Collaboration | Feature

Videoconferencing Connects Missouri Students with Peers Around The Globe

New Links to New Learning, a program of the Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis, demonstrates that videoconferencing is, above all, a relationship-building too.

A scuba diver in Australia's Coral Reef, children at a refugee camp in Darfur, and HIV-positive teens in Rwanda are just some of those who play a part in teaching Missouri's students. Videoconferencing, in wide use in the state of Missouri, brings unique, interactive experiences into district classrooms that participate in New Links to New Learning, one of the state's oldest educational programs.

New Links to New Learning is a program of the Cooperating School Districts (CSD) of Greater St. Louis, an 80-year-old nonprofit educational agency serving 65 school districts, 25,000 teachers, and 330,000 students, or one-third of the state's total public school student population. The CSD's videoconferencing capabilities date back to 1998, when a grant was divided among 28 school districts to buy and install videoconferencing equipment.

Ruth Litman-Block, who is now a technology integration coach, was director of the Virtual Learning Center at CSD for 12 years. She was responsible for coordinating that first grant.

"The most exciting part of the project was connecting rural students and students in high poverty areas to cultural institutions and experts in curriculum areas," said Litman-Block. "I felt that the videoconferencing tool helped to even the playing field for the haves and have-nots, particularly in the field of ACT review, global perspectives, talks with authors, and dialogs on racial issues in our state."

She said the earliest videoconferencing activities involved author visits, zoos, art museums--all focused on curriculum enrichment. "But we quickly learned the value of creating connections." she said. "Videoconferencing is, most significantly, a relationship tool."

Encouraging Adoption
In the late 1990s, videoconferencing was still relatively rare in K-12 school districts. Guiding teachers to try this daunting new technology was a challenge. Litman-Block said a team approach eased the way. Teams composed of an administrator, a risk taker teacher, and a tech director, each with defined roles, provided a clear, systematic path to adoption. "Once people experienced the technology, they loved it, and the usage spread like wildfire in a building."

Martha Bogart is the VLC instructional technology and distance learning coordinator. She said none of the schools had prior experience at the time. "Once teachers in a building began using it and students started talking about their experiences," said Bogart, "other teachers were willing to give it a try, especially once they knew we were here to walk them through it and support them before, during, and after the videoconference."

Another key to adoption was finding content the teachers thought was worthwhile. Litman-Block said teachers were more receptive when the experts coming into their classes were enhancing topics within pre-existing units of study. Of particular note was the value added to programs with which a typical elementary teacher may be less secure, such as science. Litman-Block scoured the country for cultural institutions like zoos, museums, and government agencies that had adopted this new technology and were in the process of setting up videoconference programs for K-12 students.

Students connect with author Patricia McKissack after reading her work.

Bogart said one of the first programs offered by the CSD was an author visit. Author and St. Louis resident Patricia McKissack had done many school visits all over the country. She was looking to cut back on her travel time, so she was thrilled to find out that she could "visit" with students virtually via videoconferencing. As she was local, it was easy for her to receive an introduction and training from the CSD. Today, McKissack conducts an annual three-session course.

Evolution of the Technology
The first installations consisted of 28 videoconferencing units transmitting over ISDN line connections. "Now, there are hundreds of systems spread out all over our member districts," said Bogart. She said many of them use portable codecs, and there could be hundreds or even thousands of desktop videoconferencing systems in use. "I think the goal would be to have some type of videoconferencing available in every classroom," she said.

One challenge along the way was switching to IP. "It was difficult to persuade IT directors at the schools to either go around the firewall or poke a hole in it so that the videoconference could take place," said Bogart. "There were many meetings, lots of reassurance, and also the case of cost effectiveness for IP rather than ISDN videoconference calls."

Another test of the system was, and is, scheduling. As many who oversee videoconferencing across districts have experienced, scheduling is one of the toughest challenges there is when trying to take full advantage of videoconferencing in K-12 schools.

"We encountered that right away," said Bogart. "We had to match the schedules of each school involved with the schedule of the content provider, which was not always easy. In addition, if you were going to connect globally, there was the time difference problem."

CSD worked with administrators to adjust class schedules, particularly in middle and high schools where the bell schedules never matched.

