When Michael Magers was a regional director for ResponsiveEd, a public charter school system with over 70 K–12 schools in Texas and Arkansas, he was in charge of 13 schools spread out over 600 miles, all of which he was supposed to visit each week.
“It was very difficult to be effective at all and help [principals] do their jobs,” Magers says.
Unlike a traditional school district, Magers says ResponsiveEd schools tend to be hours apart, some in very rural areas, which made it difficult for teachers and school administrators to seek support from their peers.
“A fair number of our schools are in outlying areas. In some places, it’s even difficult to make phone calls,” Magers says.
Relying on his previous experience working in video conferencing, Magers went to the leaders of ResponsiveEd with a proposition: Roll out Logitech webcams to each regional director.
Magers, now Responsive Ed’s director of distance and learning technologies, says about 40 percent of his total travel budget went down since the roll out of the cameras, and the satisfaction at the schools “probably went up 300 percent.”
“[Video conferencing] has overwhelming benefits,” says Jim Flanagan, the chief learning services officer of ISTE. “It helps to remove the walls between students, teachers, and communities. Every educator should be looking at leveraging it to enable their students to be more connected.”
A Cost-Effective and Easy-To-Use Tech Solution
With the products they chose, Magers says the interface was quite easy to use, also noting that Logitech’s cloud platform eliminates a lot of the possible user error involving hardware.
“I have people who still aren’t sure of how to use their smartphones that are able to walk up to the Logitech, turn it on and start a conference,” he says.
As with the implementation of any new tool, Flanagan’s advice to educators who are establishing video conferencing is simple: Aim to develop a standardized protocol of use, including test runs and logging on 5-10 minutes prior to the call, just in case errors do occur.
As current technology has moved video conferencing solutions away from traditional hardware to IP-enabled cameras, Flanagan says it has made room for a lot of low-cost options.
“About 10 years ago, video conferencing used to be an expensive proposition,” Magers says. “When I came across Zoom and Logitech, I discovered that right out of the box, they were able to do more than I could do without spending a lot of money.”
One of the huge money savers for ResponsiveEd has been annual training sessions. Prior to the implementation of video conferencing, only a very small fraction of staff that needed comprehensive training were brought in once per year; the attendess would then go back and share with staff members who didn’t attend.
“We were trying to do a brain dump of 12 months of training in a day and a half. It was very expensive and it wasn’t working well,” says Magers. “Adoption of the ConferenceCams has given us the ability to do training anytime.”
Now that the schools understand how to use the cameras, the next phase is to put the ConferenceCam and display onto a rolling cart, so that video conferencing can be done from any location in the schools.
This way, Magers says, they can fully utilize the main reason for installing the cameras: Collaboration for students and teachers.
“Learning is inherently social,” ISTE’s Flanagan says. “These kids are digital natives and they can bring a lot of insights. You can let the kids help guide you on how to optimize this and design lessons.”
Creating an Environment for Future Collaboration
Collaboration has long been one of the biggest benefits of using video conferencing at schools. In a 2015 article on The Journal, schools in rural Alaska were profiled as big proponents of video conferencing as a tool to connect state schools to each other and to the rest of the country.
Using Polycom RealPresence Desktop and Microsoft Lync, the article reports that students at Kenai Central High School and Skyview Middle School have been able to do group projects with each other and with students in Palestine and Ghana.
“We used video conferencing to share content between classrooms, but we wanted to take it to the next level,” says Skyview world history teacher Greg Zorbas in the article.
At the ResponsiveEd schools, besides making it a lot easier for regional directors to check in on the various campuses, Magers says video conferencing has done a lot to connect the schools and their staff.
“There’s now a lot of ability to collaborate between the schools,” he says. “Teachers are able to seek out mentoring from other teachers.”
Magers says the hope is to create these collaboration networks and regular “best-of-the-best” programming where teachers with a particular skill set can provide professional development or even guest teaching across the schools.
Magers also hopes that in the future, they can open up video conferencing to experts at museums, aquariums and laboratories to talk to the students about a variety of subjects.
“For a kid, that makes education come alive. I think we’re still just lifting the curtain for what this technology can do.”