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Desktop Videoconferencing: Novelty or Legitimate Teaching Tool?


Teacher Hazel Jobe offers Education World readers an introduction to videoconferencing technology. Where can you get the technology? How can you use it in the classroom? Enjoy how-tos and tips from a videoconferencing pro.

There is no denying that videoconferencing in the classroom is still a novelty and used mostly for fun experimentation. At the same time, it has opened a window to the world for some students and teachers. With software, an inexpensive camera, and an IP connection to the Internet, anyone can turn a computer into a videoconferencing center. Teachers who have used the technology successfully are quick to extol the benefits to their students.

Teachers at Marshall Elementary School in Lewisburg, Tennessee, have used videoconferencing technology (using the CU-SeeMe software) to bring into the classroom live animals and educators from the Tennessee Aquarium. Aquarium educators -- experts in the animals' characteristics, behaviors, habitats, and diets -- fielded questions from students at Marshall and from partner schools in North Carolina and Maryland. The answers to those questions helped all the students understand the relationships among animals, habitats, and environments. Students in those schools videoconferenced on other topics too, including dinosaurs and rain forests. (See some of the kids' reactions to this learning experience on Marshall Elementary's Video Conference Adventures.)

Students, teachers, and aquarium educators also participated in an interactive videoconference in which images were posted to the Web and one of the aquarium educators acted as a tour guide for a virtual tour of the Peruvian rain forest.

Francis Shepherd's students at Swift Creek Elementary School in Raleigh, North Carolina, joined Marshall students in both of those conferences. "Our students learned to become better communicators through the interview process and learned about geography too," said Shepherd. "The excitement generated by the conferences helped support the students' confidence, and we were able to see an improvement in student presentations in the classroom. The videoconferences were a wonderful enhancement to our traditional learning experiences."


For more information about the Tennessee Aquarium or to set up videoconferences for your class, contact Sue Goodwin at [email protected].

Apart from their experiences in the projects already mentioned, Marshall students have had many wonderful, enriching experiences via videoconference. They've

  • interviewed a teacher on expedition in Antarctica through the Ask a Scientist Project;
  • attended Elephant Demos at the Smithsonian National Zoo;
  • learned about dingoes and wombats from students in Australia;
  • learned about ice fog and moose from kids in Alaska;
  • learned about a typical school day in the UK, Ireland, and Belgium;
  • shared their Halloween costumes with kids in other parts of the United States and around the world. The possibilities are endless!



In addition to bringing experts into the classroom, interactive videoconferencing has other benefits.

  • Videoconferencing appeals to students' different learning styles; students who are visual and auditory learners can benefit.


  • Using the technology allows multiple classrooms at various locations to collaborate while learning about other cultures from primary sources.


  • Videoconferencing increases many students' motivation to learn.


  • Students are able to practice and improve their presentation and communication skills.


  • Students improve their research skills as they prepare for the conferences.


  • Students practice graphing and other skills as they create pictures, graphs, or drawings on whiteboards for use during videoconferences.



Florence McGinn teaches English at Hunterdon Central High School in Flemington, New Jersey. In McGinn's classroom, videoconferencing is done with Intel ProShare software and hardware, a more sophisticated system than CU-SeeMe. Her honors writing and literature students work with mentors from Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, via videoconference to revise and rewrite their work. This telementoring program earned McGinn the Teacher of the Year award from Technology & Learning magazine.

McGinn believes this program offers great benefits to her students. "Electronic videoconferencing has proved to be an energetic, interactive use of technology," she said. "Its boost to the writing workshop provides our students with university feedback and the opportunity to experience other cultures, and [it offers university students] the challenge of mentoring younger writers. The liveliness of voice and image make this technology deliver the fullness of rich, human contact. The limiting parameters of time and distance are broken to expand the classroom."

"The singular, expensive experience of a field trip or a visit to another campus or distant site," McGinn added, "can be inexpensively replaced with weekly conferences to distant sites where established, technology-assisted relationships can assist our students' learning!"


Some of McGinn's students' work can be found at Electric Soup on the school's Web site.

Lucie DeLaBruere teaches Information Processing to grades 9-12 at North Country Union High School in Newport, Vermont. She used videoconferencing with her students to demonstrate the concept of transmitting video on the Web, for participating in the CyberFair '98 awards ceremony and to do electronic mentoring with students.

What started out as a break from a difficult lesson about Access database software turned out to be an exciting learning experience for DeLaBruere's students. The students were a little restless, so DeLaBruere turned their attention to CU-SeeMe. Soon the students were videoconferencing with a man from Germany. The students who were studying German got to practice their language skills -- and it turned out that the man was an Access programmer!

Talk about a "teachable moment," recalled DeLaBruere.



Effective classroom videoconferencing requires careful planning and preparation on the part of the teacher and the students. Each conference should have an established purpose. Whether you are connecting to another class for a special event, a particular project, or an exchange of ideas, videoconferencing will be some of the most exciting and motivating learning your students will experience -- if it's well planned.

Phil Stauder, who has used videoconferencing extensively with his students at DuPont Hadley Middle School in Nashville, Tennessee, offers this advice.

  • Plan your conference for early in the day so the Internet is less congested.


  • Explain to everyone in your building that you need all the bandwidth you can get. Request they stay off-line during your scheduled conference.


  • Decide on the placement of students on camera. You will need to use an external microphone due to their distance from the computer.


  • Use a direct connection to your partner if possible. Experiment with their calling you and then your calling them; the connection may vary.


  • Do trial runs with your students, so everyone knows when to speak and when to listen. You might do this within your building; it is a great way to share problem-solving activities or to do a remote spelling bee.


  • Plan for the worst! If the server is down, postpone. Running your e-mail program in the background is a good idea, also having a telephone at your disposal with all the participants' numbers is helpful.


  • Beware of unexpected incoming hook-up requests when you are on-line; if students are present, choose not to answer incoming requests.

Stauder also offers a few suggestions for using videoconferencing in the classroom.

  • Work with other classes or individual students or adults to do reports. Students research data, then get together to compare.


  • Mentoring is a great experience for young learners and can be done with videoconferencing.


  • Politicians in Washington, D.C., have access to videoconferencing facilities and can speak with your class.


  • Arrange for your computer specialists to conference with your class and answer technical questions.

Stauder's middle school students interviewed U.S. Senator Bill Frist, chairman of the Science, Technology, and Space Committee, via videoconference. Stauder admits that he and his students were excited about interacting with the senator, but the real excitement was when his students were willing to "spend hours doing research on the senator's voting record prior to the session."


Article by Hazel Jobe
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