Jul 17 2013

When It Comes to Distance Learning, Schools Use What Works

Teachers say a mix of technologies such as webcams, video conferencing and smartphones works best with today’s students.

Gail Wortmann of Iowa Learning Online has a practical approach to distance learning. Wortmann, who teaches anatomy and physiology courses to high school students statewide, says she uses the technology that best fits the situation.

“I have the students check in with me about once a week via webcam, and I’ll do some lectures via webcam,” Wortmann says. “For assignments, I’ll post the work on a wiki, and the students will communicate with one another via text.”

Wortmann says it makes more sense to lean on the technologies that students are comfortable using. While some of her students communicate via video chat, most still prefer texting.

Iowa Learning Online supports roughly 800 students statewide and recently received $4.5 million to expand the program. Teachers broadcast to students via webcams set up at schools across the state that connect to the Iowa Communications Network. In some instances, teachers broadcast from home using Skype or Adobe Connect.


The percentage of district IT directors surveyed who say budget cuts led to an expansion of distance learning courses in their district

SOURCE: “State of the K–12 Market 2012” (EdNET Insight)

“We find, when starting a new course or project, that video lectures via webcam are effective,” Wortmann says. “It helps for the students to know there’s a person on the other side to whom they are accountable.”

Kathleen Brantley, director of research for consultancy EdNET Insight, concurs with Wortmann’s point about taking a lead from the students.

“So many students at least have a smartphone, so it certainly makes sense to go with what they’re comfortable using,” Brantley says. “With districts facing budget cuts, we see a lot moving to online courses.” The key requirements are expanding bandwidth, mobility and using a mix of technologies, including webcams, video conferencing, and Internet-based services such as

Skype and Google Hangout.

A Mix of Technologies

Dawn Ferreyra, e-learning and distance education supervisor at Omaha Public Schools in Nebraska, says the district’s underlying video system is based on Cisco Systems Telepresence.

While many of the teachers broadcast out of video conferencing centers at the high schools, some also plug a Cisco Telepresence Precision HD USB camera into their notebook computers.

“Most notebooks have webcams, so that’s primarily how students connect,” Ferreyra says.

Tips for Selecting Distance Learning Technologies

Kathleen Brantley, director of research for EdNET Insight, offers three tips for IT managers and administrators who are rolling out technologies to support distance learning.

  1. Develop a plan: Determine goals for distance learning. Are the courses geared for remediation? Gifted and talent students? Or is the point to offer courses that aren’t viable in certain schools, such as a foreign language?
  2. Upgrade the network. Distance learning is contingent on a network that can handle the load. Even if districts decide against building a studio, they will still need sufficient bandwidth for students to run Skype or Google Hangout sessions on their webcams.
  3. Don’t assume students know the technology. For many students, technology means smartphones and texting. And just because they grew up with the Internet doesn’t mean that they know about video editing tools or learning management systems for online courses. Set aside some time for teachers to explain the new tools to students.

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