It's time to take a second look at videoconferencing. Better and cheaper technology, combined with the rapidly growing availability of videoconferencing sites, have made this learning tool affordable and accessible to most K-12 classrooms. Videoconferencing expert Jan Zanetis shares tips and cautions for making your first videoconference a real success. Included: Tips for setting up and implementing your first videoconference, and links to additional videoconferencing Web sites.
Are you interested in videoconferencing but think it's too expensive or too difficult for you and your students? Then it's time to take a second look. Better and cheaper technology, combined with more videoconferencing sites both at schools and at content providers, make this learning tool affordable and accessible to most K-12 classrooms.
Education World asked Jan Zanetis, former director of the Virtual School @ Vanderbilt University and coauthor of the book Videoconferencing for K-12 Classrooms: A Program Development Guide, to answer questions many teachers new to videoconferencing have about the technology and its relevance to the K-12 classroom.
Education World: What is interactive videoconferencing and how does it work?
Jan Zanetis: The simplest explanation is that videoconferencing involves a television, a microphone, and a camera working together. Using a telephone line or network IP connection, you "dial up" another location with the same setup; you can see and hear them and they can see and hear you. I should mention that classroom videoconferencing of today is NOT the jerky, fuzzy, delayed audio signal of the past.
EW: Why do you use the term "interactive videoconferencing" (IVC)?
Zanetis: If it's not interactive, you might as well show your students a videotaped presentation. The power of IVC is that students are able to question and dialogue with people and resources that would otherwise be unavailable due to distance and time.
EW: Can you tell us about the Virtual School @ Vanderbilt University?
Zanetis: At the Vanderbilt Virtual School, we produce dozens of videoconference programs for K-12 students each semester. Our presenters usually are Vanderbilt faculty and staff who interact with students concerning their areas of expertise. We also bring in folks from the community, and occasionally Vanderbilt students, as presenters. Using a "bridge" at the University of Tennessee, we can connect with many schools at one time. That is very cool because students at each site can see and hear students at the other sites.
One of the most touching videoconferences we had was when we first ran our Holocaust Survivors series. Mira Kimmelman, a sweet and gentle woman in her late eighties, spoke with students in six schools about her experience in Auschwitz. Although Mira's story lasted almost an hour, those elementary and middle school students sat still and did not make a sound. Following her talk, the students took turns asking her questions about Nazis, the war, her family.
EW: What would a teacher need to start videoconferencing?
Zanetis: First of all, NO computer is required. For a classroom-based IVC, you need a television set, a videoconference camera, and a connection. The connection can be a telephone ISDN line (old technology) or a network IP connection. To use an IP connection, you need available bandwidth going into your school and a tech person who can reconfigure any firewalls to allow the video in and out. When the unit is set up correctly, an IVC is easy enough for the average teacher to handle without technical assistance.
EW: What challenges might face a teacher new to IVC?
Zanetis: The first few instances of usage can be awkward. After teachers are comfortable with the technical issues, finding time to plan -- locating content and other IVC partners, e-mail communications, sometimes forms to fill out, and so on -- is the greatest challenge. A common problem is scheduling the IVC event. Some content providers have set times that might not fit your class schedule, and time zones must be considered.
You also have to prepare students for the IVC event, and have a Plan B if, for some reason, it doesn't work out. I know a lot of teachers who do all that on a regular basis, but I must say the lucky ones are those who have distance learning specialists on staff to do a lot of the scheduling and logistics for them!
EW: Beyond the necessary technology, what other advice would you give videoconference beginners?
Zanetis: Consider the IVC unit as just another teaching tool in your repertoire. Do not build your lesson with IVC in mind, use it as the "spice" in an existing lesson, a way to make something special happen that otherwise wouldn't! Take the time to see what other teachers across the country are doing by checking out the Web sites mentioned in the Additional Resources below. Take it one step at a time: Start out by trying out some of the content providers and practicing videoconferencing with someone you trust. Then, when you're ready, hook up with other IVC teachers and get a project going among your classes!
EW: Tell us about your book Videoconferencing for K-12 Classrooms: A Program Development Guide?
Zanetis: The book is full of practical advice on getting started as well as real-life stories from teachers across the United States. It contains lists of Web sites you can access for information on IVC, and content suggestions for your class. There are sample lesson plans and lesson plan templates, as well as organizational charts to help plan videoconference sessions.