Reinvigorating Videoconferencing at Passaic Valley High School

When a high school with a dormant videoconferencing room hires a 20-year videoconferencing veteran, that school can expect big changes in the AV department. So it was when Matthew Conforth joined Passaic Valley High School (PVHS) in New Jersey. Conforth, an educator with 40 years of experience, quickly zeroed in on how to leverage the videoconferencing investment.

"An integrated Tandberg system was in the room," said Conforth, director of educational technology. "But the room was not used because the past administration did not see the real value in video teleconferencing and so did not provide any impetus for its use."

Conforth said his first step was to test the equipment by placing calls to other videoconferencing sites. He then ran a series of in-service programs to demonstrate to staff general principles and uses of videoconferencing. Next, he worked with a select number of motivated teachers to plan and implement programming with content providers and with other schools.

Over time, PVHS upgraded the system, with an updated codec, more recently with a document camera, computer, monitors, DVD, TVs, and DVR. Also in that time, he introduced a number of new programs to engage more staff members.


Now, it works both ways--he finds content, and interested staff members belong to listservs and content provider groups and when they see programming of interest, they will bring the information to Conforth.

"I set up all of those programs [the teachers discover]," he explained. "I also make staff aware of programs of interest by sending them announcements and details of the programs. For instance, our theater arts class did a video teleconference with performers from an opera company. We also have a class for video teleconferencing called Contemporary Issues Through Videoconferencing. In this class, students, the teacher, and I select programs from content providers, create our own programs, and moderate some of those programs for other schools."

Conforth has developed innovative programming himself as well, such as Around the World in 24 Hours and Science in Cinema STARS. His Science in Cinema STARS program is based on NIH's Science in Cinema, which uses a movie or documentary to provide common ground for students to begin research, discussion, and collaboration. In Conforth's version--Science in the Cinema STARS (Students, Teachers and Research Scientists)--science students are shown movie and film clips and are subsequently connected via videoconferencing with experts, often scientists, on that subject.

The goal of STARS, explained Conforth, is to enable students "to confront the myriad of moral and ethical issues resulting from advancements in science and technology, and to interact directly with research scientists in their respective fields of expertise."

In one session, students watched the movie Lorenzo's Oil, which raises questions about medical ethics and morality. The students later discussed those issues over video with a Rutgers University research scientist who specializes in cellular biology. In another, students connected with Adolor Biopharmaceutical Co. of Exton, PA. During this videoconference, the students were able to see the process of research and design that goes into developing a new drug. "They followed the process all the way through FDA approval of the drug," said Conforth. "It gave them an appreciation of how much work goes into the entire process. We feel the program is excellent in that respect."

Conforth said PVHS also showed clips from the PBS series Nova and connected the students to the show's host, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Other schools were able to participate as well. The different schools viewed the Nova videos as their homework or lab work on their own schedules. On conference day, a number of schools connect to and meet each other over videoconferencing, then the expert is brought in and all students participating can ask questions.

"Since the program began I estimate we have had 40 to 50 schools participate in our Science in Cinema STARS programs," said Conforth. "For STARS, the students are mostly from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Kentucky. Some schools repeat the following year. Since we must limit the number of schools that can participate at one time, we also have a waiting list for many of the programs."

For the Contemporary Issues through Videoconferencing class, Conforth said the students connect to people living in areas of interest, such as Afghanistan or people staying at the Houston Astrodome after Hurricane Katrina.

Conforth estimated that almost 100 different schools from countries around the world have joined in on PVHS's Around the World in 24 Hours program. During a 24-hour period, PVHS hosts one-hour individual videoconferences with participating schools around the globe. Locations for the most recent trips included Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Ghana, Ireland, Mexico, Sudan, Hawaii, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Israel, India, and Germany.

"The kids are enthusiastic--they stay overnight to participate," he said. "It makes them a part of history in the making by allowing them to interact directly with the people who are living it."

Other ways PVHS uses videoconferencing include:

  • World language classes have used videoconferencing to practice their Spanish and French with students in Spain, Mexico, and France.
  • Sports history and physical education classes have participated in videoconferencing on those subjects (such as the historical significance of sports and positive thinking strategies). They connected with the Radio and Television Museum.
  • Cross-curricular science in Cinema STARS--a videoconference on the movie A Civil Action using our science and law classes--in which they connected to research scientists and lawyers.
  • Music and Theater Arts have done videoconferencing on operas, plays, staging, and lighting, including a Q&A with performers from operas and theater.
  • Language classes have done Read Around the World and videoconferencing on plays like Hamlet, Macbeth, etc.
  • Art classes have done videoconferencing with well known artists and art museums (Philadelphia Art Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cleveland Museum of Art).
  • Social Studies have videoconferenced on a myriad of subjects with Contemporary Issues Through Videoconferencing.

PVHS has put great time and distance between the abandoned videoconference room and today, when PVHS conducts 120 videoconferences over the 180-day school year. Many of those conferences, said Conforth, are two hours long, so they average 15 to 20 hours per month. The next goal, he said, is high-definition videoconferencing. "We are hoping to get one next year," he said.

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.