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Inviting the World into the Classroom: Video Conferencing in Big Valley

At Big Valley School in Alberta’s Clearview School Division, video conferencing is enhancing student learning through live, global communication. This small, rural, K-9 school, with a population of about 100 students, has spent the past four years improving course delivery by expanding the use of video conferencing in the classroom. Video conference programs are used to enhance curricular content, to access experts regarding career choices, and to research topics by speaking directly to experts around the world. To prepare for a stage production of The Diary of Anne Frank, the students spoke with a Holocaust survivor from the Holocaust Memorial Centre. When students are asked how video conferencing has changed their learning, the most frequent answer is, “It’s a fun way of learning.”

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Video conferencing is impacting education. Gaining real world experiences and sharing first-hand information with experts, lecturers, and peers from around the world is enabling students to solve problems, develop knowledge and understanding of different cultures, and gain an interest in community and global events. Video conferencing will definitely influence 21st century learning and students’ ability to participate creatively and effectively in a growing, competitive society.

In this small, rural, K-9 school, with a population of about 100 students, video conferencing is enhancing student learning through live, global communication.

At Big Valley School in Alberta’s Clearview School Division, video conferencing is enhancing student learning through live, global communication. Our small, rural, K-9 school, with a population of about 100 students, has spent the past four years improving course delivery by expanding our knowledge and use of video conferencing in the classroom.

In 2005, we received video conferencing equipment to develop a team teaching approach among rural schools. At the end of that year, we were left with the experience of having tried the approach, and some very expensive equipment. We had also gained a valuable understanding of how this equipment could enrich curricular content and classroom instruction by allowing us to access information and programming outside of our area. We were determined to find a way to continue utilizing this precious resource.

The Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) program was established to improve student learning and performance by fostering initiatives that reflect the unique needs and circumstances of each school authority. The focus of AISI’s Cycle 3 Projects was to emphasize innovation and research, analyze project outcomes, enhance professional practice, focus on professional development, and expand knowledge sharing and dissemination. Clearview School Division’s AISI Cycle 3 Project was Real World Literacy, and we felt the use of video conferencing would open new doors to literacy in our school. Over the next three years, our video conference programming was funded through this AISI project.

During the life of the AISI project, video conferencing expanded and enriched our daily studies. Programs were booked based on specific objectives, and what participants experienced was far beyond our expectations. Video conferencing became a tool to enhance and enrich curriculum; increase access to professionals in specialty areas of study; link our school with the outside world and current events; give the class access to experts in career fields of choice; develop knowledge and understanding of different cultures and global areas; and create community awareness on a provincial, national, and international scale. We participated in over 30 video conferences during our second school year. Today, our classrooms continue to take part in over 40 video conference programs yearly, offering many experiments and hands-on activities, learning new songs (in other languages) and games, speaking to experts about careers, and discovering new adventures from around the world.

When developing new approaches in a school community, it is important to effectively communicate with parents. In September 2008, we held an open house to welcome students back to school and to showcase our video conference programming. We video conferenced to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Due to the time difference, it became an evening program that provided an excellent opportunity to show parents and community members how their children were learning. It was a very big success as the students and parents were able to communicate directly with the underwater divers as they took us through a tour of a reef.

Video conference programs are used to enhance curricular content. Often content providers send “kits” containing materials, as well as pre- and post-study activities that supplement their programs. When our science teacher wants to explore space, he conferences with the Houston Space Center. Students experience a space station tour on how the astronauts eat, sleep, exercise, and go to the bathroom. Students interact through questions and learn a great deal from this real-time communication with experts. When the unit of study is biology, the classroom teacher turns to The Center of Science and Industry (COSI) where a doctor from the St. Louis University School of Medicine leads the students in a pig heart dissection. Each student dissects a pig heart while the doctor answers their questions and uses models to show them diseased hearts and hearts with artificial valves.

Many students believed the video conference to the Holocaust Memorial Center was “life changing” for them.

Students have also been able to access experts regarding career choices. The National Science Center in Augusta, Georgia, offers a video conferencing program involving a panel of experts (including a chemist, an accountant, a doctor of research, and a mechanical engineer) who discuss how math shapes their careers and everyday life. We have video conferenced with Adora Svitak, a 12-year-old author from Washington, to learn strategies and techniques for creative writing, poetry, editing, and revising. The younger students particularly enjoy these programs as they interact with someone their own age.

Our entire school division has benefited from our AISI project. Last year the high school theatre arts group was performing The Diary of Anne Frank. The students were not familiar with the Holocaust and did not really understand the play. In order to improve their knowledge and understanding, the class took part in a video conference to the Holocaust Memorial Center and spoke with a Holocaust survivor. For one hour the students were engaged in conversation with a real person who lived through everything these students were trying to portray on stage. They went back to the stage with an intensity and personal involvement that made the play a huge success. Many students believed the video conference to the Holocaust Memorial Center was “life changing” for them.

When our students are asked how video conferencing has changed their learning, the most frequent answer is, “It’s a fun way of learning.” Often students will say they can remember the information better because they are involved in the program. Some say they achieved higher test marks and that it is a valuable extension to their classroom learning. It is very exciting, as an educator, to listen to the students’ hallway conversations as they enthusiastically discuss a video conference program they have just experienced. Often the students spend additional time after a program discussing the events that just took place, or sharing information that they have just learned with other students.

