School to Go: Technology for Temporarily Homebound Students

From 2008 through 2009, Dr. Pavel Samsonov, of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, ran an experiment to see if video conferencing was a viable method of teaching homebound high school students. Noting that he had entertained the idea of such an experiment for a number of years, he decided to move forward with it when Skype became available, especially considering that the high-quality program is free.

Skype management accepted Samsonov’s proposal, providing him with computers and Web cameras.

Working with Steve Harris, a special education coordinator with Louisiana’s St. Mary Parish, who used Skype to communicate with his colleagues, the pair identified three students to participate in the pilot program, one with psychological issues and two with pregnancy complications.

Two of the students dropped out of the program; the third student — one with a complicated pregnancy — persevered. She attended school from home, using Skype to see and hear her lessons, and also having the ability to be seen and heard. “Had it not been for Skype,” says Samsonov, “she probably would have dropped out of school.”

Samsonov reflects that this pilot was a successful first step, and he desires to continue testing the viability of video conferencing as an educational tool once he secures additional funding. The next round will include a handful of additional stipulations. First, he will focus on students who are out of school for short periods of time, say up to three weeks. Because math and science knowledge builds from previous lessons, he notes, it is challenging for students to get caught up after missing a couple of weeks, which results in low test scores. Second, he will use real teachers as opposed to researchers to emphasize the commitment to the students. Third, he will initiate a contract with the students and their parents, stating that they understand that logging in to school with Skype is just as mandatory as physically attending class. “Psychologically, it tells students that they’re in class, it’s just at home,” he says. And fourth, he will use middle school students as opposed to high school students because parents of middle schoolers are more involved than are parents of high schoolers.

Ultimately, Samsonov advocates that technology is an effective teaching tool when used in appropriately creative and engaging ways. “We should be teaching future teachers the philosophy that there is a lot of technology and software available,” he says, “and it can be used to make lessons exciting. Not every lesson has to be completely laden with technology, but it should be incorporated because it appeals to the students.”