked at similar products but found Breeze to be an attractive choice for a number of reasons:
Cost. We purchased a license that allows for many meetings rather than having to pay per-user fees, which would have made it prohibitive to do this kind of training on a large scale.
Ownership. We prefer to own the software and not have to be concerned about subscription fees.
Low bandwidth. We find that Breeze meetings have very little impact on our district network and do not significantly add to network traffic.
Flash Player. Since Breeze uses the Flash Player, and all of our district computers have the Flash Player installed, it’s much easier to use the software. We don’t have to worry about viewers having the correct plug-in installed or the right operating system or browser. Flash works in almost all environments, so it’s nice not to have to worry about installing other software or requiring viewers to.
Why would you encourage other districts to implement a similar Webcasting solution? I’m not sure that it’s for everyone, but it certainly allows district trainers and teachers to quickly develop and publish online content, as well as meet with each other in an environment that is efficient and cost-effective.
Matt Miller is eNewsletter editor for T.H.E. Journal and PR editor for Chapman University (CA).
This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.