The remote Alaskan villages on Kodiak Island span 100 miles, and many are reachable only by airplane. Providing teachers and students access to video conferencing can fill gaps in educational opportunities, bringing the outside world to these communities.
“In some districts, there’s only two teachers who are very often teaching secondary English, math, science and all other subjects as well as middle school subjects,” says Anthony White, educational technologist for the Kodiak Island Borough School District. “That’s a tall order for anyone.”
The district began using a Polycom video conferencing system about five years ago, but the program has gained momentum in recent years since the district began using a cloud-based service from Blue Jeans Network. In the past, the district could run only one class at a time, but now it can stack classes by using the Blue Jeans service to hold a literature course at the same time it’s running an Algebra I or Algebra II course.
“Blue Jeans is really easy for the teachers and students to use,” White says. “All they have to do is click on a couple of links, and they are up and running on a video conference. The quality is good, and because it’s so easy to use, it lowers the barrier of entry. Students and teachers can spend more time on the content as opposed to figuring out how to use the technology.”
Teachers run classes on a mix of systems. They’ll use Polycom equipment for a physical classroom feel, while using Blue Jeans on desktops to share documents and other educational content. The Kodiak Island Borough School District runs music programs that enable remote students to learn violin, percussion, flute, recorder and guitar via video conferencing. The district has used video conferencing to run cultural exchange programs with school districts in Australia, and will host a robotics competition with the intent of making it possible for some students to compete in statewide contests that lead to national competitions.
“This is where we really make a difference,” White says. “I know that the major telecommunications companies support robotics and other science competitions nationally, but I don’t know of many other organizations that are supporting such underserved areas.”
As video conferencing becomes mainstream, many districts can’t afford to deploy in-room systems to every conference room or building, says Andrew W. Davis, senior partner and analyst for Wainhouse Research. “As cloud-based video technology becomes more affordable, scalable and reliable, we expect that these cloud video systems will become the preferred communications strategy in most organizations within the next three years.”
Video Extends Access
Deer River Public Schools in Minnesota has also enjoyed a great deal of success by offering educational opportunities to students in underserved districts via video conferencing. Deer River works with the Itasca Area Schools Collaborative, which supports 7,000 students across 3,500 square miles.
Superintendent Matt Grose says roughly 40 percent of the students in the Deer River Independent School District are Native Americans, many of whom face extreme poverty. The collaborative has used Cisco TelePresence to offer a variety of courses, from foreign languages (including Spanish and Ojibwe) and English composition to advanced math and everything in between.
The ability to run video conferencing also comes in handy when teachers leave or retire. For example, the physics teacher in one of the districts retired recently, and Deer River was able to run a video conference so the students studying physics could still have access to the course. “It’s great that we can extend our reach, because all students deserve every opportunity to learn,” Grose says.
Moving forward, he says Deer River and the Itasca collaborative plan to use Cisco WebEx to run video conferencing sessions for guest speakers and educational programs. “The cloud-based system is just much easier for guests to use, plus we use Cisco WebEx for meetings with our vendors. In fact, we do a lot of sessions and training with Cisco via WebEx.”