Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Creates “Classrooms Without Walls” to Connect Students Around the World

A grassroots effort to use video collaboration for teaching history and social studies is helping a southern Alaska school district turn high school students into lifelong learners. With video collaboration solutions from Polycom, Inc., teachers at separate high schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District (KPBSD) are enabling students to understand history and cultures from different perspectives, learn collaboratively with classmates from rival schools, and engage face to face with youths and teachers from as far away as the Czech Republic.

Today, the teachers conduct roughly a third of their classes over video, taking turns leading lessons with students at multiple Alaska schools as well as other schools around the world and even students at home or on the go. All the students participate in the same exercises, projects and discussions, and can share content using Polycom’s smart technology white boards.

Called Classroom Without Walls (CWOW), the program allows instructors to focus on specific areas of expertise. One of the teachers, Gregory Weissenberg, for instance, grew up in Soviet Russia and can draw from his own experiences to teach about the Russian influence in Alaska. Another teacher, Rob Sparks at Skyview High, usually leads economics classes because that is one of his specialties.

Exposure to new cultures
KPBSD recently engaged students in a workshop with a teacher in the Czech Republic, and other classes have taken virtual field trips to schools in Israel and beyond – all arranged through Polycom’s Videoconference Program Database and CAPspace, a global directory and professional network of more than 11,000 educators from 41 countries who engage in video collaboration projects. “It takes a year to arrange a field trip overseas,” said Greg Zorbas, a teacher at Kenai Central High. “With Polycom, it takes a day.”

In a district the size of West Virginia, some sizable challenges
The sheer size of KPBSD can make collaboration between schools difficult. At more than 25,000 square miles, the district is larger than West Virginia. Driving from one end of the district to another can take three hours. Some schools – separated from others by wilderness or seawater – are accessible only by boat or plane.

Polycom® RealPresence® video solutions have helped collapse those distances for students in the CWOW program. “We all taught together in the same building about 10 or 12 years ago and we’d collaborate together all the time,” said Zorbas. “Over the years, we ended up at different schools. I thought we could use these Polycom systems to collaborate just like we once did in person, so we gave it a try and have been using it ever since.”

Since then, CWOW has proven so successful that the project won a $30,000 technology grant last year from Artifacts for Alaskans by Alaskans, a state competition hosted by the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. CWOW was recognized for its innovative use of technology to enhance the educational experience of KPBSD students.

Beyond meeting academic standards
Polycom-powered CWOW classes meet or exceed established standards in world history, U.S. history, Russian language, Alaska studies, government, and English literature. The program also offers other benefits including:

  • Collaboration skills. Students work together in small teams using shared computer applications to create current events projects and present them via Polycom® RealPresence® video. This year’s innovation was to spread workgroups across schools, with students using Polycom® RealPresence® Desktop software installed on classroom laptops to work face to face with fellow group members.
  • Familiarity with video. “My sophomores will be ahead of the game when it comes to college or doing a job interview via videoconference,” said Zorbas. “They’ll be prepared because they’re growing absolutely familiar with the best in the business. We use Polycom as a verb here.”
  • Access to unique events. Video is an efficient way for students in schools throughout the district to be in the same place at the same time. In April, KPBSD’s Polycom network connected 350 students for a special presentation featuring the survivor of a Soviet Gulag forced labor camp.
  • Dissolving rivalries. An unexpected benefit of the program is that students are managing to set aside the feverish high school rivalries that seem to separate them from kids at other high schools. “At a cross-country skiing event earlier this year, some kids introduced Mr. Sparks as their history teacher, but Mr. Sparks teaches at another school,” said Zorbas. “This program is unifying kids across the district.”
  • Anytime, anywhere teaching. Using Polycom® Telepresence m100 software on his laptop, one teacher added a couple of extra days onto his Spring Break vacation and still taught a class on Peter the Great from his sister’s house in Oregon. He connected to his first period class and presented live while recording the session for the substitute teacher to use for the next five classes. In addition, the teacher’s son attended classes via Polycom® RealPresence® Mobile while on vacation.
  • Lifelong learning. “It's a really powerful message for students to grasp that learning doesn’t stop when you close the book or turn in the final,” Zorbas said. “These kids are excited to come to this class. I have kids who ask me if they can attend class while they’re on vacation in Hawaii. That’s what this has done.”

KPBSD is looking to expand the concept to more departments and schools. Already, KPBSD is sharing content with other school districts, inviting students from the Bering Strait and Aleutians East Borough School Districts to attend the CWOW teachers’ class on Vitus Bering, the Danish explorer and namesake of the Bering Strait and Bering Sea.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” said Zorbas, “and I’ve never been more excited about my job.”