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Coming Soon to a Classroom Near You

By Liana Loewus — September 21, 2009 8 min read
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Two years ago, leaders in the Duval County School District in Florida found a way to open the classrooms of their most effective teachers without a hint of disruption to instruction.

The district partnered with the Schultz Center for Teaching and Leadership, a regional training facility for teachers and administrators, to implement “Model Classroom,” an initiative that uses videoconferencing for teacher training.

District officials selected high-performing teachers from several schools in the county to serve as model instructors. Throughout the school year, the Schultz Center held training classes during which large groups of teachers watched live model classroom lessons via videoconferencing. After each lesson, the model instructor would sit in front of the camera for a question-and-answer debriefing session with the educators.

“A lot of times I hear teachers being critical during a lesson, saying ‘Why’d she do that? That’s not what the book says you should do,’” says Dave Conte, vice president of the Schultz Center. “But during the Q&A, they end up saying, ‘Oh that makes sense, that’s actually a great idea,’ once the teacher explains. It happens almost every time.”


According to Conte, the Model Classroom initiative is successful because it allows participants to witness an authentic learning environment. The camera is hidden from the students and controlled by the trainer at the Schultz Center, so participants get a fly-on-the-wall effect. “The trainers love it—if the fire alarm goes off in middle, the teachers see how they bring the lesson back in,” says Conte.

Gaining Attention

Videoconferencing—generally defined as a live, two-way video presentation—is not a new phenomenon. According to the book Videoconferencing for K-12 Classrooms, AT&T developed the video-phone prototype as long ago as 1956. But while use of the technology began proliferating in higher education in the 1980s and 1990s, it is only now tiptoeing into the K-12 world.

According to a study commissioned by the videoconferencing provider TANDBERG and conducted by Wainhouse Research, about 30 percent of K-12 schoolsin the United States have adopted videoconferencing, but most use it mainly for virtual field trips.

Even so, videoconferencing is gaining attention as a potential way to transform staff development and expand teacher knowledge-sharing. Schools have used it to host interactive presentations by experts, broadcast trainings or demonstrations to other schools, expand professional learning communities, and, as in the Duval County example, expose teachers to exemplary classroom lessons.

Educators who have used videoconferencing claim that it can make professional development more engaging and immediate. Teachers like that it can provide training from other practicing teachers, rather than from professional development experts who may be far removed from the classroom.

Peer-to-Peer Connectivity

Videoconferencing seeks to broaden peer-to-peer connectivity by allowing participants to see and hear each other and share documents in a live setting. In a typical example, participants sit at a meeting table in front of a large TV screen or LCD projector with a similarly-equipped conference group on the other end. In other cases, the display screen is set up in front of a larger group, perhaps in an auditorium, and the presentation is broadcast there. Documents and PowerPoint slides may share the screen with the presenter or be displayed on a separate monitor.

Jeff Harker, a math teacher at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Indianapolis, offers professional development sessions via videoconferencing through the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration, a nonprofit organization that helps schools leverage collaborative technologies. Schools nationwide register for his workshops, which include “The Myth of Homework” and “Raising Achievement by Raising Confidence,” through the CILC Web site.

Harker says that the conferencing format provides an up-close, practitioner-to-practitioner experience that is often lacking in more traditional professional development approaches. “I’m not up on some pedestal saying you’re doing this wrong,” he explains. “I’m just saying this is stuff that worked for me and I want to share it with you.”

Janet Adams, curriculum-technology consultant in the Kings County Office of Education in California, has taken Harker’s video courses and agrees that the peer-to-peer element is helpful. “We were able to ask him content-area questions that make sense,” she says.

Misti Jennings, assistant principal at Crossroads Charter Academy in Hanford, Calif., recently took a three-day professional development course on technology through CILC that included a substantial videoconferencing component. That part of the session was valuable, she said, because she was able to learn directly from a pro. “We had an expert in the field showing us, not someone who was local and had a little bit of knowledge,” she said. “It felt like [the instructor] was right there.”

Equipment Glitches

Despite its potential, however, videoconferencing can present logistical challenges for schools. One of the major hurdles can be obtaining and operating the equipment. Although it’s now relatively routine to chat via Web camera, conferencing on a larger scale necessitates a more advanced system. The recommended equipment generally includes a codec (a decoding device similar to a modem), a display monitor, a presentation computer (for showing a computer screen), a document camera, and microphones. Many schools have yet to purchase the basic components, while others may have sufficient equipment but no one trained to use them.

Sean Wallace, a science teacher at the Irasburg Village School in Vermont, landed a TANDBERG videoconferencing system in his classroom after it sat unused in his principal’s office for months. A tech-savvy educator, Wallace taught himself to work with the equipment and now uses it for virtual field trips and broadcasting guest speakers to his classes. But he says that other teachers in his school are apprehensive about the technology. “I’m doing everything I can to push it, and it’s getting better certainly,” Wallace said. “But it’s hard getting some teachers to pick up a remote.”

Wallace would like to see more use of videoconferencing in his district for professional development, but understands the logistical holdups. Currently, teachers from around the district gather at one of the high schools for curriculum meetings on half days. “This would be very difficult to do through teleconferencing,” he says. “We’d need six [systems] going, and we can’t do that,” he explains.

Jeff Harker has also struggled with the technology in providing his training sessions. Although one of the high schools in his district is equipped for videoconferencing, Harker says he is not well-trained in the technology and has run into operational problems. He prefers to go to the CILC facility downtown, where he can use their videoconferencing room and has trained technology experts on hand.

The other major obstacle with videoconferencing for schools is cost. According to Ruth Blankenbaker, executive director of CILC, videoconferencing equipment can range from $5,000 for decent system to $10,000 to $15,000 for a high-end unit. While less expensive options are available, Blakenbaker emphasizes the importance of investing in quality. “If the technology is apparent,” she likes to say, “the learning will not be transparent.”

Kecia Ray, executive director of federal programs and grants for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and co-author of Videoconferencing for K-12 Classrooms, notes that some schools have begun using federal stimulus funds to update or purchase their videoconferencing technology.

More Training for Less

But like proud hybrid-car owners who point to their savings on gas, advocates of videoconferencing assure potential users that the upfront investments will ultimately pay off. After a recent training session at her school, Kings County curriculum and technology consultant Adams says, “We went, ‘Wow, that was simple.’ My director of curriculum said, ‘Last year we did a training and we had to house the person, pay for airline flights, we had to feed them. This is the least expensive training we’ve ever done.’”

“The traditional way of doing PD—to give an in-service day—is pretty troublesome,” adds Rajeev Arora, vice president of marketing and strategy for Elluminate, an e-learning software company that facilitates videoconferencing. “You’ve got to give teachers the day off, rent a facility, and hire substitutes to cover classes.” But videoconferencing, he says, increases flexibility. Rather than setting aside a full day, for example, administrators can split seminars into two-hour sessions and offer them after school.

Added flexibility also provides an opportunity to offer more follow-up. Doug Meyer, a consultant for CILC who provides teacher training through videoconferencing, says he is able to offer more sustained training to client schools because he doesn’t have to leave his office. “PD is so often a one-and-done scenario,” he explains. “But what happens after? Where is the follow-up? The coaching and mentoring?”

Adams, who has helped initiate over 400 videoconferencing sessions in her district, hopes to create more savings by expanding videoconferencing to all areas of professional development. She recently met an English-language learning expert who charges thousands of dollars to appear at schools, and asked her to consider doing an interactive videoconferencing session. The expert replied that she preferred a face-to-face interaction. “Well, then, you’ve never done videoconferencing before,” Adams responded.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2009 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook


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