David Bass supports more than 60,000 students who use Florida Virtual School’s online courses to supplement their education.

Jan 07 2009

Videoconferencing Takes Distance Learning Programs to Another Level

Three schools share how they use unique distance learning approaches to bridge the education gap.

Three schools share how they use unique distance learning approaches to bridge the education gap.

700,000 The number of online courses K–12 students took during the 2005–2006 school year

To improve education, teachers at Wilson County Schools in Tennessee aren’t just thinking outside the box, they’re thinking outside the classroom walls.

The mostly rural school district is developing a distance learning program, using videoconferencing technology that will make it possible for high school students from all corners of the district to take classes that are not taught at their schools. Wilson County Schools will first deploy videoconferencing in Barbara Hallums’ Discrete Math classroom, where she will teach her Lebanon High School students while simultaneously lecturing and interacting remotely with students from nearby Watertown High School through a live two-way video feed.

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“We are a large high school and Watertown is not, so it can’t offer as many courses as we do,” Hallums says. “This allows us to give their students the same educational opportunities as the rest of the students in this county.”

Online distance learning has become a hot trend in K–12 education in recent years as bandwidth has increased and technology has improved. According to a 2007 study by the Sloan Consortium, 63 percent of all school districts offer online courses, with another 21 percent planning to offer them in the next three years.

Some schools such as Wilson County offer live distance learning courses using videoconferencing technology, while others offer more traditional self-paced classes. With learning management systems, students can log in to read their lessons, watch videos of lectures and chat with their teachers online.

Distance learning enables students to take courses they might not have access to by allowing school districts to pool their educational resources and tap their teachers’ expertise. For example, if a district has only one German language teacher, that teacher can serve students throughout the district as opposed to just those in one school. Self-paced distance learning classes allow students to make up coursework if they’re behind and give them flexibility with their schedules, particularly if courses they need conflict with extracurricular activities.

There are many techniques that can be used for distance learning. Here is a look at how three schools have deployed technology to provide this opportunity to their students.

Florida Virtual School

Florida Virtual School, founded in 1997, is the country’s largest online public school, serving more than 60,000 middle and high school students. Only 5 percent are full-time online students; the remaining 95 percent go online to supplement their education. With enrollment increasing between 25 to 50 percent every year, the school’s IT department is continually upgrading and improving its applications and tech infrastructure, says David Bass, director of information systems and support. Florida Virtual School relies on two primary web-based applications: a third-party course management system that lets students take self-paced classes and communicate with their teachers, and a custom-built student information system used by teachers to grade and track student progress.

Students are taught through what is called “asynchronous learning”: They log in to the course management system and study on their own by reading their lessons, then submit homework to teachers online. They also can e-mail or call their teachers and chat with fellow students on online discussion boards, Bass says.

International The U.K. and China inked a deal in September 2007 to develop e-learning content for 20 million Chinese students.

Source: Evergreen Consulting Associates

The school also offers a web conferencing and collaboration tool, which allows teachers to give live lectures, write on online interactive whiteboards and deliver PowerPoint or short video presentations. Teachers and students can also use the tool to instant message or talk live to each other. As a complement to the self-paced approach, “it’s an opportunity to engage with students and teach in a synchronous way,” Bass says.

In the early days, Florida Virtual School’s faculty designed the course content. The school has since hired a development team to create an improved user interface that includes interactive Flash applications, Bass says.

The school’s 530 full-time faculty and 30 adjunct instructors are telecommuters, so the IT department equips them with Lenovo notebook computers, monitors and printers.

Two years ago, the school invested about $160,000 in new data center equipment, including two new IBM BladeCenters that house about two dozen blades; an IBM storage area network; F5 Networks Big-IP load balancers to improve the reliability; stability and speed of its servers, and Check Point firewalls for security.

At the time, the school migrated its in-house data center to a service provider’s collocation facility in Tampa and invested in a backup data center that is hosted and managed by the same service provider in Chicago. The school built a third data center that runs a test environment as well as the school’s new Voice over IP phone system.

This year, Florida Virtual School will begin offering classes to elementary school students, but it’s unclear what the IT impact will be, Bass says. The school has partnered with another school to provide the elementary classes, and for the time being is using its partner’s technology in the effort, he says. In the meantime, Florida Virtual School continues to improve its infrastructure. The IT team recently built an intranet using Microsoft Office SharePoint Server, which provides faculty and staff centralized access to applications, and the school is planning to give students Web 2.0 tools, including blogging capabilities.

“We fight tooth and nail to make sure we provide students, faculty and administrators with tech solutions that are the best,” Bass says.

Charlotte County Public Schools

Chris Bress of Charlotte County, Fla., says distance learning helps schools pool resources, which lets the districts offer a broader selection of courses.

Alex McKnight

College algebra is in high demand in Charlotte County high schools, but only one teacher in the Florida district has the credentials to teach it.

So last year, in a pilot project to determine the effectiveness of distance learning, the district used video-conferencing to allow the Port Charlotte High School teacher to teach the popular math class simultaneously to her students and to students at Lemon Bay High School, 16 miles away.

