Video Conferencing Expands Education

"With video conferencing, you can figuratively tear down the walls of the classroom," says Martha Bogart, a distance learning coordinator for Cooperating School Districts (CSD) in St. Louis. "You can take your class anywhere in the world and see and talk with anyone you want."

CSD, a nonprofit educational consortium providing cooperative purchasing, technology, staff development, legislative, human resource, research and financial services to 61 public school districts in the St. Louis metropolitan area, is doing just that. In deploying interactive video conferencing, the consortium is enriching curriculum for 300,000 students — one-third of Missouri's public school students.

Expanding Education

For example, students at one middle school recently participated in a classroom enrichment program through a New York-based Global Nomads Group (GNG), a non-profit organization dedicated to heightening children's understanding and appreciation for the world and its people. GNG video conferenced with the students from Breijing Refugee Camp (located along the Chad/Sudan border), where thousands of Sudanese, displaced from the current conflict in Darfur, are living.

"Our children were able to talk one on one with children their own age," says Bogart. "They were able to ask them what their life had been previously and what their life is like now. It was a miraculous, wonderful experience."

As a result of the program, the Missouri students began a number of service projects. "They began finding out where to send food and clothing, who they should send it to and how it was going to get there," says Bogart. "They learned about the political realities of the situation. That kind of teaching and learning can’t go on any way but this. When these kids are adults, they won’t remember too much about what happened in middle school, but they’re never going to forget this experience."

In addition to enriching the classroom experience, video conferencing adds equity to education for rural students. Alan Phillips, video conferencing specialist with the Learning Technologies Department of the Imperial County Office of Education (ICOE) in California knows rural — his county covers 4,597 miles of desert terrain. Bordering Mexico and Arizona, its 17 school districts and 59 schools serve 36,000 students.

Phillips also knows how well video conferencing serves these students. The county's most remote school is on an Indian reservation on the Arizona border. About eight to 10 students in that school needed a humanities course. The school didn't have the staff expertise, nor could they afford to hire a teacher, to provide the class. "They asked us for help," he says. "We have a person on staff whose background was music, so we arranged for him to teach music appreciation to those students.

"Rather than offer the class to just one school, we offered it to all the schools," Phillips continues. "Two of them chose to participate. Separately, it's difficult to offer a course for a low number of students but, collaboratively, we can put the numbers together and justify it."

In another example, the county had a student who was beginning the second semester of her senior year and still needed a geography credit to graduate. Unfortunately, the school wasn't offering geography that semester. "One way to solve that requirement would have been to see what the community college offered," Phillips says. "But that was difficult. So we put out some feelers to our other high schools, and one of them said the student could take geography with them. We set up video conferencing in the teacher's classroom and in the library at the student's high school, where she tuned in every day, met her requirement and graduated."

Students aren't the only ones who benefit from video conferencing. Districts, both rural and urban, are finding it an advantage when it comes to staff development. They're able to pool resources, save time and save money.

For example, California offers the AB 75, a two-year principal training program. "Our county office serves as a training office for our county's principals," says Phillips. "We gave all of the administrators who are participating in this program a desktop video monitor. A lot of follow-up training is taking place via video conferencing. We're also seeing, as a spin off, that the administrators are talking to each other. For example, if an administrator has an issue, he'll call another administrator and ask if that person has had that experience and how he dealt with it."

In addition, the county is using video conferencing to participate in state meetings. "The first time we did it was for the Telecommunications Technology Steering Committee of the California County Superintendent's Association," recalls Phillips. "A rough estimate is that we saved $18,000 for just that one single meeting."

Because the technology worked so well, the association, which meets every month, now videoconferences every other meeting. "The technology also allows for greater participation," says Phillips. Rather than just his boss driving to and participating in the meeting, everyone in the office can participate, according to what's on the agenda.

Getting Connected

ICOE began its video conferencing program about six years ago when it received a Technology Innovation Challenge Grant from the Department of Education. With that money, the BorderLink Project was created. "The grant was to enhance post-secondary opportunities for students who don't have the resources because of their geographic isolation," says Phillips. "We're using technology to provide them with a better chance of entering college."

In addition to the funds, ICOE is using partnerships to build its video network. One is with the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), the local water and utility company. IID let ICOE use the excess fiber-optic capacity on its network for significant cost savings. It also allowed ICOE to access IID power poles to install cable from site to site.

ICOE's video conferencing system is built on IP, as opposed to ISDN. This approach allowed ICOE to leverage the schools' existing LAN infrastructure and provide all of the schools in the county the ability to videoconference between sites.

In addition to deploying a centrally located large room video conferencing system at each school, ICOE desired to equip every classroom in the county with video capability, a dream that comes with a large price tag. At $500 per unit, Polycom’s ViaVideo IP desktop video appliance did the trick. As a result, ICOE has installed almost 300 ViaVideos at all of the high schools. In addition, four San Diego county high schools that are part of the network each have a Polycom ViewStation FX video system.

Phillips says the goal is to continue to build upon their success by making video conferencing a statewide tool: "We've been working in a microcosm within our county. Now we're taking it across the state to all K-12 schools." He notes that county offices can be connected through funding from the California K-12 High Speed Network and schools can pay for it through E-Rate and grants.

In comparison, CSD began its video conferencing program, called Links to New Learning, about the same time, through a grant from SBC. The money was used to purchase a bridge. In addition, CSD schools were given money with which they purchased CODECs. The CODECs allow you to do video conferencing, and the bridge allows you to bridge multiple sites together. At this time, connections were made through ISDN lines.

"There are good points and bad points to ISDN lines," says Bogart. "When you make a video call over an ISDN line, the good point is that it’s a dedicated line. There aren't a lot of technical difficulties." The downside is that, because an ISDN line is six different phone lines (three twisted pairs), you’re paying for six long distance calls.

Now CSD is making the transition to IP. The advantage is that the long distance phone charges are eliminated because you’re already paying an IP service provider. But the transition comes with challenges, including firewall issues. "You have to involve the network person, and you have to reconfigure the network," Bogart says.

CSD is working through the transition with the statewide MORENet network, based in Columbia. "We have a dedicated T1 line that goes from MORENet to our bridge in St. Louis," says Bogart. "Our customers who have IP phone lines dial into MORENet’s bridge, which dials in to our ISDN bridge. Our ISDN customers dial into the ISDN bridge. If we have an ISDN dial out, we dial out to a content provider."

With the grant money long gone, the video conferencing technology continues to be made possible through yearly consortium membership fees. Altogether, the program uses Polycom ViewStation FX and ViewStation 512 video systems at the St. Louis office and an additional 70-plus ViewStation systems in classrooms around the state.

Now expanding on the technology's capabilities, a couple of CSD's bigger districts have bought more CODECs and are trying to see if they can make them portable. "The challenge," says Bogart, "is they’re trying to do it via IP and, when you move the CODEC from one building to another, you have to assign it a different IP address. It’s working in some areas, and they’re having issues in others."