Technology Turns Students into Educators in Distance Learning Program

High school students in a rural Texas district have started using videoconferencing to learn and teach as they reach out to the rest of the country using technology-based resources they've created themselves.

Stamford High School, located in rural Stamford, TX, may be small in size (averaging 50 students per grade), but it's big on technology. Using tools like videoconferencing, the students are able to experience the United States far beyond the confines of the cotton-growing region in which they reside. But the experience isn't merely one way; at Stamford HS, the students also find themselves in the role of teacher as they bring their own part of the world and their own unique knowledge to others.

A 2-Way Learning Experience
Through videoconferencing, Stamford HS students have been given the chance to peer into places they might not otherwise have access to.

"It's really good for our kids to experience the virtual field trips simply because that is where we're headed, that's where education is headed, and that's where the world is headed," said Brad Lewis, superintendent of schools.

"We like other students outside our area to share with us that the subway is not a sandwich, it is mass transit," said Tommy Bearden, distance learning consultant. "We want them to show us the Mississippi River; we want them to show us the Great Lakes, the ocean, and the snow--all those things that we don't experience."

But the Stamford HS students not only learn from others; they teach classes via videoconferencing too. In fact, every videoconference class at Stamford HS was selected and designed by the students themselves.

Cotton 101: Technology and Resources
One program of their design allows them to share their unique knowledge of cotton with students in other parts of the country who have never seen it in any form other than manufactured products. Stamford student Scott Bearden said offering a class on cotton was logical, since the crop drives the town's economy and therefore plays a major role in the local culture. The students grew up with cotton all around them, so it is a subject they know well. They offer their virtual field trip, "Cotton--Plant of Many Uses," to students in grades 3, 4, and 5 anywhere in the country. Stamford HS students researched the material and aligned the content with national education standards in history, geography, and science.

The Stamford HS students offer a wide variety of activities that can be included in the videoconference session, so remote teachers can opt for as much or as little of the presentation as they wish. The students also created a teacher resource page for the remote teacher to use in advance of the live presentation. This allows the teacher to prepare his or her elementary students ahead of the conference with some general information about cotton, as well as information about the people who will be behind the camera at Stamford.

One such videoconference was with an elementary school from outside Philadelphia. The Stamford High students began the project by walking to the cotton field across the road from the school and picking enough cotton to share with the third grade class. They mailed the cotton, along with other class preparations, such as a map, to the distant school, and on the day of the videoconference, each of the young pupils had in their hands cotton of their own and maps they colored for the demonstration.

During the presentation, a team of Stamford students stood behind a work table with notes in front of them. A touchpad control system is also on the table, allowing the presenters to control what was shown on the projection screen at the remote site, with touch keys that switch sources for projecting PowerPoint presentations, items from a document camera, videos, and more. (In these sessions, the Stamford students control all portions of the videoconference themselves.)

Twenty or so third graders in the remote classroom sat in rows with the chairs close together so that all could be seen on the projection screen at Stamford. The tour began with an introduction of the Stamford students and a brief description of where they are located.

"Does anyone know where cotton comes from?" asked one of a team of Stamford students leading the virtual field trip. One of the third graders holding up his hand was called on by the Stamford presenter. The boy then stood and explained that it comes from a plant. Another presenter asked whether anyone knew where the term “gin” originated (as in cotton gin). Another young student stood and stated that "gin" it is short for engine. The lesson played out much as it would have if they had all been in the same classroom.

During another part of the presentation, a video, shot by the Stamford students, showed what it is like to be in a real cotton field. The elementary children could see how cotton actually grows, and they discussed how it is stripped off the stalks. They also learned of the science of the crop by identifying and arranging in order the various stages of the life cycle of a cotton plant.

In another part of the session, they learned the history of cotton and the cotton gin and discussed the gin's impact on the country. They discuss the Civil War, too, identifying states that seceded from the Union and the importance of cotton to the Confederate States during the war. The various lessons were enriched with images from the document camera that illustrate the various facts discussed.

At one point, the document camera projected an enlarged image of a freshly picked cotton stalk. The Stamford students helped the remote students learn the different parts of the plant. They also had the remote students use the cotton in their hands to try to extract the seeds by hand so they could learn how difficult that is. Another video, featuring the local gin manager, gave the young students a tour of the plant where the cotton gins operate, allowing them to view the gins in action.

The videoconference concluded with a discussion of cotton products and by-products, using the document camera for illustrations, with leftover time spent in a question and answer session.

Teachers and students said that even in the short amount of time of a videoconference, a bond forms between the older and the younger students. Aaron Acosta, a student at Stamford, agreed. "A lot of them think we're just a bunch of cowboys who ride horses to school and wear cowboy hats every day,' he said, "but they get to learn we're just like them."

About the Author

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.