In February 2017, I was a digital coach at Pinecrest Academy St. Rose, a middle school in Las Vegas, where I supported teachers and students with tech-based initiatives.
A colleague of mine was teaching about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and his U.S. history students wanted to learn more.
I contacted Clint Hill, who worked as a Secret Service agent and witnessed the shooting in Dallas in 1963, and asked if he could speak to the class. Hill, who had served in Jacqueline Kennedy’s Secret Service detail, agreed to do a live session from San Francisco.
We originally planned to connect by phone, but I figured why not try a videoconference? We agreed to use the technology to connect the students for a once-in-a-lifetime history lesson.
In my 10 years as an educator, I had never seen such high-impact lessons before. I decided to run with it and create as many guest speaking events as possible for students.
5 Ways to Expand Learning Beyond Classroom Walls
Videoconferencing, also known as web conferencing, is not new. But at Pinecrest Academy, we’ve developed a unique program that features videoconferencing sessions several times a week, at multiple schools, at minimal cost.
In some cases, we’ve set up videoconferencing programs that simultaneously connect up to 200 classrooms in five countries.
The vast majority of the sessions, though, connect our classrooms with the speakers, who typically conduct the sessions in their home or at their office.
Teachers contact me all the time to ask how we got started. It requires minimal technology — and schools already have much of the basic infrastructure needed.
Use these five best practices to get a videoconferencing program started in your district.
Set goals and an overall vision: Will the videoconferencing run only for one school’s students, or will the school open it up to other schools in the district, local community colleges and universities, or other institutions around the country or world? It’s best to start with high school students because they are more mature, but any group from fifth or sixth grade up will work fine.
Determine technical requirements: There’s a very low barrier to entry with videoconferencing. Anyone can get started with an internet connection and a computing device that has a webcam and a projector. Most schools already have these pieces in place. If the guest speaker isn’t comfortable with the video tools, it’s possible to send them an audio link from a videoconferencing service, which allows the speaker to connect to the classroom, make a presentation and answer questions with students in an audio-only format. We once had a 94-year-old guest speaker who was a Holocaust survivor and was uncomfortable with the video setup. In that situation, the audio-only connection worked well.
Embrace the flipped classroom: Videoconferencing is a great tool to facilitate a flipped classroom, increasing student engagement. Once a speaker is scheduled, the teacher should think through strategies to ensure students are prepared for a robust conversation. For example: Assign short videos about the topic at hand or the speaker’s life, or have students read about the speaker and prepare questions for the presentation.
Strive for emotional learning experiences: We’ve had a World War II veteran tell our students about fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. We’ve also had a survivor of the 9/11 attacks recount what they witnessed in New York on that day and how they escaped danger. For younger students, we’ve had zoologists talk about various animals and had a NASA scientist discuss space missions. Hearing these stories firsthand creates an experience that students can’t replicate by reading a book or watching a documentary. It’s a way to engage them — and 40 percent of middle and high school students say they don’t feel engaged, according to a survey from the national nonprofit YouthTruth. And with roughly half of middle and high school students saying they don’t feel their studies are relevant, creating an emotional connection to the topic is a way to turn that around.
- Find funding for a full-time pro: Videoconferencing works best when there is at least one person — whether it’s someone in the IT department or an educational technology teacher — who’s dedicated to managing it full time.
That person will plan videoconferencing sessions and manage a website where teachers can make requests, view the schedule and sign up.
If funding for a full-time professional isn’t in the budget, consider splitting the responsibilities between two or more people. Another option is to apply for grants to seed the program.
Explore the Possibilities of Classroom Videoconferencing
Many colleges have had solid videoconferencing programs for years. K–12 schools have lagged, mainly because many lack the funds to dedicate full-time staff and acquire the needed technology.
However, as costs decrease, school districts that lack resources can usually find the money to secure at least a basic setup. In many states, districts can apply for technology grants.
For example, funding for my position as a digital coach came through a Nevada Ready 21 technology grant, which also supported secure one-to-one technology and digital coach positions throughout our cluster of charter schools in southern Nevada.
We support teachers with device management and develop new ways to deliver content in the classroom to help create a tech-rich learning environment.
Once administrators try videoconferencing, they’ll appreciate the wide range of speakers they can bring in and the topics they can cover, from history to current events and even complex subjects like math and computer science.