People often think of virtual classrooms as liberation from the standard "brick-and- mortar" education. A growing number of public and charter school districts offer public education totally online. These projects are magnets for students and parents who want to flee the limitations of the schoolhouse, and Web-based video conferencing is critical to their functionality.
But in another twist of the formula, Scott County Schools, a district in Tennessee, uses distance learning within its real-life classrooms. The district had eighth-graders at five schools, but only one teacher qualified to teach algebra, and that teacher worked at the high school. To solve the problem, the county deployed a Web video-conferencing system from Tandberg, a video-conferencing provider, in 2007. The system connected 68 students from the five schools for one math class period. Grants and free services from partnering organizations made the project possible.
No More Busing
Advanced math students are the only eighth-graders who take algebra in Scott County. Before the video-conferencing solution, those students boarded buses in the middle of the day to travel to the high school for algebra class. The school shaved instructional time off the students' other classes to accommodate the rides. Many students lost roughly 35 minutes of instructional time each day they had algebra class, said Michael Lay, technology coordinator of Scott County Schools.
The video-conferencing system enabled students to learn from classrooms on their own campuses, thereby eliminating the bus rides. Lay said it saved the district $20,000.
"By not having to bus kids, you are cutting down on fuel consumption right off the bat," Lay said, adding that the system was part of a series of green initiatives. The green aspect helped the county attain grants for the project.
The district has several more green projects in the pipeline, said John Cannon, diversified technology instructor of Scott County High School. The projects will mostly involve renewable energy facilities at the high school to provide students hands-on experience with the technologies. The district is currently installing a solar facility, donated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, at the high school. It's hoped the facility will be finished by June 2008.
"We're just now in our second year of really getting actively involved in the green initiatives," Cannon said.
District officials hope to fund other green projects with grant money from the federal Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998, which is distributed by the U.S. Department of Education.
Like He's in the Room
Lay said students interact with algebra teacher Tony Duncan via video conferencing just as they would in person. Video of him is projected onto a screen or wall in the classroom using an LCD projector.
"It's two-way interactive. Tony is not a talking head," Lay said. "When he's lecturing, he can annotate his PowerPoints or get a blank screen and write a problem down and work it out. He is not a voice coming from nowhere."
For years, community colleges have used distance learning by broadcasting over television airwaves into students' homes. Many systems enabled students at home to call in with questions. The teacher and students in the physical classroom would hear a voice coming from mounted speakers. The teacher had to interact with a voice seemingly coming from nowhere.
The Scott County system is different. Duncan has a monitor with thumbnail screens of all five classrooms so he can see when students misbehave.
"The microphones pick up so well that if you have a disruptive student or a disruptive class, he can call them out like he's in the room," Lay said. "He will call on kids to answer questions just like a regular teacher would in the classroom. When they respond, everyone hears it. The newer technology has much better inputs
for the audio and video."
The system offers "smart board" technology enabling Duncan to incorporate various graphic images, including close-up shots of exercises in the textbook. The system lets him use special visual tools to guide students when using their calculators.
"We're allowed to use Texas Instruments TI-83 or 84 calculators, and he's got a TI 'smart-view' [tool] on his computer," Lay explained, "so he can demonstrate how to do it on a calculator, and have a calculator on the screen so they can see the keystrokes and the visual display of the result."
The teacher and students can still see one another when that happens.
"He can do picture-on-picture so you see a thumbnail of him, and he won't lose eye contact with his audience. It really is like being in the room," Lay said.
Students also can download each lecture as a podcast if they miss a class or need to see it again.
This unconventional teaching method doesn't appear to have compromised the learning process. Lay said the students performed as usual on the state's mandated Gateway algebra test. Eighth-graders in Tennessee must pass the state's Gateway exams in mathematics, science and language arts before graduating to ninth grade.
"All 68 students last year passed the state-mandated Gateway test, and 75 percent of them scored in the advanced range," Lay said. "The other 25 percent were within one to three questions of scoring in the advanced range."
College at High School
Scott County schools partner with nearby Roane State Community College, enabling high school seniors to take college classes via video conferencing.
Andrew Blakley, a senior at Scott County High School, takes a college-level art appreciation class via the video-conferencing system. Blakley said he noticed little difference in his ability to learn using the technology.
"The video and the audio quality are so great," Blakley said. "Teachers can show you things from their books. You see what they're doing on their computer or what they're writing on their board, and it looks just like you're in the room with them."
He said the process initially felt strange.
"The first day in there, you are looking at the screen; you don't really know if the teacher can see you as well as you can see him - but he can see and hear everything you do," Blakley said.
He said he raises his hand to ask questions as often as he does in traditional classrooms. On the rare occasions the teacher doesn't see Blakley's hand, he simply asks the question aloud.
However, the system has drawbacks.
"At first, I didn't like not being able to go up and talk to the teacher after class, but the way it has worked out, we've been able to ask just as many questions during class time with the technology. The teacher has been great about coming to our school a few times a month to talk to us," Blakley said.
The art appreciation class is one of three distance-learning classes Roane State Community College broadcasts to Scott County High School for free.
A technician uses software to monitor the class and make sure everyone can hear and see one another. The system uses a fiber network, which allows for clear, uninterrupted audio and video. As part of the project, the district switched to fiber last year from the slower T1 lines it used previously for Internet access. The district received $500,000 for the project from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program.
Developing rural communities is a major agenda for the agency. E-Rate, a federal project aimed at funding telecommunication technologies in public schools, funded most of the fiber services.
"E-Rate is paying the bulk of it; we pay a 10 percent match. As a result, we have a better infrastructure now to do more things with video conferencing," Cannon said.