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.

Improving Infrastructure

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.

Andy Opsahl  | 

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