"Having students come to school early and/or leave late solved global time difference problems," she said. "In some instances, parents brought their children back to the school in the early evening for a program, such as happened with a videoconference with Australia. Changing the way something is done is difficult, but we did make it happen."

Successful Encounters
The Australia conference is one of New Links to New Learning Program Coordinator Rebecca Morrison's favorite sessions of all. "Kids connected from suburban St. Louis on a Thursday evening to Australia--it was Friday morning there," said Morrison. "They connected to two groups: first, two men who were in a studio from Reef HQ Aquarium (Australia), then to a woman scuba diving underwater. Underwater, on a different day, on the other side of the world! One of my teachers describes videoconferencing as time travel!"

Morrison said another memorable videoconference was with Jenny Sue Kostecki- Shaw, author of My Travelin' Eye.

"My Travelin' Eye is about her experiences growing up with a lazy eye," said Morrison. "One of the little boys who was participating spoke up during the question and answer session and proudly proclaimed that he, too, had a travelin' eye. He clearly felt very special to have such a connection with an artist/author like Jenny."

Bogart added that she has several favorite sessions as well. "One program that I will never forget was when a middle school classroom from St. Louis connected with a refugee camp in Darfur," she said. The program was arranged by Global Nomads Group and the communications were handled through an interpreter. "Students here had an opportunity to talk with children around their same age who were living out on the hot desert in Darfur. They got to ask questions and see first-hand what it was like and the utter boredom of each day in the camp. Our students here in the states were dumbstruck. Many of them were speechless.

"I think this type of videoconference brought home to them in a very real way how other children were forced to live in another part of our planet." Bogart said after the event, St. Louis students set up a service project on their own to raise money to send to the Red Cross for the Darfur refugees. "The story was amazing. "

Two other conferences that stood out for Bogart were conferences with Rwanda and Israel. "One of our high schools videoconferenced with children in Rwanda," she said. "They heard stories of the genocide that had taken place there, as teenagers and young adults recounted how most of their families had been massacred. Many of the Rwandan teenagers were HIV positive, and they told our students their stories about this. Students who were gang members here sat with their mouths hanging open as story after story emerged.

"I think that this videoconference will be forever etched on their memories, as no textbook chapter on Rwanda will ever be."

The videoconference with Israel took place between high school students from a lower socio-economic area of St. Louis with students in a high school in Jerusalem.

"The discussion centered on what constitutes a civic identity," said Bogart. "Our students were interested to find out that in Israel, all 18-year-olds are inducted into the army. They got to hear stories about terrorist activities in Israel and were able to tell their own stories about what happened to them on 9/11. Great conversations ensued."

Bogart said that after the videoconference, some students kept in touch with each other over e-mail. She recalled that upon hearing of a bombing in Israel, students rushed to find out if their videoconference friends had been impacted.

Nancy George, director of the Virtual Learning Center and METC program manager, said other memorable connections have included race relations discussions among districts and a videoconferencing session with the Missouri History Museum, when students learned about the Egyptian mummification process and saw an actual mummy of a small child. The talk with the Israeli students stood out for her as well.

"Part of the conversation [with the Israeli children] focused on what it was like to live with the threat of suicide bombings all the time," said George. "The Israeli students shared their fears. But, what jolted me was when one of the St. Louis city students said they understood because they live with shootings and death and similar fear too. That was powerful."

New Links to New Learning's success was recognized in 2009 when it was chosen as a Laureate by the Computerworld Honors Program. The Computerworld Honors Program recognizes organizations (and individuals) that use information technology to benefit to the benefit of others.

The Systems Now and Future
Project Coordinator Rebecca Morrison said a recent change to their systems setup included upgrading one room, used for professional development, to high definition, which now produces a nice, clear picture. Other plans include extending the content availability across the entire state, and CSD plans to focus more on distance learning than just videoconferencing by seeing how the H.323 videoconferencing may be incorporated with other tools, such as Moodle or Skype.

"I would like to see our schools do even more collaborative projects with other students around the world," she said.

Bogart agreed: "We feel that videoconferencing is a great tool that can be used to build relationships with others. It is the next best thing to being face-to-face and can be used very effectively in classrooms to engage, motivate, and transform student learning. Ultimately, the only thing that will contribute to world peace is a true understanding of, and connection to, others. Through videoconferencing, we can achieve this in a way that was not possible before we had this type of technology tool."