Case Study

Middle School Preparations for Live Video Conferencing

A Q&A with Bow Memorial School Technology Coordinator Roy Bailey

This month, a class of 8th graders and their teacher will ascend to the summit of New Hampshire's Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeastern United States. Unlike those who live and work there, the class won't have to brave the cold at 6,288 feet above sea level. They'll be experiencing Mount Washington first hand, but with the help of videoconferencing.

Three major storm tracks combined with the elevation earned Mount Washington its slogan of "World's Worst Weather." Nowhere else on Earth is found such a consistent combination of sub-zero temperatures, hurricane-force winds, freezing fog, and driving snow. In April of 1934, observers measured a wind gust of 231 mph, which remains a world record for a surface station. And this extreme weather is year-round.

The Mount Washington Observatory is a private, non-profit scientific and educational institution organized under the laws of the state of New Hampshire. Its mission is to advance understanding of the natural systems that create the Earth's weather and climate by maintaining its mountaintop weather station, conducting research and educational programs, and interpreting the heritage of the Mount Washington region.

The Observatory continues to record and disseminate weather information. It also serves as a benchmark station for the measurement of cosmic ray activity in the upper atmosphere, develops robust instrumentation for severe weather environments, and conducts many types of severe weather research and testing.

The Mount Washington Observatory has also developed distance learning programs for grades 4 through 12. Designed to work within state frameworks and align with state and national standards, each program runs approximately one hour and allows classes to go live to the summit and learn about climate and weather from the locals. They share their knowledge and experiences in an interactive format.

Students will observe weather and learn what a meteorologist is and does and how they formulate a forecast. They will meet scientists and learn how and what data they collect and how they translate the data into information we can use. They will watch the men and women who live and work in this extreme environment, and, as the Observatory representatives put it, "Your students will never think of scientists the same way again!"

Kathy Deacon, a teacher at Bow Memorial School, a grade 5-8 middle school, heard about the opportunity last year at a New Hampshire Science Teachers Conference. With the assistance of Roy Bailey, technology coordinator, Deacon's 8th grade class will connect with those scientists Oct. 27. According to Bailey, this is the first time the school will participate in the observatory's distance learning program.

While we often publish stories about video conferences after they occur, this time around, we thought we would take a look at the before and after of such an event. In Part 1 ("before"), Bailey shares the details of the project--the costs, the equipment involved, and the educational goals, among other things, as his school gears up for the event.

Denise Harrison: What is the cost associated with this event, and how is it funded?

Roy Bailey: The conference is $195 for the first session and $125 for successive sessions. It is being funded through the science curriculum budget for the school.

Harrison: What videoconferencing equipment does the school have for such an event?

Bailey: We will be using a Polycom VSX-7000 video conferencing unit attached to a Polycom VTX-1000 audio conferencing unit. We purchase both when we left the Granite State Distance Learning Network so we could do direct point-to-point conferencing without relying on their bridge.

Harrison: How is the equipment set up? Mobile or fixed? What is the display you will use?

Bailey: The Polycom is HD and mobile. We usually use it attached to a single LCD projector. So the VSX 7000 will be sitting on a table with its camera pointed towards the students in the classroom. It will have a single Ethernet cable connected to a jack in the classroom, another cable attached to the VTX-1000 [audio system], which includes a subwoofer, and a VGA cable run to the LCD projector, which will be projecting onto a screen in the front of the classroom.

We will not need it for this conference, but we also [have] a presenter's module, which would allow us to transmit a computer's desktop as an additional video source.

Harrison: Is there any equipment you didn't have that you needed to acquire before the conference? If so, what is it and how to you plan to, or how did you, obtain it?

Bailey: We did not need to acquire anything as we are still using the setup we purchased in 2004.

Harrison: How long is the presentation?

Bailey: It will be a 30- to 40-minute presentation.

Harrison: How many students are in the class?

Bailey: Each session is capped at 25 students.

Harrison: How will the seating be arranged so they can all be seen on camera?

Bailey: To be determined, but we usually keep them in their regular seats and re-aim the camera as necessary. If questions were restricted to a panel of students, we'd have them sit at a table up front, but this will be a whole class activity.

Harrison: Where does the instructor sit?

Bailey: The instructor is normally in the back of the class where she can see all the students and the projected screen.

Harrison: Is there a way to make sure they don't talk over each other?

Bailey: We generally mute the microphone on our end when we aren't asking questions.

Harrison: What do you (or the tech person in attendance) need to do during the conference? Do you need to be switching anything, monitoring and adjusting settings, such as volume?

Bailey: For a one-shot conference like this, I will usually hang around to remote control the camera and point it toward whomever is speaking on our end. If we were using multiple inputs (document camera, computer, camera), I would normally handle this via the remote as well.

When we've had repeated conferences, the teacher and/or students learn to drive the remote.

Harrison: Will this be recorded? If so, how and using what?

Bailey: This session will not be recorded, but we have recorded sessions in the past via a standard VCR.

Harrison: Have these 8th graders ever attended a video conference with a remote location like this before?

Bailey: The specific science class has not attended a video conference, but I'm sure several of the students have attended other video conferences in the past.

Harrison: What do you and the teachers expect the kids to learn that they would not learn by reading about it or watching a non-live video?

Bailey: The students and teacher will have direct interaction with an expert in the field they are learning about. Interaction is key when comparing this experience with non-live video. The students and teachers will be able to ask questions of the expert and receive an immediate response.

Harrison: What are the top-3 things you are afraid will go wrong, and what steps are you taking to prepare against them?

Bailey: 1) I suppose the greatest fear is a power loss, and there really isn't anything we can do about that. This does not happen often, but it would be a deal killer. No power equals no conference, and the teacher would just have to switch gears and teach a different lesson for that day. I would hope that Mount Washington would allow us to try again at no additional cost.

The next two concerns are really only problems if you don't plan ahead.

2) Network congestion/performance issues: Videoconferencing is very sensitive to dropped packets, so I just spent this morning in that classroom, reprogramming one of her network ports to be on a separate VLAN and isolated from our regular student network.

3) Hardware failure/incompatibility issues: It is always a good idea to test ahead of time, so on Wednesday morning, I will be setting up the video conference equipment in that classroom to do [a] test call to Mount Washington and confirm that everything is working. The morning of the actual video conference, I'll have everything up and running 15 to 20 minutes ahead of time and will usually connect the Polycom in Texas to verify that everything is still working on our end. [Polycom keeps accessible a couple of conferences 24/7 so you can verify your system's status.]

As I was testing the VLAN this morning, the science teacher who is having the conference pointed out that she thought video conferencing is a great idea for her class. Logistically, it would have been impossible to transport her class to and from Mount Washington within the confines of a school day. A "real" field trip would also cost quite a bit more money (buses, food, entry fees), and she also mentioned the ecological implications of taking a bus to Mount Washington.