Videoconferencing in Education

Teaching has taken on a whole new meaning these days at the Eastview Middle School in White Plains, New York. The classroom walls are seemingly becoming invisible as students are interacting with people from all over the world right from their classrooms. Over the past three years the videoconferencing initiative at Eastview has caused tremendous excitement and change in our school district.

Through the use of videoconferencing, teachers at Eastview Middle School have been able to plan and coordinate experiences for their students that not only fulfill the objectives of their curriculum, but also address the larger goals that our school district has for its students, such as fostering and developing leadership skills, promoting the concept of global citizenship, and providing students with experiences that develop their emotional intelligence.

The interactive, immediate qualities of this mode of communication appeals to a variety of learning styles and the developmental needs of adolescents, in particular, those of social interaction and self-expression. Student motivation, coupled with teacher enthusiasm and administrative support, has caused our videoconferencing initiative to grow from one school in 2001 to four schools by September of 2004. Eastview has also developed partnerships with 17 school districts in our surrounding communities and over 23 international partnerships. Our district recognizes and supports the endless possibilities and benefits that this technology can bring to our students and our community.

The World is our Resource

Institutions that carry videoconferencing, such as museums, science and technology institutes and many other educational institutions, can add value to lessons and enable teachers to give students the opportunity to interact with experts without leaving the classroom. A good program will offer curriculum-based content and include pre- and post-teaching materials that supplement standards-based units of learning. During a quality videoconference the teacher becomes a facilitator and the expert leads the session. Sessions should be highly interactive, thereby engaging the students to become active participants in their own learning. This year our students have experienced and interacted with experts from the Cabinet War Room in London, a diver from the Australian Barrier Reef, and Health, and Social Service officials in South Africa. Videoconferencing gives the concept of primary resources a whole new face.

Promoting Tolerance and Global Awareness

A strong emphasis on infusing global awareness and developing tolerance has also been our focus in using videoconferencing as an educational tool. In the past two years, we have developed a strong partnership with Global-Leap, a project supported by the British government’s Department for Education and Skills (DFES). Global-leap.com: Videoconferencing in the Classroom (www.global-leap.com) is a site developed by teacher Mike Griffith, who is devoted to helping other teachers make natural curricular connections with resources throughout the world. Mike Griffith states, “Incorporating an awareness of global issues into the curriculum, and developing innovative classroom resources and strategies, encourages an understanding of world issues and interdependence. We hope to provide a framework from which our students can become active and effective world citizens. By making the curriculum more topical and global, it becomes more relevant to the lives, experiences and interests of pupils, now and in the future. A global dimension can help to demystify the unfamiliar and to enrich the learning process in linguistic, subject specific and cross-curricular ways.”

The Youth Summits for Global Harmony project, founded by teachers from the St. Wilfrid’s School in England and teachers from Eastview Middle School is a good example. During the 2003- 2004 school year, 12 schools from 10 countries have participated in collaborative projects. The goal was to guide our students in pondering universal essential questions, and these questions have guided our international work. This work will encourage students to participate in dialogues, debates, presentations and performances as schools from around the world share their knowledge, experiences and ideas with each other. Students become their own experts and each other’s audiences. Examples of these collaborative partnerships include foreign language exchanges with classrooms in Mexico, Costa Rica and Canada, cultural exchange presentations including dance performances with partner schools in New Zealand and Argentina, and dialogues about personal challenges, world perceptions and discrimination with students from Kosovo, Afghanistan and South Africa.

The sheer power of this kind of communication medium was demonstrated when our eighth grade Health Studies students, learning about HIV and preventative awareness, were able to interview HIV-positive students in South Africa. Students were able to hear first-hand about the severity of this global issue as they ‘put a face’ on this epidemic that before was simply a distant abstraction. Students were moved from apathy into empathy as they began to form an emotional connection to the people on the other side of the world. So connected were these students that they took action and conducted a fundraiser for the Growing South Africa Foundation to sponsor a vegetable garden for a school in Johannesburg, South Africa. As educators these are the learning opportunities that we must strive to provide for our students. Careful planning and research will enable us to teach the child as a whole, and as an intellectual and emotional human being.

As with any new initiative we were faced with many challenges. Teachers needed training, we needed to gain district and community support and develop teaching materials that reflected curriculum. Patience and perseverance became our mantra throughout the last few years as we slowly began to address our needs. We developed turn-key training courses for our teachers. A committee of 13 teachers met frequently to discuss concerns and the development of our initiative, and we invited administrators, parents and board members in order to gain the support of our district. We even created several videos documenting our conferences for training and public relations purposes. The concept of videoconferencing in a classroom was difficult for many to imagine .We needed, therefore, to create a resource to help people visualize how it could be used as a teaching tool that added value to units of study.

Additional Uses of Videoconferencing

Videoconferencing saves time and money. Through the use of this technology, professional development opportunities that might otherwise be unaffordable for a school district became available to teachers and administrators. Ties with colleges and universities to take advantage of their resources such as trainings, certifications and career development opportunities, can enrich existing programs. Interviewing potential candidates, parent support workshops, sharing teachers between schools, and presenting at conferences are all other possibilities to explore.

Equipment

Based on our experience thus far, here are several key factors to consider when buying equipment for your school:

  • Select equipment you can grow into. There are two ways to make a connection: either IP (Internet) or through ISDN (telephone lines). Buy equipment that is capable of doing both even though your network might not be ready yet or you don’t have ISDN lines. Progress happens fast and you want to be ready.
  • Select your vendor carefully. When selecting a vendor it is imperative that you investigate their support and help-desk services. Teachers will need support, lots of it. Our vendor, IVCi, has given us impeccable service, advice and on-demand support through their help-desk, and this has been critical to our success. They are also very experienced in this field and share their knowledge readily. They offer products and services for all of the leading manufacturers of videoconferencing units, including Tandberg and Polycom, and will help to supply an affordable unit based on your budgetary requirements.

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