Distance Learning | Q&A

Digital Media Closes the Distance for Florida Schools

A geographically dispersed Florida school district uses online video to reach its more than 170 campuses with training and educational resources for students, teachers, and the community.

Operating in one of the geographically largest counties in the eastern United States, Kim Cavanaugh has his hands full when it comes to dispersing information across Palm Beach County School District's 170-plus campuses. "Our coverage area is about half the size of Rhode Island," said Cavanaugh, the district's technology program specialist. "From my office to our farthest school is an 80-mile round trip."

The distance makes face-to-face meetings with teachers--and instructional activities with students--a challenge for Cavanaugh and his team. Here, he discusses those challenges and explains how the district uses its "Palm Breeze Cafe," to help fill those geographic gaps:

Bridget McCrea: When and why did you launch Palm Breeze Cafe?

Kim Cavanaugh: Four years ago we realized that having a robust videoconferencing system would be an effective way to connect our [more than 170] schools and that it would cut down significantly on the amount of time spent shuttling from campus to campus to conduct training, inform teachers about technology and work with students. Being able to broadcast and connect in a "live" environment was a very compelling proposition that spun out from our use of videoconferencing.

McCrea: What is Palm Breeze Cafe?

Cavanaugh: It started as a live, online show that we did every Wednesday afternoon. During the show, we would demonstrate best practices in the use of technology. It has since morphed into an hour-long broadcast show that is shot once a week in a TV studio and broadcast through our local cable channel and into our classrooms. We also upload the episodes to YouTube and to our own site for anyone to access on his or her own schedule. We've had over 660,000 page views over the last four years, and it has become one of our region's most popular educational TV shows.

McCrea: Whom were you targeting, initially?

Cavanaugh: Really, it was for anyone who wanted to use technology for learning. Originally we felt that teachers and students would be the biggest users of Palm Breeze Cafe, but we wound up getting a lot of feedback from parents. Almost immediately we also started hearing from community members, telling us how much they appreciated the access to the free content that we were producing for our teachers and students. Parents wanted to be able to help their children by learning more about technology themselves. The audience has turned out to be a lot larger than we initially thought.

McCrea: What type of content are you broadcasting?

Cavanaugh: We touch on anything that is related to technology, and that would be helpful for our teachers, students and parents to learn. Because our audience is pretty big, our scope is also large and covers a wide range of topics. One week we might look at how to effectively use Google Earth, and another show might cover how to make a great music mix on CD using iTunes. Other topics we've covered include iPhoto versus Photoshop Elements; using Twitter tools like TinyPaste; making presentations with Prezi; and how to tap into teacher social network tools like Edmodo.

McCrea: What technology are you using?

Cavanaugh: The original live show relied on Adobe Connect (or Macromedia Breeze at the time), and our videoconferencing equipment to broadcast the show across all of our campuses. Our current version of Adobe Connect Professional is a server-based setup that's hosted internally. The studio and video segments--which are broadcast on regular cable channels and distributed district-wide--start out as broadcast-quality video that's run through a convergence process to get it ready for publishing online. The shows are produced in Flash, which most people already have on their computers, so the technology hurdles have been low. We broadcast online via YouTube, and we also upload them to the Palm Breeze Cafe Web site.

McCrea: What are the hard parts of running this initiative?

Cavanaugh: Figuring out a time during the school day when the greatest number of people will be available to watch a live show. And while our early numbers were pretty good when working on the once-a-week schedule, we didn't think the show was as effective as we wanted it to be. That's when we switched over to an on-demand model that allowed users to access the segments whenever they wanted to. Then another challenge reared its head:  how to market the on-demand shows so that people knew they were out there. We're still working on that one.

McCrea: Does the district have any new distance/videoconferencing initiatives planned?

Cavanaugh: Really, with all of the budgets cuts we've been dealing with, we're kind of in limbo right now. When school starts up again in August we'll be back to broadcasting weekly via Palm Breeze Cafe. (The crew takes the summer off.) Otherwise, we're just trying to remain hopeful that we'll be able to continue providing great services that are directed not only at our teachers and students, but also to the citizens of Palm Beach County.

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].