A vRoom With a View


North Carolina students are peering in as doctors perform surgery, thanks to a distancelearning technology that provides unique project-based educational opportunities.

LIKE MOST MAGNET SCHOOLS across the country, Central Academy of Technology and Arts in Monroe, NC,offers its students hands-on learning experience in their futureprofession of choice, in whichever of the high school's six disciplinestheir interests lie: engineering, information systems,medical sciences, performing arts, teaching, or transportationsystems. Students in the medical sciences academy, forexample, meet with surgeons at North Carolina Medical Centerto observe surgical procedures, discuss anatomy andphysiology with doctors and other medical professionals,and play video games that teach surgery fundamentals. Studentsin the performing arts academy, meanwhile, are ableto meet with cast members of Broadway shows to engage indialogue and learn what it takes to make it onstage.

Hardware & Software

Elluminate brings surgeons into
the classroom to explain anatomy
and physiology.

The difference at Central Academy is that the students never have to leave the classroom. Using the vRoom collaboration environment from Elluminate, students are connected virtually to their subjects.

"It's getting harder to get students away from the school," says Tom Moncrief, high school curriculum coordinator for Union County Public Schools, which includes Central Academy. These experiences allow the students and the [professionals] to connect and then get right back to their schedules."

Distance learning projects are nothing new to the K-12 education space, especially in rural areas where access to educational tools is less widespread. But these virtual field trips, as Moncrief calls them, go way beyond traditional distance learning. Rather, vRoom offers realtime, two-way communication that includes social networking tools such as instant messaging, application sharing, breakout rooms, interactive whiteboards, and a live webcam—ensuring meaningful communication and offering a project-based learning environment that engages all students in the subject.

Via the program, the medical sciences students are hooked up with the university surgeons, who show them videos of laparoscopic procedures. "They can talk about the anatomy and physiology parts of surgery, education, technologies used in the operating room—just about anything students would want to know," Moncrief says. "Plus, students can use the platform to log on to a surgeon's computer and play games that teach fundamentals of surgery. They really get a feel for the experience. We are working with three surgeons in different disciplines, and they discuss research, ethical issues—whatever is being taught at that time."

The program allows students in the performing arts academy to meet with artists whom, because of time and distance constraints, they otherwise would not have been able to speak with. A case in point was the three-day run the musical Rent had in Charlotte back in January. "We only had three hours to work with," Moncrief says. "The students used the platform to ask questions and have a dialogue with the cast members."

Students show equal enthusiasm for the technology. "I think vRoom helped me learn because it showed me what real surgery looks like," says Erica Torres, a student in the medical sciences academy. "After all the reading we do, and all the terminology we have to learn, it's nice to see how it is implemented in the actual surgical setting. Since we could not go to the surgery, the surgery came to us. Even though some girls became a little nauseated, I still enjoyed the experience."

The Central Academy program is an offshoot of a statewide project-based learning initiative developed in 2003 through the office of Gov. Mike Easley to ready the state to do business globally, Moncrief says. According to its website, the initiative, called North Carolina in the World, seeks to strengthen K-12 international education through collaboration with business leaders and policymakers, teaching students about other cultures and equipping them to compete in the global marketplace.

Part of the impetus for the initiative was North Carolina's broad international presence. The state has trade offices in Canada, Mexico, Germany, South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong. Moncrief says that some of those locations are featured in the education programs developed by the University of North Carolina's Center for International Understanding, a partner in North Carolina in the World, and offered as part of the initiative.

In one project, conducted through the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the students worked with students in Mexico, conducting research and then discussing the results. Rather than being an alternative to attending a public high school full time, NCVPS augments a student's regular course of study, providing courses that students are unable to take at their local schools. For example, the site offers advanced placement courses and honors courses, as well as career and technical education courses such as business law, parenting and child development, and digital communications.

In another project that linked the school with students in Mexico, students in both countries discussed the folklorebased designs of Talavera pottery, which comes from Puebla, Mexico. The US kids received pieces of the pottery after their first firing, painted them, discussed their designs with the students in Mexico, and then sent back their creations. "They did it all collaboratively," Moncrief says, adding that he plans to continue the project this year with a new crop of students.

"When I talk about technology, globalization is an equal part of that discussion because technology is key in connecting students," he says. "We are teaching what we are charged to teach, but with a global perspective."

But not every project is global. NCVPS students also are using the vRoom tool in their studies, Moncrief says."Students in the music appreciation course were able to meet with a capella group Ball in the House to discuss music standards," Moncrief says. "Through blogs and discussion, the band responded to the students' questions. They had a wonderful, rich dialogue; they were able to connect with that band even though students were scattered throughout the 100 counties of North Carolina."

"One of the projects on the horizon will enable students to talkto a curator in Egypt and focus a camera on different artifacts as[the curator] is speaking."
—Tom Moncrief, Union County Public Schools

Moncrief says it's not difficult to get business and other community leaders to take part in the programs. "Because they recognize the importance of this emerging technology," he says, "professionals are happy to take the time" to interact with the students and contribute to the teaching experience.

Such virtual learning initiatives are a growing trend in K-12 education. The Sloan Consortium's survey of school district administrators, published last March, estimated that 700,000 K-12 students participated in an online course during the 2005-2006 academic year.

That number is more than double the amount put forth by the National Center for Education Statistics in its 2002- 2003 report, "Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students", which set the number at 328,000. Granted, the majority of the students in the new survey took traditional distance learning classes, but Moncrief says collaborative technologies are opening new paths for learning via the virtual classroom.

"One of the projects on the horizon will enable students to talk to a curator in Egypt and focus a camera on different artifacts as [the curator] is speaking," he says. "We can't take a class to Egypt, but through technology, they are able to experience many of the same things.

"One of the things we've been talking about is how students are growing up in the digital age, and the internet is connecting them in a way that is so different from what we knew when we were students. It is our responsibility as educators to use that as an effective mechanism for learning."

Charlene O'Hanlon is a freelance writer based in New York.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.