6 Ways Videoconferencing Is Expanding the Classroom
With instant access to international collaborators, virtual field trips and courses in other districts, learning can happen anywhere in the world.
Three years ago, more than 125 students in three high schools on the
Kenai Peninsula of Alaska spent the night sleeping at school in order
to be awake for a 4 a.m. videoconference with students in Nazareth,
Israel. After the students' virtual meeting, parents arrived at the
schools to cook them breakfast. The students showered and went on with
their normal school day.
This kind of meeting has become increasingly common as Kenai Peninsula Borough
have embraced videoconferencing technology as a way to open up
students' connections to the lower 48 — and the rest of the world.
More recently, Kenai Central High School world
history teacher Greg Zorbas and Skyview High
history teacher Rob Sparks have had students working on longer-term
projects with students in Palestine and Ghana. "Teams made up of
students from Ramallah and our school developed conflict trees to
understand root causes and effects," Sparks said. "They posted their
work in our Google Community for everybody else to see."
Over the last decade, as high-speed Internet has become more
accessible, videoconferencing technology has grown more sophisticated
and easier to operate. School districts are finding an increasing
number of innovative ways to bring students together virtually for
meaningful interactions, whether for one-time field trips or more
extensive long-term collaboration. Here are six examples of the impact
video technology is having on classroom experience.
Connecting Classrooms for Collaborative Projects
Zorbas and Sparks call their "Classroom Without Walls" program has
allowed their Kenai Peninsula students to connect with students in
Afghanistan, Israel, Yemen and several U.S. states. But the
videoconferencing exploration grew gradually, from the two teachers
team-teaching in the same school, to team-teaching from different
schools in the same district, to student-to-student collaborative group
Zorbas said, "We used videoconferencing to share content between
classrooms," but we wanted to take it to the next level. We wanted our
students to work together in small groups using videoconferencing. The
dynamics of group work is one thing, when you have kids all in the
classroom. We wanted two of my students to be working with two of Rob's
students and have a videoconference going on as they work."
Using both Polycom RealPresence Desktop and then Microsoft Lync,
they moved from videoconferencing with a big TV set for
classroom-to-classroom interactions to a setup in which small groups of
students have face time with students in another school to work on
projects together. (They color-code individual and collaborative work
in Google Docs for assessment purposes. Each teacher assesses his own
One challenge has been figuring out which technology is best for
students' computer-to-computer collaboration. "Recently we have been
doing a lot of things with Google Communities with our foreign
partners," Sparks said, "and we may try Polycom's RealPresence
CloudAXIS in working with students in Ghana. We just keep searching for
whatever works best to solve the problem we have."
They're learning about much more than new technology, according to
Zorbas. "The combination of videoconferencing and student collaboration
has completely changed the way we teach," he said.
Making Courses Available Anywhere
For the past three years, most German classes that Marissa Wanamaker teaches at Lincoln High
in Nebraska also have a student or two attending remotely via
videoconference. "I have had students from several rural communities,"
she said. "It has forced me to rethink how I deliver the coursework
every day. I make sure to include the remote students in group
activities. My students get excited about working in the remote
The system allowing rural Nebraska students to study German and
other topics that may not be offered at their school is a synchronous
course exchange that uses videoconferencing and was established several
years ago with state lottery funds. Almost 9,000 Nebraska students per
year take courses through the system.
When students from a remote school register for a course at Lincoln High, they actually become Lincoln Public Schools
students, noted Linda Dickeson, the distance learning manager for
Lincoln Public Schools. "They get all the same rights and privileges a
Lincoln student gets," she said, "with their own login and password to
resources, and an e-mail account the teacher can use."
To beef up its infrastructure, Lincoln Public Schools has added 22
to control, store and stream video to large flat-screen TVs. These
videoconferencing setups are mainly distributed in high schools and the
district office buildings.
One course, Literature of the Holocaust, is so popular that Lincoln
Public Schools has to turn away some remote students. The teacher might
have 30 local students, so the district limits the number of remote
students to an additional three per section. The videoconferencing
equipment is also used within the district to make some courses, such
as Chinese, available to schools that don't offer it. Dickeson said,
"We don't have a systemic way to do intra-district offerings yet, but I
think the needs are going to drive that more."
