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

Andy Opsahl  | 

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.