Smart Classroom Focus

Middle School Preparations for Live Video Conferencing Ensure Success

In this second of a two-part series on educational videoconferencing, Denise Harrison speaks with Bow Memorial School Technology Coordinator Roy Bailey about his school's virtual field trip to the "world's worst weather" spot and what made it a success technologically and educationally.

The eighth-grade class at Bow Memorial School, a grade 5-8 middle school in Bow, NH, embarked on a virtual trek to Mount Washington Oct. 27. Mount Washington Observatory offers an interactive videoconferencing distance learning program for grades 4-12. During the conference, students are able to view the summit and learn about the climate and weather from those who live and work there.

Mount Washington is a unique virtual field trip destination, with the slogan "World's Worst Weather, justified by the major storm tracks that converge on it coupled with its high elevation. There was once a wind gust measuring 231 MPH, which is considered a world record for a surface station. The extreme year-round weather makes this an ideal research site and yields plenty of meteorological insights to share with students.

Bow Memorial School had never before connected to Mount Washington Observatory via videoconferencing. THE Journal decided to take a look at a first-time videoconference, before and after. In Part 1 (before), we asked Roy Bailey, Bow's technology coordinator, details about the project--the costs, the equipment involved, and the educational goals--and about how he planned to prepare for the event.

We reconnected with Bailey right after the event to learn if those preparations were sufficient, and how well the new program was received.

Denise Harrison: What did you do today to prepare for the conference?

Roy Bailey: The conference was scheduled to begin at 1 p.m., so I loaded the conferencing equipment into my car and rolled everything into the classroom we were going to use by 12:30 p.m. It took me about 10 minutes to deploy the projector, VTX-1000 (audio system), and VSX-7000 (video system) and get it running on the network. At 12:40, I dialed into Polycom's test conferencing unit in Austin, Texas where I encountered a teacher from New York City who was also testing his system. We spent about 10 minutes verifying that our cameras and mics were working, at which time I disconnected from Austin and dialed into Mount Washington via a video conferencing bridge they use at the University of New Hampshire.

Harrison: What time did the conference start?

Bailey: I joined the conference with Mount Washington at 12:50. We quickly confirmed our mic levels with the host at Mount Washington and then muted our systems until the students arrived at 1 p.m.

Harrison: Did you run into any technical glitches before it began? Were there any delays?

Bailey: No glitches today, but that was because we had already worked out the glitches with our test calls last week. On our first test call Oct. 21, Mount Washington was unable to join the conference due to a technical issue on their end, and while we were able to join the conference, I discovered that a cable required for audio was shorted out and needed replacing. Thus we scheduled a second test call for the next day, Oct. 22, when we confirmed that all issues were resolved and we were ready for the "real" conference. These test calls are very short, taking about five minutes to confirm that everything is ship shape, but they are vital for "one-shot" conferences like this. When we are conducting a long-term conference (multiple days from the same room), we would normally only do one test call prior to the first session, and then leave everything in place for the following classes.

Harrison: Did you need to arrange the seating in a special way? If so, how did you arrange it?

Bailey: The students normally sit around tables. We had to move several tables to accommodate the video conferencing equipment, and then the students set up their chairs in rows far enough toward the back to be visible on camera when I zoomed it all the way out.

Harrison: How long was the conference?

Bailey: 45 minutes.

Harrison: With whom did the students interact on the other end?

Bailey: The students started by interacting with the host, who was stationed lower to the ground in North Conway, NH. She welcomed the students to the conference, and made sure they were awake and engaged while introducing them to the observatory. She then transferred the conference up to the observatory where there was a meteorologist who discussed weather and how he and his team study it from the observatory. The conference was briefly transferred back to the host while the meteorologist relocated from inside the observatory to outside the observatory, where he demonstrated some of the instruments they use. We also briefly met the observatory cat, who stepped into camera during the conference.

Harrison: What information was shared?

Bailey: This conference was all about weather. What elements of weather are measured, how they are measured, and why are they measured. The students also got a kick out of talking with the meteorologist about more personal things like, "How do you get to work?" and "What is the most extreme weather you've personally seen?"