Our video conference program has evolved. During our first and second year, the equipment was set up in the Grade 9 classroom, causing disruption of class time and inconveniences. Time was spent arranging the classroom to meet video conference needs, and then rearranging it again. With this in mind, we developed the concept of creating a “professional video conference room” in our old computer lab, where we felt the space could be effectively and creatively utilized. A “professional” video conference room would open yet another window of opportunity for our students to expand their knowledge and experience.

Our professional video conferencing boardroom would be based on the realization that this technology was not only improving student learning in our school, but was being utilized by corporations and businesses to improve their productivity, cut costs on business travel, and communicate more efficiently with their partners. We would advertise our boardroom as a place for companies to make their global connections, and it would be available to oilfield companies, health care services, banks and financial institutions, law firms, trades people, real estate companies, educators, farmers, and even non-profit organizations like churches, museums, and community groups. Students would be involved with planning for the utilization of this room. Professionals would rent our room with the expectation that they would speak with the students about their specific positions in their companies, how corporations function, and share some important factors about success in the work place. The student role in these conferences would be to have the room prepared for meetings and to be available to assist where required.

A “professional boardroom”, using state of the art video conferencing equipment, would elevate our students to a higher level of learning and contribute to their development as confident, productive citizens. Exposure to new ideas, professionals, and real world experiences would open doors to limitless possibilities. Students would be required to play a significant role in this project, helping them develop into valued community members. We knew this project would be a solid investment for the future of our students, school, and community. Today, this boardroom is about 90 percent complete. We have used it for our video conference room all year, and it has already been used by community businesses.

As we continue to enhance education through video conferencing, our students are becoming familiar and comfortable with this way of learning. If you ask Big Valley students to research a topic, they will search for video conference programs where they can speak with someone directly about the specific topic. This spring, our junior high students put together a presentation for the AISI Conference held in Edmonton, Alberta. The students, together with teachers and parents, delivered their presentations via video conferencing. This was the first time the AISI Conference offered a video conference presentation, and it was very well received. The accolades that followed provided the acknowledgment that our project was worthwhile.

The successful development of video conferencing within a school division depends largely on the acceptance of this new tool. It is also dependent upon a financial commitment. This year, through the new AISI Cycle, we were able to staff a part-time Video Conference Consultant. This individual coordinates all our video conference programs including researching programs, matching curricular content with programs, communicating with content providers, booking programs, and all the follow-up work – including preparing the room and materials for each conference. Our video conference consultant leads information sessions and trains school division staff to effectively utilize video conference technology in their schools. She also presents to division administers to keep them informed of the progress and success the Big Valley School project.

Video conferencing has removed some of the traditional classroom walls in our school, allowing our students to experience the world that is waiting for them.

As more schools and businesses use video conferences as a routine way of learning, programming and content providers are becoming more available and simpler to access. Alberta has developed a Videoconferencing Regional Leads Network to support the use of video conferencing in our province. It is a non-profit organization operating under the 2Learn.ca Education Society. This volunteer group of teachers, administrators, and video conference technical experts offers support to teachers in their attempts to use video conferencing technology. They have been a big part of our success this year.

As students experience changes in learning related to developing technology, their daily instruction experiences change. Our school will be participating in some innovative projects with energy conservation next year. It is our intention to use the knowledge and experience we have learned in energy conservation to create a video conference program and have the students present their program to the rest of the world. The students and staff are very excited about this future project.

Video conferencing has removed some of the traditional classroom walls in our school, allowing our students to experience the world that is waiting for them. As schools become more familiar with this technology and its use in the classroom, learning will dramatically change. Collaboration will take on new dimensions. Classrooms will be able to share ideas, projects, and presentations with other schools around the province, across the country, and globally. Learning will evolve as students share and work with the wealth of information they have gained through video conferencing with experts. Video conferencing will improve the effectiveness and productivity of teachers and school administrators. Professional development is limitless as professionals and specialists on every subject area become accessible. In fact, every program that a classroom participates in becomes a professional development opportunity for the teachers involved. They may learn a new approach to a specific topic, an additional way to teach a concept, new experiments, or projects and lessons on similar curriculum objectives. Sharing information and resources translates into new ideas and new teaching methods.

Video conferencing is improving education now and holds even more promise for the future.

EN BREF - À l’école Big Valley School de la Division scolaire Clearview, en Alberta, les vidéoconférences favorisent les apprentissages des élèves grâce à une communication mondiale en direct. Cette petite école primaire rurale d’une centaine d’élèves améliore ses cours depuis quatre ans en élargissant l’emploi des vidéoconférences en classe. Les programmes de vidéoconférences servent à enrichir le contenu du programme d’enseignement, à consulter des experts à propos de choix de carrières et à effectuer des recherches sur des sujets en parlant directement à des spécialistes du monde entier. Lors de la préparation d’une pièce de théâtre sur le journal d’Anne Frank, les élèves ont parlé à un survivant de l’Holocauste du Holocaust Memorial Centre. Lorsqu’on a demandé aux élèves comment les vidéoconférences avaient changé leurs apprentissages, la réponse la plus fréquente insistait sur le plaisir d’apprendre ainsi.