Setting the Stage for Distance Learning

Tennessee high schools collaborate via video link

Jean Smith is used to standing up in front of a "live" classroom of high school students, but these days she's testing her acting skills by also delivering those lessons to students located in other school systems. The distance learning capabilities are made possible by Afton, TN-based Chuckey-Doak High School's new video collaboration system and the school's newly formed partnerships with other Northeast Tennessee districts.

Smith, an English and ACT college-entrance exam prep teacher, said the school invested in the video link system in order to extend its resources--and those of other schools--across a larger portion of the state's student population. "We have a limited number of teachers, and are always trying to figure out innovative ways to expand our resources without adding faculty," said Smith. "This new, collaborative learning environment was one way to do that."

The equipment includes a console that features a high-tech document camera that allows Smith to display various educational materials via video monitors. Students in both schools can view the monitors, according to Smith, who can display video recordings to both groups by simply touching a button. A microphone suspended from the ceiling of the classroom ensures that all participants can hear Smith as she leads the class.

The interactive equipment and new distance-learning partnerships linking the Greene County School System and other Northeast Tennessee school systems have provided educational opportunities this fall that would have been impossible in the past. The interactive distance-learning equipment is allowing the four county high schools both to originate classes in which students in other counties can take part and to receive classes from other counties.

The technology initiative was funded by grants from the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development Agency (RDA) and the Niswonger Foundation of Greeneville, TN, whose grants totaled almost $500,000 and $150,000, respectively. Those funds were used by two different county school systems that are currently implementing distance-learning programs at four separate high schools.

"We're the guinea pigs right now," said Smith. "We're still working out the bugs, but things are going pretty well so far." She said the video link equipment is housed in the school's central office, where it then connects to one or more other institutions at a time. Currently, Smith is simultaneously teaching an ACT college-entrance exam preparation class to a group of Chuckey-Doak students and several Hancock County High School students at the same time.

"Hancock is over an hour away, so me traveling there to teach the class is not an option," explained Smith. "Using our new technology, we can close that gap and get the instruction out to more students." Smith said another teacher is concurrently teaching seven students at South Greene and eight others at Volunteer High School in Hawkins County.

Several Chuckey-Doak students are using the system to take computer classes through Walters State Community College in Morriston, TN. The college is using the distance-learning system to deliver a dual-enrollment Using Computer Technology class to all four county high schools this semester. Participating high school students who complete the class receive college credit.

Smith said learning the ropes of the system was fairly easy, namely because once booted up it creates an automatic connection that requires no further adjustments. "I can see the students, and they can see me," said Smith, who spent the first few weeks polishing her on-air skills. "It was learning curve for all of us, but we've all adjusted to it pretty well and it's running smoothly now."

Chuckey-Doak students are already realizing the benefits of the new technology. Not only do they have access to more instructors, and across various schools, but they can also sign up for courses that weren't available in the traditional classroom setting. "We've never been able to offer more than one foreign language, and that was Spanish," said Smith, "but now that we're connected our students can take French, with Latin in the works for next year."

Calling the video link system a "golden opportunity to expand Chuckey-Doak's curriculum," Smith said new honors classes are also being discussed for the next school year. "This opens up all sorts of avenues that we didn't previously have access to because we lacked the funding to hire new teachers to cover those classes."

Smith said the school is also looking at adding "virtual field trips" to its lineup. Using the video link system, for example, students would be able to connect with individuals in a virtual setting, and without the expense and hassle of setting up a traditional field trip. "My students have done a lot of reading on the holocaust and Anne Frank," said Smith, "so we're working to get them connected to a holocaust survivor via a virtual field trip."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].