Apr 17 2008

Knocking Down the Walls

Knocking Down the Walls


Janine Lim

Imagine your students talking to a scientist at the famous Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., to dispel myths about sharks, or creating unique paper airplanes to learn about flight under the guidance of a NASA scientist. Would your high school performing arts students concentrate better if they knew they were exchanging a performance with peers in England? Even students as young as 5 can liven up their learning by acting out their favorite story for a class in Alberta, Canada, as part of Read Around the Planet. These engaging experiences are just a sample of what H.323 (IP videoconferencing) could bring to your classroom.

About a quarter of the schools in the United States have access to H.323 videoconferencing. While some schools use videoconferencing for traditional activities, such as full-course delivery or professional development, an increasing number of schools use this interactive technology to access content providers, authors, experts, and local and international classrooms to meet curriculum goals.

“Curriculum videoconferencing” comprises three main types of instructional events: connecting to content providers, such as zoos and museums; participating in organized student projects, such as Read Around the Planet; and creating and generating classroom-to-classroom collaborations. Students can be motivated through interaction with experts and peers; access to real-world learning with authors, specialists and scientists; and exposure to other viewpoints, which promotes cultural understanding.

Setup Requirements

To get started, you need a videoconferencing unit. Generally, classroom-based videoconferencing units cost between $5,000 and $20,000 depending on the features included, the peripherals you want to connect to the unit and the type of cart and monitors you choose. Some schools buy only the videoconferencing unit and connect it to existing monitors or projectors, but most buy a complete mobile cart or invest in a high-end room installation.

Another important consideration is bandwidth — do you have enough for videoconferencing? Most calls to schools and content providers are made at 384 kilobits per second. If you have a T1 line to your school, make sure you have regularly available bandwidth for the videoconference. It may be possible to implement quality-of-service settings on your routers to give preference to videoconference traffic. Schools with Internet access through cable companies should make sure the upload speed is high enough for the remote site to receive a high-quality picture.

The most important part of implementation is to train and support a coordinator who can be a champion for videoconferencing in your school. This should be someone who understands curriculum and has a teaching background.

Videoconferencing can bring engaging educational experiences to your students and assist teachers in meeting curriculum goals in creative ways. With careful planning and consideration, you can bring these opportunities to your school.

A Whole New Way to Teach

How can interacting with experts change a class? Just ask Karl Fisch’s students at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colo. Fisch, Arapahoe’s director of technology, asked his students to read the 2005 Daniel Pink best-seller, A Whole New Mind.

Naturally, he allowed his students to communicate with the author. But he also brought in educational technology expert and noted contrarian Gary Stager. A professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education, Stager challenged some of the conclusions Pink draws in his book, forcing students to consider the divergent views of two professionals.

While the exercise wasn’t designed to make students pick sides, the lively debate did force students on both sides to back up their opinions. That’s the kind of learning that everyone can agree with.

H.323 In Depth

H.323 may not be the catchiest title, but it’s quickly becoming a term that more schools should be familiar with. Simply put, H.323 is a definition of the protocols needed to provide audio-visual communication on any packet network. There are basically two types of videoconferencing: Dedicated video teleconferencing (VTC) systems have all the required components in one piece of equipment, while desktop VTC systems are add-ons to normal PCs, transforming them into VTC devices. Video teleconferencing is gaining popularity as high-speed Internet connections become more common.