Harrison: Were there any technical glitches during the 'real' conference?

Bailey: No glitches during the "real" conference, but again, that is primarily due to preparing ahead of time.

Harrison: Did the conference live up to your expectations and the expectations of the teacher and students?

Bailey: Absolutely. The content was interesting (for weather), and the meteorologist did a good job of keeping the interaction of the presentation at a high level. No lecturing, just discussion with questions and answers from both sides of the conversation.

Harrison: Were there any disappointments?

Bailey: No disappointments, though the teacher and I were wondering how different the experience would be later in the year when the weather is more severe. The weather on the day of the conference was really nice as it was around 32 degrees and clear. On one hand, we think it would have been cool to see the meteorologist getting pushed around by gale force winds, but on the other hand, it was cool to have weather clear enough that we could see the clouds floating below the horizon as seen from the observatory.

Harrison: Were there elements of the conference that were better than expected, or were there any pleasant surprises? If so, what were those?

Bailey: Technically, the equipment on both ends outperformed my expectations. Some of the eighth graders were very soft spoken when asking their questions, but the meteorologist was still able to understand them, even when outdoors.

Harrison: Will you be having additional sessions with Mount Washington?

Bailey: Probably not this year, as the eighth graders will be wrapping up their weather unit and moving onto other science topics. However, I hope they do it again next year.

Harrison: Did the reprogramming of the network ports on the separate VLAN work well? Would you do it any differently next time?

Bailey: Using the separate VLAN seems to have done the trick. There were no bandwidth issues during the conference, so I would repeat this setup for future conferences.

Harrison: What were the students' reactions to the conference? Were they very engaged?

Bailey: The students were pretty engaged, especially when you consider that it was just after lunch and we're in the midst of a flu season. The key to an engaging videoconference is a presenter who remembers that there is an audience on the other the end of the camera that you need to interact with. The success or failure of all my past distance learning experiences has depended on this. Lecture plus PowerPoint plus videoconference is a deadly combination. Mount Washington, on the other hand, was very engaging with the meteorologist regularly asking the students questions, and asking if the students had questions.

Harrison: What was the teacher's reaction?

Bailey: The teacher seemed to be very pleased. She went out of her way to stress to the students that this was a special experience as students would not normally be able to have an inside look at the observatory.

Harrison: What is your opinion of the experience?

Bailey: I thought it was great.

Harrison: If you do this again, what will you do the same, and what will you do differently?

Bailey: I hope they will, although it might be interesting to try it when the weather is a little more severe.

Harrison: Did this program encourage you and the teacher to finding more such programs?

Bailey: I hope the eighth-grade teachers continue to take advantage of this technology. I am always on the lookout for worthwhile videoconferences and subscribe to a few different newsfeeds that keep me in the loop, such as the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC) and Two Way Interactive Connections in Education (TWICE). I am already planning another video conference for a group of high school students who are participating in the Zealand Consensus, which is a conference leading up to the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen, Denmark. Our students will meet a group of Denmark students via videoconference next month before flying out to work with them "live" the following week. More info on our participation with the Zealand Consensus can be found on page 2 of our school paper.

Harrison: Is there anything I haven't asked you that you believe readers of THE Journal would want to know?

Bailey: Just a concept I'm always wrestling with: Our access to 21st century tools can make the world easily accessible to our students. However it always seems to be the simplest things that bog us down. With a laptop and Skype, we have inexpensive video phones for talking to anyone in the world. Sure, our Chinese class can have a conversation with students in China, but why do we drop the idea if the students in China aren't available during 3rd period?

Harrison: Do you mean time zones can represent some of the biggest bogs?

Bailey: That is an issue, but I've seen teachers balk at doing conferences in state if school A's lunch starts at 11:45 and school B's starts at 12:10. It seems to be the little things that are the hangups.

Harrison: That makes a lot of sense. Negotiations about what time to do something sometimes take forever.

Bailey: Yep. However these problems are not insurmountable. They simply require some flexibility in how teachers and schools think about class time.