Distance Learning

Videoconferencing Engages Students in Mobile County Public Schools

As with many school districts, the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) in Alabama had challenges delivering consistent education to many and varied schools across a large area. Mobile is one of the largest in the country, however, with more than 100 schools across 1,644 square miles, which made it difficult to find an efficient solution.

In 2004, Governor Bob Riley initiated a program called Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators and Students Statewide (ACCESS). ACCESS is a distance learning program designed to address those challenges and provide equal opportunities to all students to receive advanced courses whether they live in rural or urban areas.

To accommodate ACCESS, MCPSS incorporated Tandberg video communication systems for distance learning. Alma Bryant High School, a rural high school in Irvington, AL, was selected as one of the pilot sites.

"As teachers stepped forward to accept the challenge of teaching via distance, they became models for interactive video delivery of curriculum." said Michele D. White, interim technology coordinator for MCPSS. "This was transformational for the school."

ACCESS allows students to receive instruction that they otherwise would not have the opportunity to get, such as honors courses and, in some cases, even required courses for advanced diplomas. A student may need AP Calculus to graduate, for example, but the course schedule may conflict with other required courses. With ACCESS, the student can fit it into the schedule and obtain the desired advanced diploma.

One of the goals of the governor's initiative was to have one distance learning lab in every high school in the state by 2010. "All high schools are now full ACCESS sites," said White, "one year ahead of schedule."

White said that, in addition to providing distance learning opportunities to high school students, MCPSS set a priority to provide the same opportunities within the district to middle schools. E-rate and local district matching funds were used to purchase eligible middle schools a distance learning lab. The other middle schools received portable distance learning labs through grants made available via the federal Enhancing Education through Technology (EETT) program. The elementary schools also have five portable units available for check-out as requested.

All schools--elementary, middle, and high schools--use the video equipment for virtual field trips and connecting classes within the district. The middle schools use distance learning to assist with teacher vacancies and to facilitate the gifted program at remote sites. For gifted students in rural areas, distance learning is particularly valuable, since it opens up opportunities not previously available. With geographical barriers removed, gifted education teachers can now serve those underserved schools. Also, with the short supply of gifted education teachers, distance learning maximizes use of each of those teachers. Distance education also results in cost savings by eliminating the need to hire gifted education teachers for each school in need.

For more general purpose use, the videoconferencing technology helps students who may miss class or need additional assistance. MCPSS can record classes and put them online for students to review, so if a student is absent or didn't fully understand the lesson, the student can go back and review it. Meanwhile, the teacher can continue on without taking extra time away from the rest of the class to bring that student up to speed.

White said a current priority of the division of information technology is promoting 21st century technology tools for the classroom. The grants written by the department have funded staff development and equipment for teachers who commit to these projects.

"Projects called SmartMath and TEACH21 have been implemented to provide Smart Boards, laptops, document cameras, wireless slates, and response systems to the classes and tremendous staff development to teachers who participate and commit to transforming their way of delivering the curriculum," she said. The staff development program is so successful, she said, that even teachers who obtained equipment from other sources continue to sign up for the professional development portion of the projects.

Teachers who attend professional development can do so via videoconferencing, which saves travel time. They can travel five minutes to a conferencing site (rather than having the teachers from all 103 sites travel 30 to 40 miles to one designated location). Videoconferencing also helps with logistics, since no one location need worry about parking availability, meeting room seating, or equipment. These sessions are also recorded so they can be accessed later on the Web.

As for the students, White said technology first and foremost helps engage the students. "Students today 'disconnect' when they walk into their classrooms," she said. "We are trying to assist schools with reconnecting the students through great delivery of the curriculum in a way that students feel involved and engaged in their learning."

The department also said that exposing students to these technologies now helps them understand what they are and how they are used. That gives them a head start when they again encounter these technologies in college or out in the work world.

For now, the department is working with all the schools to integrate those 21st century tools to all children in all classrooms. "The division of information technology saw an opportunity to provide some excitement and energy to the classroom," said White. "Attendance, participation, and test scores will improve with student engagement in this interactive delivery of the curriculum. Technology is changing how the curriculum is being delivered, not the curriculum itself."

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