Distance Education

Videoconferencing To Bring the World to Students

A city-dwelling student from one school asks a peer living in a rural area whether he gets bored living in a small town. The rural student from another school asks the city kid whether she feels safe where she lives. They aren't on the phone, and they aren't on the same field trip. In fact, they're all several miles apart.

The Berrien Regional Education Services Agency serves Berrien and Cass county K-12 schools with support, a data center, instruction services, special education, and instructional technology. Under the umbrella of instructional technology is a large network of videoconferencing systems that connects 19,000 students from 20 districts to each other and to people and places outside their communities. The 70 schools using videoconferencing range from very small, with as few as 300 students, to those with 5,000 or more, and some teach migrant students during the fall harvest.

The students' backgrounds are varied, but one thing they have in common is that many do not have much awareness of life outside their towns or cities. Videoconferencing becomes an equalizer as well as a window to the world.

The region has a history of being progressive with this technology: the first video conferencing systems were installed in 1999. Janine Lim, instructional technology consultant, is in charge of video technology installation and maintenance. She also troubleshoots connections, and trains teachers how to use videoconferencing, while helping them become comfortable with the technology.

Teaching the Teachers
The effort begins and ends with the curriculum. Lim, who was a teacher herself, warns teachers that videoconferencing isn't done for the fun of it. "I ask them how it matches their curriculum and then we look for suitable programs," she said. She explained there are many resources available to help teachers find programs that will enhance student learning and fit curricula.

Janine Lim, instructional technology consultant for Berrien RESA

Lim then trains them in hopes they can run the videoconferencing systems themselves. "There were two media aides who were so scared of videoconferencing," said Lim. "They came for a four-day training, then came back and took the training again. Despite their early fears, they ended up using videoconferencing a lot!" After teachers are trained, they can call Lim with any technical questions or problems. "That structure of support seems to be working very well."

She is usually hands-on during a new user's first few times using the videoconferencing system to check that it all works and to make sure the first experiences are positive. Lim also teaches two online classes that are open to, and have been attended by, people from all over the world about how to work videoconferencing into a curriculum.

The Equipment
"Some schools go all out and make fancy rooms showing off their audio visual equipment," said Lim. "But we wanted it to be low profile. When kids and teachers go into rooms that are very high tech, they tend to be intimidated."

Within the low profile installation are a camera, TV, projector or monitor, and a microphone that comes with the Tandberg videoconferencing systems. So as to not overwhelm the instructor, when a level of ease has been achieved, Lim then adds a document camera to the mix.

The systems are placed on a cart, if possible, and can be wheeled from class to class. Some schools have the videoconferencing set up in a library or in an empty room.

Going on Field Trips and Meeting Experts and Authors
A frequent use for the videoconferencing systems is virtual field trips. Field trips via videoconferencing to places such as museums and zoos are time and money savers. Museums charge anywhere from free to $500 for the experience, with the average charge of about $100, Lim said. That's nothing, said Lim, "if you compare it with the cost of getting on a bus plus the individual entry fees if you showed up on the doorstep."

The time factor is also important. "Teachers are pressured to cover a lot of content in a short amount of time," said Lim. "This way, the students are given a one-hour lesson on exactly what they are covering in their class rather than a wider tour of the museum." And, of course, they don't lose valuable time on travel. "They are experiencing an outside location in an efficient way," said Lim.

In a very practical way, too, visiting a museum via teleconference can be a much more pleasant experience. "One of our first grade teachers told me that when her students go on a field trip," said Lim, "all they see is arms and legs!"

Meeting Other Students
"Our staple is classroom to classroom," said Lim. Those connections are sometimes with other countries. "There are children who have never left Benton Harbor. To take these inner-city students to faraway places through video is truly amazing; it really expands the scope of their world."

Students meet with students from the UK, from a number of provinces in Canada, and from Pakistan, to name a few, and recently with students from India. "A man in India has a videoconference equipment business, and his wife is a teacher," she said. "He brings the class to his house at least once a year. Last year it was in the fall, and we wanted to do something holiday-themed. So we had our students give presentations about Halloween, and the Indian students presented information about the Indian holiday Diwali, or Festival of Light."

During another program, Michigan students presented information about carbon emission effects and solutions to the problem to students in Alberta, and the Canadian students did the same. "Another middle school addresses water quality," said Lim.

Within the United States, a favorite program is called "Mystery Quest." This is a geography teaching tool. It is similar to the traditional geography report--picking a country, doing a report about the population, drawing a map, etc. "It is the same thing, but on steroids," said Lim.

Students in five or six different locations around the United States are connected over video
in a multipoint call for a two-and-a-half hour conference. The various teams provide clues about a particular city in a country, and the other teams try to guess the location.

"Teachers routinely tell me this is the most interactive program they've ever participated in," said Lim. "It provides opportunities for exercising so many skills--presentation skills, note taking, and collaboration. And one of the best parts is the kids have so much fun they don't even realize it's a learning experience."

Because conferencing six different schools can be complicated, "Mystery Quest" is conducted using voice-activated technology that switches the videoconferencing systems to show only the location where someone is speaking.

Mystery Quest is so popular that Lim expanded it to include different programs for each grade, 3rd through 8th, and includes U.S. geography, world geography, and U.S. history as it relates to the studies of the particular grade.

"It is one of our signature events," she said. "And the nice thing is they correlate so tightly to the curriculum, and that is obviously critical."

In other programs, students may read a book, then have the opportunity to speak with and ask questions of the authors associated with the ASK Program. The same is done with experts, too. But five days a year, students get a rare glimpse of living history.

During the "Lest We Forget" veteran interviews, veterans from World War II and from conflicts in Vietnam, Korea, and even those involved in the Gulf War tell their stories to three schools at a time.

"It's an incredible experience," she said. "In many cases, these veterans have never been thanked. The kids hear their stories then send them letters decorated with patriotic themes. It means so much to the veterans. And it shows the kids that these wars aren't just in textbooks: Real people were involved."

Lessons Learned
Lim said one of the first challenges in making videoconferencing work is making it work through the firewall. "The standard for videoconferencing (H.323, in this case) wasn't designed with firewalls in mind, so it's a challenge. The last big install we did, we had school district network personnel start working on it before it arrived. They knew what to do to get it in place."

Lim also recommended encouraging champions in the schools. "That has been the capstone to our program--to have someone in the school, sometimes a librarian, sometimes a media specialist or aide, who is behind this. One is even a secretary who gives a couple of hours a week promoting videoconferencing and helping teachers sign up. It just needs to be someone enthusiastic about videoconferencing who sees the value, has used it, and gets along with the teachers."

Aside from the quantitative results, Lim said it engages students in ways no other technology can. She cited one of the more memorable statements by a student. He said: "My favorite thing about Mystery Quest is that I got out of social studies class."

You can follow Janine Lim's videoconferencing activities at her blog.