Teaching Once, Engaging Many with Distance Learning at BVIU

Few counties can afford to hire full-time teachers at every school for every subject, and it is especially challenging in a region dependent on the declining steel industry. That is what Beaver County in Pennsylvania faced when trying to deliver consistent education across the 15 school districts serving 24,000 students. The Beaver Valley Intermediate Unit (BVIU) is the regional service agency charged with that challenge. Thus was born the Regional Choice Initiative.

Funded by the United States Department of Education's Voluntary Public School Choice Grant, BVIU's Regional Choice Initiative banded together these school districts to partner using technology to deliver broader academic choices to students.

"Our students attend school 180 days a year for five-to-six hours a day, but they're competing with children in other countries who are in school 240 days a year for upwards of eight hours every day," said Eric Rosendale, assistant executive director of the Beaver Valley Intermediate Unit #27.

Videoconferencing provided the solution.

The BVIU is using 45 Polycom videoconferencing systems to maximize the value of each teacher. Each high school has two systems, and each middle school has one. Projectors, laptops, and document cameras complete the solutions. (On a side note, every high school principal has a Polycom PVX personal conferencing system used for parent-principal conferences or speaking with students from remote sites.) The ability to quickly replicate these systems was also an important factor.

Videoconferencing is used for the Open Seats initiative, which allows students (grades 7 through 12) from each district to take courses in other districts that are not currently available in their home district. Students can also participate when the local class is full. Open Seats courses available via videoconferencing include Sports History, Sports Entertainment and Management, Advanced Placement Economics, Japanese, German, and, soon, Mandarin Chinese.

The Dual Enrollment initiative allows high school students in grades 10 through 12 to take college courses via videoconferencing for credit before their high school graduations. Dual Enrollment classes are held either on the university/college campus or at a different central location, and the classes may be held evenings, Saturdays, and even during the summer.

Higher education institutions either participating now, or that have plans to participate, include Penn State University, Clarion University, La Roche College, Robert Morris University, Community College of Beaver County, and Butler County Community College.

According to BVIU, the two initiatives, Open Seats and Dual Enrollment, provide entirely new avenues for students who want to take full advantage of all available education opportunities. And doing so with videoconferencing gives students more flexibility in their class scheduling. Schedule conflicts can be solved by enrolling in a live class one hour and a videoconference class another.

BVIU said the enthusiasm from teachers and administrators is helping propel these initiatives forward. For teachers, Rosendale said that rather than conduct centralized training, they took the training to the teachers' environments--their own classrooms--which helped with faster adoption and understanding of the educational value of such systems. It also, he said, helped smooth the ensuing cultural shift naturally caused when implementing such initiatives.

The superintendents are also committed to the collaboration and have even adopted a motto that appears on the BVIU Web page: "The Strength of Many, the Focus of One." The BVIU Web site is full of online resources from basics about how to use the videoconferencing equipment to best practices. Other resources provided by Polycom include "Collaborations Around the Planet," "Planning the Polycom Classroom of the Future ... Today," a videoconferencing glossary, a setup manual, and a student permission form.

The systems and programs are too new to study return on investment. But in the end, BVIU said advantages gained are better student preparation for a global workforce, excellent inter-district cooperation that has opened up educational opportunities across the miles, and a model distance learning program they can replicate for years to come, and that others could replicate nationwide if desired.

About the Author

Denise Harrison is a freelance writer and editor specializing in technology, specifically in audiovisual and presentation. She also works as a consultant for Second Life projects and is involved with nonprofits and education within the 3D realm. She can be reached here.