Conferencing across Coasts

Sixteen-year veteran of East Aurora School District in New York and Apple Distinguished Educator Frank Rizzo used videoconferencing on the Internet to connect a 3rd-grade class in his district to another class in California. He recently told School CIO how the experience changed one teacher's mind about technology.

Q. Why did you start using videoconferencing?

A. I met a teacher from Fullerton, California, Gigi Kelley, who works in a one-to-one program, where each kid has their own laptop. We decided to collaborate on a project: take a teacher who doesn't see the need for technology and get her excited about something. I have a teacher who was very much against technology. She once came to me at lunch and said, "This is my word processor," showing me a pencil. The videoconferencing project was for the teacher to be able to see what could be done in a classroom.

Q. Can you describe the project?

A. We had 3rd grade classes in New York and California that both had to do something on their community for that year's curriculum. Since the students in Fullerton each have their own laptop, each student did an individual project on their town and presented it to our students. In East Aurora we don't have that luxury, so we did one project. Each student [had one slide] that talked about their community. My students could also ask their students questions and vice versa.

Q. How did the students benefit from videoconferencing?

A. Normally, if 30 kids are all doing the same project on their hometown, what kind of questions are they going to get from their peers? Not very good ones, because they're all doing the same thing. You're going to get better questions if you give the presentation to students who have never seen the material. For a 3rd grade child, how cool is it to have knowledge and be able to answer a question? Because they did the research, they got to be the teacher.

The students also realized that the schools were very different. In Fullerton, it's a wide mix: Asian, Middle Eastern, Caucasian. In East Aurora, it's 95 percent Caucasian. We had each student come up to the camera and introduce themselves and share information back and forth. It was an "Aha!" moment for these kids—you know what, schools are different! And it was funny, because both sets of kids envied each other. "You have a pool?" the Fullerton kids would say. "Yes, but it's indoors, and we have snow," our kids said.

Finally, we think of videoconferencing as creating a virtual refrigerator. When you did something in school, if you did a really good job, where did it end up? On the refrigerator. But who saw that? Maybe your mom and your dad, your teacher, and that was your audience. But with videoconferencing, I create a virtual refrigerator door to post that information for other kids to see. How much more are students going to get engaged if they have the ability to show their work to other kids throughout the world?

Q. How did you convince a technology-resistant teacher to participate?

A. She saw the level of engagement and ownership the kids had doing this project. They were hounding her to work on it and getting excited, and that got her excited.

Q. How much did it cost?

A. It was free, given what we already had. We used iChat AV, which is part of Mac OS X. We only needed one computer and a video projector in the classroom. For connecting to the Internet, we only had a single T1 line, and that was a problem. We were putting about 1,000 computers on it, and it was really bad. We upgraded our connection this year.

Q. Do you plan to continue using videoconferencing in the classroom?

A. Yes. Next week we'll be unveiling the ability to do iChat AV to all our teachers. Now that we've got the network to support it, we're good to go. But this year, we're doing something with weather in the curriculum. How do you take New York and California curricula and match them side by side? That's the challenge: you can't just do something on its own, you have to do something that points back to the curriculum.

Lindsay Oishi is a graduate student in Learning Sciences and Technology Design at Stanford University.