Global Awareness

Cross-Cultural Collaboration: Students Bridge Cultures with Videoconferencing from Carnegie Hall

Videoconferencing is not only an efficient way to conduct meetings or deliver distance learning; it's also opening up the world in ways that were never before possible. Thanks to an innovative program at Carnegie Hall, a number of New York high school social studies students are learning this first-hand and experiencing countries and cultures most would never see. These students are part of the Carnegie Hall Cultural Exchange program presented by the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall.

"The Cultural exchange program is about placing music at the center of cultural dialogue," said Christopher Amos, director of distance learning at WMI. Amos said that each year, the program invites different countries to participate with the New York students. "Throughout the year, students learn about their own music culture as it relates to New York City, and they learn about the music of the other countries from their partner schools."

This year's music partners included New Delhi, India and Istanbul, Turkey. The New York students taught their counterparts about American jazz, and the foreign students taught the Americans about the music of their countries.


Preparation and Participation
A grand total of 800 students participated in each track for a total of 1,600 students worldwide. Thirteen classrooms from nine New York City schools connected with 15 classes--students and teachers--from four schools in Istanbul. At the same time, 16 other New York classrooms from eight New York schools partnered with 16 classes from four schools in New Delhi.

It all begins with five professional development sessions for the teachers via videoconferencing. The partner teachers also meet in one-on-one videoconferences using a desktop application such as Skype. The students from the different partner classes work together from the start of the school year to the end, discussing music, sharing media, uploading recordings, and learning from each other. For day-to-day communications, the students and the teachers use a white label software application that provides a private social network. Students not only learn about the other countries' music but also about the other students' day-to-day lives.

"We worked with English language schools in India," said Amos, "and with schools in Istanbul where they are studying English. So the ones who participate in the program are able to practice and improve their English skills."

Live Performances
The highlights of the program are the live, interactive musical performances done via videoconferencing.

In December, the videoconferencing was done with the schools in Istanbul and the students in New York. From Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall, which seats 600, the students had the opportunity see and talk with the students with whom they have interacted online, and some shared their work with each other. Then, featured artists took the stage. Turkish clarinetist Selim Sesler performed in Istanbul at the Garanti Cultural Center at Boğaziçi University, and jazz quintet the Maurice Brown Effect performed in New York. They repeated this videoconference in April, only this time, the jazz quartet performed on the Istanbul stage, and the clarinetist performed at Zankel Hall.

The same program was done for the New York-New Delhi students in February, featuring tabla master Zakir Hussain at New Delhi's Sai International Centre Auditorium, and jazz quartet the Robin Eubanks Group in New York. In May, the artists swapped locations.

"While the artist is visiting the partner location, they have an opportunity to work with the students, visit the schools, and participate in rehearsals, coaching them on the work that they plan to share in the live event," said Amos. "We encourage the interaction between the visiting artists and the students as much as possible."

Technical Considerations
The videoconferencing is accomplished by having the IT departments from the local facility and the facility abroad coordinate their efforts and exchange pertinent technical specifications and phone numbers (or IP addresses, if they choose to do the videoconferences over IP). One calls the other, and the two codecs talk to each other and negotiate the bandwidth and other settings.

"Testing is always an important piece of it," said Amos. "Obviously people have different systems and different network configurations."

Amos said that while the professional development sessions require only one camera to allow the people to conference with each other, the live concerts are far more demanding. "We have a significant AV production element involved with anywhere from five to seven cameras on our side and live camera operators at each location. The concerts from Zankel Hall can be done fairly acoustically, with light amplification to reinforce the sound in the hall and microphones to feed the mix for the transmission."

Amos said the videoconferencing system is working fine but at five years old, it will be time to upgrade soon. "We are just starting to talk about that now," he said. "Because these are musical exchanges and live performances, it's very important that the codec produces higher quality results for both the audio and the video. Musical performances place greater demands on the codec than someone speaking. Also, latency is always a concern when it comes to the hardware as well as the network. We try to achieve as much immediacy, or minimal latency, as possible."

Amos advised that anyone thinking of incorporating videoconferencing into their curriculum just jump in with the many low-cost methods, such as Skype. He said desktop-to-desktop is simple yet powerful.

"What we are doing at Carnegie Hall gets into very large productions, but not everything needs to be that big to have an impact on students," said Amos. "There is a whole community of educators exploring this now. Soon even more teachers will connect their students with other parts of the world."

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