In remote areas of Nebraska, the system has allowed for course swaps
where one school would offer Spanish and another physics, with their
students attending each other's classes remotely. At the end of the
year, the state validates all the courses that had videoconference
enrollments. The sending school gets $1,000 for the connection, and the
receiving school gets $1,000. "That was the motivation for this
clearinghouse building up over the years," Dickeson said. "It has
worked out great."
Nevertheless, the legislation that created the clearinghouse is set
to expire after this school year. "We have been camped out with
senators over the past year, hoping bills will make it to the floor and
give us additional funding," Dickeson said. "But the synchronous course
clearinghouse has proved so successful that even if we don't get
incentive funding, I think it will still be sustained, because it has
served a need."
Overcoming Rural Isolation
It's no coincidence
that some of the most innovative work on classroom videoconferencing is
coming out of Alaska, where the vast and rugged geography makes travel
and in-person meetings challenging. In addition to the Kenai Peninsula
example mentioned earlier, Kodiak Island Borough School District has been working since
2004 to unite its community of small rural schools, said Phillip Johnson, director of Alaskans Transforming Educational Access in Communities and Homes (AKTEACH), which is extending KIBSD's distance-learning
The initial goal for KIBSD was to focus on improving math
instruction in six fishing villages and one town on a road 40 miles
from Kodiak. These villages have populations of 40 to 260 people, and
the schools there have enrollments of 12 to 45 students. Eighty percent
of the students in village schools are Alutiiq (Russian-Aleut).
"Our village students were not getting the level of education that
students in urban settings were getting," Johnson said, because
teachers were asked to be generalists and teach multiple content areas.
When the district offered village schools videoconferencing access to a
teacher who could specialize, with the village teacher facilitating in
a co-teacher model, things began to change. "We began to develop our
'One School' concept," Johnson said. "We are sharing staff and sharing
students," he said. "We aligned all our schools' schedules and
calendars with Kodiak High School's."
The district has experimented with several technologies over the
years. "We are not married to one technology," Johnson said. "We use a
Polycom system; other courses are offered through Blue Jeans. We have one-on-one
instruction happening with Skype for home-school students."
Johnson said it has been fascinating to watch the impact of the
technology on students' relationships and academic performance. "Actual
experiences tend to lend themselves to virtual experiences," he said.
"When we started this program, we recognized the students were not
adjusting to the virtual format. They were shy and didn't like the
camera. So we brought all our rural students together for a math and
science academy to work on projects together. By the end of that
experience, they had developed actual relationships. When they went
back to their schools and we started asking them to work in a virtual
world again, it had changed the entire experience. They were now
willing to interact."
Students who had had very little exposure to other students around
the island started to develop relationships, he said. "We began to see
behaviors between students that you would expect to see between
students in a brick-and-mortar school: students beginning to go
off-task and chatting on the sidelines," Johnson said. "For me, that
was a great problem to have, because the students had come to a point
where they were so comfortable with the technology that the tool was no
longer the barrier. It was now the world they were comfortable living
In fact, Johnson said, whereas before students from different
villages expressed no interest in joining together for team sports, now
they play together at the state level regularly and do well. Village
students also participate in synchronous orchestra and band classes.
They meet with the instructor virtually a few times a week and use Smart Music
to support their daily instruction. "Then we fly them in from rural
communities for concerts," Johnson said. "They perform incredibly well.
They have met or exceeded the level of their peers, and blend in with
all the other students performing. And they are sort of like
celebrities, because the Kodiak High School students have seen them
virtually and now here they are in person."
Virtual Field Trips
Not all uses of
videoconferencing have to be as extensive as the examples in Nebraska
and Alaska. Many school districts have built up a collection of regular
"virtual field trips" that their students can take in conjunction with
curricular support to prepare the students to appreciate their
The concept of virtual field trips got a big boost on April 30, when
President Obama took part in "Read to Discover a World of Infinite
Possibilities," which was part of a virtual field trip series called
"Of the People: Live from the White House," sponsored by Discovery Education and the White House. The April 30 event featured
sixth-grader Osman Yaya interviewing President Obama about his favorite books and love of reading.
In another example, over the last several years California State
Parks has fine-tuned and expanded a free distance-learning program
called Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students
(PORTS), which allows more than 7,000 K-12 students each year to enjoy
interactive lessons with park interpreters about the natural and
cultural resources in California's state parks.
