Distance Learning | Feature

Skype Learning Lab Puts Global Perspective on U.S. History

A private school in Miami uses is using free technology to bridge geographical gaps between faculty and students.

Terrorist attacks and violent protests take place regularly in Jerusalem these days, yet Americans generally only hear about the events on TV or the Internet. Rarely do they experience them firsthand. Thanks to a Web-based videoconferencing setup for a distance learning class, a group of Advanced Placement U.S. History students from the Samuel Scheck Hillel Community Day School in Miami got pretty close to the action recently.

The events unfurled one morning as Rhea Schwartzberg was getting ready to teach her U.S. History class using a Skype connection and the school's "global learning lab."  Suddenly, a Jerusalem suburb not far from Schwartzberg's home, was rocked by a terrorist attack.

"She was online with the students via Skype, so everyone learned about it at the same time," recalled Gary Weisserman, chief academic officer. "She was our 'man on the street,' so to speak, giving us information about what happened and what the effects were."

The unfortunate event opened the doors for an international lesson in Israeli politics and the country's emergency response mechanisms for the AP students. "They put the history discussion aside for the day, and dedicated the classroom time to answering questions about the attack, and its short- and long-term repercussions," said Weisserman.

Decking Out the Global Learning Lab
Seth Dimbert, the school's director of learning technologies, said the global learning lab has been in place since last summer and that its development coincided with Shwartzberg's relocation to Israel. A 20-year veteran of Samuel Scheck Hillel--which serves 872 students in grades pre-K through 12--Schwartzberg was approached by the institution's head of schools about continuing to teach U.S.-based students from her new location.

That request set Dimbert and his team into action, setting up a physical space that would integrate technology into the classroom in a way that would enable and enhance distance learning. He said the design was based on the traditional computer lab, with VersaTable desks (which allow the monitors, CPUs and LCD screens to remain hidden until needed), a podium (also with a computer buried inside), a Promethean ActivBoard and a large, wall-mounted plasma TV.

The lab was also equipped with integrated audio and video, and a wireless speaker that the teacher wears and passes around from student to student when needed. The room features dimmable lights so that "the students don't look like zombies on camera when they are hit with the fluorescent lights," said Dimbert. 

The Move to Skype
When it's time for class, a co-teacher in Miami logs into the system and handles any technical details for Schwartzberg, who uses a laptop computer on her end to take the same steps. At first, Dimbert said, the arrangement included high-end videoconferencing equipment that the school "wasn't particularly happy with" and that created a number of technical problems (namely with the audio portion) for the teacher and students.

Then the school decided to test out Skype instead. The free, Web-based application--in use by nearly 18,000 registered teachers around the world as of this writing--enables audio and/or videoconferencing using computers and webcams, as opposed to specialized equipment.

"After spending a lot of money on special hardware and software," said Dimbert, "we decided to test out the free software download option, and we're much happier with the results."

Weisserman added that the transition to the free, Web-based application allowed the school to graduate from using a "single Mac computer that was set up in the corner of the classroom," and to make better use of the off-the-shelf Webcams and PCs that it already had in place.

With its early technological kinks ironed out for the learning lab, Dimbert said the learning experience became seamless, with both students and teacher adapting well to the distance setup. With roughly 50 percent of its student body hailing from countries other than the United States anyway, the school is a perfect candidate for one or more courses that are led by geographically dispersed instructors.

"We already had clocks on the walls showing both Miami and Jerusalem time," said Weisserman. "It only made sense that students would adapt quickly to the idea of working with a teacher who isn't physically present in their classrooms."

About the Author

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