The pilot was so successful, administrators gave IT the green light to purchase more videoconferencing equipment to expand the district’s distance learning program, says Chris Bress, Charlotte County’s director of learning through technology. The district will now be able to offer students a broader selection of courses, including more AP and foreign language classes. Distance learning technology makes this affordable, Bress says, because it allows the district to offer college-level courses to students at other schools without having to hire additional teachers.

Coast to Coast Significant online learning courses for K–12 students are available in 44 states.

Source: Evergreen Consulting Associates

In the past, for example, if eight students in each of the district’s three high schools wanted to take AP history, none of the schools could afford individually to offer the class, says Bress. Now, through videoconferencing, one teacher can teach AP history to those 24 students regardless of which schools they attend.

“It’s ‘win-win’ because kids who normally wouldn’t be able to take a class will eventually be able to, and the teachers with the expertise in subjects they love will be able to teach those classes,” Bress says.

For the pilot, Bress installed a Polycom VSX 7000-series videoconferencing system (which includes a video camera, speakers and omnidirectional microphones) in each of the two high schools. He placed a video camera and a 17-inch flatscreen TV on a cart in the back of the teacher’s classroom. In the remote classroom, he installed a camera and a large LCD projection screen at the front of the room.

With that setup, the teacher can see and hear the remote students, and vice versa. In fact, the LCD projection screen is big enough that students in the remote classroom can actually see what the teacher is writing on the whiteboard.

The algebra teacher is assisted by a second math teacher at the remote site, who collects tests from students and passes out school work. Bress equipped each classroom with multifunction printers, which allow the teachers to scan and e-mail students’ work to each other.

The district plans to add more distance learning courses next school year, Bress says. “We are in its infancy. There is so much potential for this.”

Wilson County Schools

Barbara Hallums (left), Kim Clemmons and Tom Waller use distance learning to offer students at Wilson County Schools expanded educational opportunities.

Tamara Reynolds

School districts in Tennessee have partnered to offer asynchronous, self-paced distance learning classes through a program called e4TN. But Wilson County Schools is doing more by developing its own distance learning program, using videoconferencing technology to provide students in smaller, rural schools the same educational opportunities offered by its larger suburban schools.

The district is launching its new distance learning program in high schools first, says Kim Clemmons, supervisor for teacher training and instructional technology. Eventually it will make the program available to the lower grades.

“The rural high schools don’t offer as many courses, so if students want to take certain classes, they have to drive as far as 20 to 25 miles to the nearest large high school to take those classes,” Clemmons explains.


On the Rise Nearly 30 percent of schools with supplemental online learning programs had a 50 percent increase in course enrollment.

Source: Evergreen Consulting Associates

Discrete Math teacher Barbara Hallums will teach the district’s first distance learning class using videoconferencing equipment in January. Hallums developed a hybrid synchronous and asynchronous class that includes live lectures and self-paced computer lessons that both her students at Lebanon High School and her remote students at Watertown High School will need to complete.

The district purchased Adobe Systems e-learning software, including Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro for web conferencing and Adobe Presenter for developing computerized self-paced lessons, Clemmons says. In Hallums’ classroom, the IT department has installed a video camera, desktop computer, interactive whiteboard, speakers and a document camera.

Now, instead of driving the 12 miles to Lebanon High School, Watertown students will simply go to their school’s computer lab, log on and don a headset with a microphone to take part in Hallums’ lectures. Logitech webcams sit atop each monitor, allowing Hallums to see each student from her computer. She, in turn, can get a larger view of her remote class by projecting the video feed of her students onto her classroom’s interactive whiteboard or a second projector screen in her classroom, says Tom Waller, the district’s technology director.

“They can see everything that’s going on. She can push it out to the remote students,” Waller explains.

With her computer, Hallums can project a PowerPoint presentation onto the whiteboard. Using Adobe software, she can change the remote students’ view, from a video feed of her teaching to the PowerPoint she’s presenting.

Hallums says the technology is a cinch to use — and the students love it.

Videoconferencing Best Practices

Chris Bress, director of learning through technology at Charlotte County (Fla.) Public Schools, shares three tips on installing videoconferencing equipment in classrooms.

  1. Place the microphone in the middle of the room. If the speakers are too close, the microphone will pick up sound from the speakers and create an audio loop.
  2. Require that teachers turn off the equipment when it’s not in use. Last year, school staffers accidentally left a camera on overnight, which caused the video quality to degrade the next day. The IT staff fixed the problem by turning off the camera and letting it cool.
  3. Mount the videoconferencing equipment on walls or ceilings. It will reduce the amount of wiring on the floor that people can trip over.

Top Five Reasons to Offer Distance Learning Courses

  • To offer courses not otherwise available at the school
  • To meet the needs of specific groups of students
  • To offer Advanced Placement or college-level courses
  • To reduce scheduling conflicts for students
  • To permit students who fail a course to take it again

SOURCE: Sloan Consortium, 2007 report

<p>Forrest MacCormack</p>