Lone Tree School,
a K-5 school on Beale Air Force Base near Marysville, CA, started doing
PORTS classes in 2008 and now does 75 to 100 per year, said technology
facilitator Donna Tarble. One of the students' favorite classes is
about tide pools, because the ranger has a remote truck she takes down
to the beach, Tarble said. Students can explore Crystal Cove State
Park's fragile tide pools and learn about the biology and ecology of
the park's ecosystem, even though an in-person trip would be difficult
Lone Tree has a dedicated videoconferencing room equipped with an
LCD screen and a Polycom system. Tarble has taught the teachers how to
turn on all the equipment and log in so she doesn't have to be involved
unless there is a technical problem. "Teachers tend to be apprehensive
when it comes to new technology," she said, "but now we use technology
so much here on the campus that we have tried to encourage them to take
more on themselves."
Both virtual field trips
and more extensive school videoconferencing programs can give students
glimpses of potential careers or help them practice developing skills
they may use in the future. Paul Eichelberger, a biology teacher at Jim Thorpe Senior High School
(PA), has found a virtual field trip that really resonates with his
students interested in medical careers. For the past seven years, his
anatomy and physiology students have attended an interactive session
(put on by the Center of Science and
in Columbus, Ohio) that allows them to watch a live knee replacement
operation. "The students usually say that was the coolest thing we have
ever done," Eichelberger said. "The majority of people taking this
class are thinking of going into some sort of medical career," he said,
adding that they appreciate the chance to see physicians in action and
to ask them questions.
Synchronous videoconferencing has had a positive impact on a
vocational welding program on Kodiak Island, Johnson said. Previously
it had been a blended program with some hands-on instruction, but
students were flying in to Kodiak for expensive certification tests —
and many were not prepared. "I drew a line in the sand and said if we
can't demonstrate proficiency, then those kids shouldn't come in for
testing," he recalled. "Last year we went to a synchronous welding
program and the instructor makes sure the students demonstrate
proficiency via videoconferencing before their departure from their
rural community for certification testing, and the results have been
On the Kenai Peninsula, Zorbas and Sparks stress to their students
that in addition to learning history, they also are learning 21st
century workplace skills by getting comfortable with videoconferencing
and collaborating remotely with Google Docs. "Everywhere you look in
the workplace you see the use of face-to-face video," Sparks said.
"Most colleges and hospitals are getting into videoconferencing. Five
years ago, nobody talked about a videoconferencing coordinator. It
wasn't really a job that existed. Now we work with several of them all
Including Homebound Students in Class
given time, Lincoln Public Schools may have a dozen students using
videoconferencing to attend class due to accident or serious illness.
Dickeson also said, "Some students have behavioral problems because of
anxiety or autism, where some classrooms are overwhelming for them."
When those situations come up, she consults with a special education
coordinator to assess whether videoconferencing is an appropriate
solution for that student. Lincoln uses a solution called Scopia Desktop.
"When we were buying our tools in 2010, one of my criteria — a real
dealbreaker — was videoconferencing on the desktop," she said. At that
time, Scopia was the only desktop videoconferencing solution she could
find for Mac and Windows. "It has worked well for us," she added.
Another innovation being deployed around the country is the VGoTelepresence Robot,
which gives disabled and immune-deficient students a virtual presence
in school to allow them to participate in a full school day from home
or the hospital. The student operates the VGo with an
Internet-connected computer equipped with audio and webcam capabilities.
Rick Lemke, principal of Durham Public Schools'
Hospital School at Duke University Medical Center (NC), said the
district is piloting three VGos in homebound settings and plans to test
three in a hospital setting. One of these pilots, he said, "involves a
girl who has multiple disabilities, and it has enabled her to
participate in a school classroom. She would never have had that
opportunity otherwise. It has worked out brilliantly."
He said research shows that students coming back from serious and
long-term health issues have trouble transitioning back to school. "We
think this technology can minimize the extent to which the transition
is difficult if we can keep you connected with school and peers. If you
are a transplant patient and are waiting for a heart, you have time and
could stay in class. After an operation, while you are recovering, you
are still not going to school, but you could virtually. You could
maintain connections and keep the mind rolling academically."
The six VGos that Durham bought cost about $12,000 each. From one
perspective, it is a considerable investment, Lemke noted. "But if it
is achieving its intended outcome of keeping these kids in school and
they are not falling behind and are prepared to return when medically
approved, then it is not much of an investment."