I've been working on my end of the year reports on use of distance learning in our 18 school districts, and I'm noticing some interesting trends. Based on my conversations with other videoconferencing colleagues, my sense is that these trends are true across the U.S. as well.
More Programs, Less District Financial Input
The usage in all districts increased this year, except for two districts whose equipment wasn’t working. Our student connections (content provider programs & projects) increased 86% over last year. While the programs increased, the amount of $$ districts contributed to programming stayed about the same. Districts have less funding for programming and field trips of any kind. However, they are also realizing the power & value of classroom-to-classroom projects.
Projects Are On the Rise
52% of the programs my districts did this year were completely free. There was no cost to the district or the ISD and they were via IP so we had no ISDN line charges. Most of these were classroom-to-classroom projects. Some of them were ASK programs that we offered to our schools, interviewing local experts who didn't charge for their time. Obviously with tight budgets, free programs are an essential component to a successful distance learning program.
Mobile & Cheaper Equipment Increases Access
Building access to the equipment made a huge difference in use. A couple of our districts switched to a mobile unit (within the district). They just carry the Polycom, mic, and remote from school building to school building. Within the building or classroom, they hook the Polycom to whatever is in the classroom – sometimes a projector, sometimes a TV. A couple other districts purchased additional Polycoms for their buildings. In both scenarios, the district use of videoconferencing increased dramatically. Even in one of the districts where their T1 bandwidth is maxed out all the time, and the picture quality is less than desirable, they've been using it more & teachers have been happy with the results because of the tight curriculum focus of the programs and the access in their classroom.
Regional Service Agency Support is Essential
As a regional service agency I'm providing more programs to my districts. Some of them cost money to provide (such as Author ASK programs), and some of them just cost time & effort (such as MysteryQuest). These opportunities also contribute to the increase in usage in my districts. See my previous blog entry about providing programs for your districts for more details.
Teacher Path to Creating Projects
Alan Greenberg and Russ Colbert, in their October 2003 publication, Best Practices in Live Content Acquisition, suggest that schools start by using videoconferencing within the district/consortium, then add access content from various providers, and finally at stage three they begin delivering programs. Based on this article and my own experience, I have believed that teachers had to experience a videoconference with a content provider before they were ready to do a project with another class. My perception on this is changing. I've had several teachers this year (who had never done a videoconference before) come up with a great project and successfully plan it with a partner class. Some examples from this year include: Math & Robots, ESL Exchange, and many of the Read Across America connections. Part of their success has definitely been local media specialist support as well as ideas & suggestions from me.
Lest you think that all is pie in the sky in my neck of the woods, some of my districts still aren't using videoconferencing as much as they could. There are three main barriers that continue to challenge us.
- Bandwidth. The majority of my districts have just one T1 line to us (we provide their Internet access). Between old routers and busy networks, quality of VCs has degraded in most of my districts since we switched from V.35 to IP. However, the teachers who are committed to and interested in the quality of the content don't seem to mind the degraded quality of the video as the students are still learning from it.
- Local Building Support. One of the major contributing factors to the use of distance learning continues to be the local building media specialist, teacher, or tech who is my distance learning contact. I've noticed a direct correlation between the distance learning contact taking my online classes (Planning Interactive Curriculum Connections & Kid2Kid Videoconference Connections) and the district or building's total videoconferences for this year. Having a trained local contact is essential to the success of our program.
- Access in the Building. My teachers are definitely tired of getting on a bus to go to the high school to use distance learning. It worked in the first few years of our initial installation, but with tight budgets (no money!) and tight curriculum schedules (no time!), the hassle of transportation to the high school is not worth it. We are slowly overcoming this with a USDA RUS DLT grant installing 35 new Polycoms this summer. Half of my buildings are not eligible for this grant due to their rurality scores, and those districts are overcoming the access issue by purchasing more Polycoms or switching to a mobile Polycom.
Do you see these same trends in your district/region's use of videoconferencing? How are you addressing these issues in your area? Leave a comment!