Third-grader Kevin O’Connell (left) in his Florida elementary school class. Because an immune system disorder keeps Kevin in his home, the district’s network engineer, Walter Paschke, set up a videoconferencing solution that makes Kevin a real-time member of the class.

Jan 15 2008

A Healthy Education

Videoconferencing allows a Florida boy with an immune system deficiency to attend school for the first time.

Videoconferencing allows a Florida boy with an immune system deficiency to attend school for the first time.

Kevin O’Connell is a typical third grader at Spring Hill Elementary. He jumps up from his chair and recites the Pledge of Allegiance with his classmates. He huddles with his small reading group and reads a story when it’s his turn. And when he knows an answer, he raises his hand and patiently waits for his teacher to notice him in the back of the classroom. The only difference is, he’s actually attending class at home.

Kevin was born with hyper-IgM syndrome, a rare immune system disorder that prevents him from producing the antibodies necessary to fend off infections. Catching a cold is potentially lethal. As a result, his parents restrict his outside activities. The nine-year-old, who gets weekly antibody injections, is allowed to go outside on occasion, for such things as ice skating or shopping, but he must wear a mask and gloves to protect himself from germs.

Three years ago, when he reached school age, his parents decided that being in a classroom was out of the question. His situation left Florida’s Hernando County School Board in a quandary: How do you educate a child who can’t attend school?

During first and second grade, the district sent a teacher to the O’Connells’ home in Spring Hill to teach Kevin six hours a week. But with so little schooling, his parents and district administrators feared he was falling behind. So this school year, the district came up with a novel solution: a videoconferencing system that gives Kevin a live, interactive video link to his third-grade classroom. For Kevin, the ability to attend school for the first time in his life is a dream come true.

“I like it a lot,” says Kevin, whose favorite subject is math. “I get to really be there and see the class and everything.”

Real-Time Connection

The Hernando County School Board spent about $70,000 on the entire videoconferencing system, which includes a desktop videoconferencing device with an 8.4-inch screen so Kevin can view the class from his desk at home. With a touch-pad, he remotely controls a video camera located in the back of the classroom. He can see his classmates; zoom in on his teacher, Christina Lewis, when she lectures; or focus on the whiteboard to jot down the day’s homework assignments. The device has a built-in video camera pointed at him, so Lewis and Kevin’s classmates can see his face on a 32-inch LCD television in the back of the room. Both video cameras have microphones, so they can talk to each other as well.

“It’s like Kevin is in class with us,” says Lewis. “He’s real-time, so I can call on him with a question, and he answers. When I use the overhead projector to show vocabulary words, he reads the words on the whiteboard. It’s terrific. For any student who is homebound, cut off from the world or has special needs, this technology opens up the world to them.”

The Hernando County School Board’s IT department briefly considered a simple setup with a computer and a Web camera attached, but decided on the more elaborate videoconferencing system, which produces higher-quality video. With the new system in place, the school district can quickly and easily provide distance learning to future homebound students, says Walter Paschke, the district’s network engineer.

The district plans to buy 10 more video cameras so schools can explore videoconferencing as an educational tool in the future. “It gives us the ability to teach in new and different ways,” Paschke says.

In the meantime, Kevin is taking full advantage of the system, which the school district installed before classes started in late August.

Overcoming Problems

The videoconferencing system includes networking equipment that allows Kevin’s small videoconferencing unit and the video camera in the classroom to communicate and securely route video traffic back and forth. First, Paschke installed the hardware devices on the school’s network. Then he bought a cable-modem router and visited the O’Connells’ home to connect Kevin’s videoconferencing device to the family’s cable Internet connection.

Through videoconferencing- management software, Paschke programmed the video link to connect automatically every weekday morning at 8:55 a.m. and disconnect when school ends at 3:10 p.m. The district has plenty of bandwidth, so to ensure good video quality, he set the connection at 512 kilobits per second. As part of a separate project, last summer the district increased the bandwidth to each school, from 1.5 megabits per second to 10mbps.

When the school year began, the video connection was spotty and disconnected as many as four times a day. Paschke quickly discovered the problem was a dynamic Internet Protocol address. Paschke contacted the provider, explained the situation, and the provider dedicated a static IP address at no extra cost.

“The first week was hard, but Kevin was a trouper,” Lewis recalls. “He didn’t get frustrated and he didn’t complain. I’d just type in the calling code to dial him back in and I’d see his little face back on the screen.”

Lewis initially worried about how her students would react to the technology, but they embraced it. She perched a teddy bear on Kevin’s seat in the back left-hand corner of the classroom to show students where Kevin would normally sit. The IT staff put the video camera and the television on a cart in the same vicinity and set the TV’s volume to broadcast Kevin’s voice at the same level as that of students in the classroom.

“I thought they’d get distracted. But I explained what was going on, and they accepted it,” Lewis says. “The kids are so used to technology these days it’s no big deal. They said, ‘Oh, OK, he’s on a Webcam.’ He’s their friend now and they come in and say ‘Good morning, Kevin.’ ”

Kevin also adapted quickly. His mom, Joan, turned an empty bedroom in the house into Kevin’s personal classroom with a desk, chair and his parent’s notebook computer and fax machine to use when he needs it. During the first few weeks of school, his dad, John, or his mom sat with him to make sure he could maneuver the camera and stay focused on his schoolwork. Now Kevin attends class by himself, although his mom — inspired by Kevin — is usually in the same room, taking online college courses on her notebook computer.

When it’s time to break off into small groups for reading or a science experiment, students gather around the TV and video camera so Kevin can take part. When the class takes a test or students grade each other’s papers, Kevin can do it, too. Lewis faxes the paperwork to him, and once he’s done, he faxes it back to her.

Fitting In

Kevin has excelled in school and was honored as student of the month for his class in November. “He’s a fantastic, wonderful student,” Lewis says.

Every Thursday, his dad drives to school and picks up a basket of schoolwork, textbooks and supplies that Kevin will need for the week.

Only about 20 percent of males who have hyper-IgM syndrome live beyond their 25th birthday, but Kevin’s mother is staying positive and is hopeful that researchers will find a cure in the near future.

In the meantime, with everything Kevin has gone through, being able to attend school has had a huge impact on his life, Joan says.

“It’s amazing. I never, in my wildest dreams, thought he could be home-schooled this way,” she says. “He absolutely loves it, and I couldn’t be happier. I wouldn’t change this in any way. That’s how good it is.”

Teaching at a Distance

Here are some skills that teachers need to be successful distance learning leaders:

  • Plan and manage materials at remote site
  • Use good presentation skills, including movement and eye contact
  • Use different types of camera shots and props
  • Follow all copyright laws

History of Distance Learning

Today, distance learning is synonymous with online courses, in which students can read a teacher’s lecture online, view video lectures or listen to PowerPoint presentations with voiceovers. With online courses, students can also join interactive forums to talk to teachers and other students and take tests online.

The concept of distance learning, however, dates back to the mid-1800s with correspondence education, in which lessons were received through the mail. In the 1920s, educational radio was invented, but was quickly replaced by educational television in the 1940s. Taped or live classes on television remain popular to this day.

Videoconferencing is also becoming more popular as more schools invest in the technology.