Collaborative Tools Help Rural Alabama Community Equalize High School Education

The Talladega County School District lies far on the outskirts of Birmingham, AL and serves 19 elementary, middle, and high schools. Because many of the schools are small and the district rural, attracting quality high school teachers has been a challenge.

"One key reason we developed our [videoconferencing] network was to compensate for our shortage of high school science, foreign language, and math teachers," said Sallie Chastain, coordinator, e-curriculum and community education. "We were concerned with the logistics of trying to share three foreign language teachers among seven high schools. VC enables us to ensure that all of our students have equal opportunities for education."

Talladega first began using videoconferencing in 1999, and currently seven high schools are equipped. Five of those schools have dedicated videoconferencing rooms using Tandberg Educator. The district also has two mobile systems that are used throughout its 19 facilities, including other schools, resource and professional development centers, meeting rooms, etc. Chastain said the mobile systems are used 30 to 50 times annually for professional development and 10 to 15 times a year for field trips or student-focused activities. Videoconferencing systems in the high schools are used daily for intra-district classes and interstate classes.

Chastain said it is not uncommon for two different classes to be conducted via videoconferencing at the same time. "For example, three of our high schools may be sharing Spanish class and three of our high schools may be sharing physics class," she explained. "We usually have five to seven of our high schools connected for each class period, either for Spanish 1 or Spanish 2, Physics 1 or Algebra 2, or Advanced Math. In physics, our students are not in the same room with the same conditions, but we can use VC to allow our students to share the same experiments. We demonstrate all experiments in the lab at our administrative site and use VC to share these experiments with the other sites."

Staff and Faculty Benefit
She said that videoconferencing also proves to be a highly effective after-school professional development setting, and for system-wide information sessions, curriculum content sessions, and numerous administrative activities that need short face-to-face scenarios.

"We use VC for professional development and to provide graduate school classes for our teachers," said Chastain. "We provide this support for our faculty as part of a statewide program with area colleges and universities throughout the state, so that they do not have to drive to the college campuses to take classes."

Videoconferencing helps with career paths as well. "We've used VC with our K-12 teachers for professional development at local, state, and national levels," said Chastain. "For example, we have an administrative core group that provides a training internship for aspiring administrators (principals and assistant principals)."

Physics is taught in two Talladega schools by one teacher simultaneously to accommodate small schools needing higher level science classes. Here, students demonstrate their egg drop designs to each other as part of a competition for the best design in this physics experiment.


Students Travel from Their Desks
Talladega County conveniently sits between two major cities--Birmingham and Atlanta, GA, which seems like an ideal location for accessing a variety of field trip opportunities.

"Even though we're just one-hour travel from Birmingham and two hours from Atlanta, with time constraints, it's not often feasible for students and teachers to travel to these locations," said Chastain. "VC has enabled us to take students on virtual field trips."

Trips have included connecting younger students with a zookeeper and older students with a NASA scientist. She said virtual field trips are far less expensive than an actual trip would have been, and, while it didn't provide the hands-on experience that an actual trip would provide, a field trip via videoconferencing does have its advantages.

"It did provide opportunities for the zookeeper to be tight and up close with the camera," Chastain said. "Students had plenty of time for asking questions of the zookeeper. The VC also made it very easy for young children in particular to experience the zoo."

Benefits and Drawbacks
Over time, she said, Chastain has come to believe in the technology. "When we first used VC we thought it just isn't the same touchy-feely! But I now believe that VC affords a touchy-feely experience without actually having to travel to the remote site. We've also found that by utilizing some VC equipment (such as the Elmo overhead projector camera) we can get excellent visual representation. When we use VC, we can also demonstrate detailed processes and show artifacts up close for all students. VC is excellent for up-close hands-on types of projects."

Another important function videoconferencing provides to the Talladega district is assisting individual students with special needs. "We've also used VC to plan early interventions for students and to have access to experts whom we need for just two or three hours at one time," she said, "such as an educational psychologist."

When asked to identify the greatest successes of videoconferencing at Talladega, Chastain said it's hard to choose just one. "The AP classes for four or five subjects are all taught using VC, as none of those classes is offered as a traditional class within the district," she said. Dual enrollment classes, professional development for teachers, and graduate classes, too, rank high among the major benefits. "Also, the many field trips, including our district-wide in-service of over 1,000 people with a live field trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame to demo the potential of the technology that we have available."

Unseen difficulties of using videoconferencing tend to be less technological and more personal or procedural. She listed as examples getting past individual high school principals' desire for autocratic leadership, schedules, teacher control, and funding of teacher units. She said none of those issues were present with all the principals. "Even the most apprehensive ones have bought in and want to use it as much as possible to meet the needs of students," said Chastain.

To those still working on ways to make videoconferencing work in their districts, Chastain suggested that having a dedicated area for videoconferencing is essential, but with proper management, the videoconference-equipped classroom can easily be used for non-conferencing classes that can take advantage of the equipment without necessarily being connected elsewhere. She also said they have not found anyone displeased with the equipment, but to gain the most out of the technology, one must ensure that the equipment does not limit the desired educational experience.

"Go for it! Have a plan, train, commit, and follow through," she suggested. Videoconferencing is particularly useful in small schools for expanding curriculum offerings and sharing teacher resources. "Videoconferencing is much better for high school students than Web-based instruction, and it's excellent when they are blended together."

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.