The frail, older woman began rolling up her sleeve, and 200 miles away, a classroom full of high school students leaned forward to watch her. As part of a history unit on the Holocaust, administrators and teachers in the Imperial County (Calif.) Office of Education arranged a videoconference with a survivor, who spoke from the Simon Weisenthal Center in Los Angeles. The Calexico High School students, who would have had to make a four-hour bus trip each way just to visit the museum, got to ask questions and hear the woman's stories without ever leaving their classroom. When she held out her arm to show them her Nazi-given identification tattoo, students were teary-eyed.
That kind of moment was decades in the making. In Imperial County, a geographically isolated desert area with 17 districts, teachers and students are keenly aware of how their location can be a detriment. Field trips are difficult and often go unplanned. Advanced classes at some schools are impossible, because there aren't enough students to warrant them, or enough teachers to helm them.
To ensure student opportunities, Imperial County began investing in videoconferencing six years ago, getting equipment and expertise in large part from Polycom. Besides ViewStation FX video conferencing systems, educators there have access to ViaVideo IP desktop video appliances, essentially small cameras that integrate with the ViewStation units through software.
The end goal is to get videoconferencing capability in every classroom, says videoconferencing specialist Alan Phillips. Already, there is a centrally located video conferencing system in each of the district's 14 high schools.
Although that ambition is moving only as quickly as budgets and grants will allow, Phillips points to those student tears in the history lesson as the reason they'll keep buying equipment and promoting its use through staff demos and training sessions. "Research shows that if you can tie an emotional response to education, students will learn better," he says. "Having kids get choked up about the Holocaust is something you won't get from having them read a book."
In order to get enough network power to provide videoconferencing, Imperial County administrators simply looked down. They forged a partnership with a local utility company, Imperial Irrigation District, which had installed a network backbone in its canals. After some negotiation--with the county assuring that it wouldn't impair company operations--the schools gained access to some of the utility's fiber and used it to create a wide area network. This helped keep the technology within financial reach.
Around the World Trip
Although teachers can use videoconferencing to create virtual field trips with museum and library resources, they can also tap into more personal resources. Johanna Shick, a high school teacher in the Borrego Springs Unified School District, arranged a videoconference with her brother, a medical student who, at the time, was completing an internship at a major Illinois hospital.
Larry Talbert, the district's IT manager, says it was a whopping success. "They asked him tons of questions about what his job was like," he says. "It's probably not a big deal for students in a bigger city to see these people, but for our students out here in the middle of nowhere, it's pretty special stuff."
Making the Connection
It isn't only students benefiting from the county's videoconferencing prowess. Teachers and administrators use it to connect with far-flung peers. Some of these meetings are formal, but there are also many ad-hoc meetings between teachers, principals and superintendents. The technology is used, on average, about 4.5 hours per day for these types of meetings, which occur daily. (Classroom use, meanwhile, is about 2.5 hours per day.)
The technology has also been used:
Heading for the Border
Videoconferencing in Imperial County is part of the region's BorderLink Project, a federally funded Technology Innovation Challenge Grant designed to boost technology use for K-12 students in Imperial and other rural San Diego counties. The project, which will receive $9.6 million over five years, boasts a range of techno goodies:
The county is eager to make videoconferencing as common in a classroom as blackboards and doodled-on textbooks. But the technology still has some limitations, says Imperial High School history teacher Pete Martinez. Last year, he was asked to include a student from another district in his geography class via videoconferencing. The good news: She was able to meet students from another town, and take a class she wouldn't have been able to attend otherwise.
Then there's the bad news. Martinez says the school's counselors had to fax her homework back and forth, making extra work for them. Also, each school had different assembly days every week, throwing off schedules and putting the classes out of sync. Technical difficulties cropped up as well, when the screen wasn't working or the audio sputtered. When everything was working spot on, sometimes the student was absent, but Martinez didn't know if she was actually out for a legitimate reason, or if there were technical or scheduling problems at the other school.
"It required a lot of communication," he says. "But when the kinks get worked out, I think it could be valuable." Meanwhile, more projectors and virtual whiteboards are on Martinez's wish list.
Imperial County Office of Education
No of schools: 61 across 17 districts (34 elementary, 7 middle, 2 junior high and 8 high schools; plus 7 continuation schools and 3 other facilities)
No. of teachers: 1,645
No. of students: 34,749
Ethnicity: 84.8% Hispanic, 10.5% white, 1.7% African-American, 1.3% American Indian, 1.1% Asian, 0.1% Pacific Islander
Dropout rate (2003-2004): 1.3%
County Population (2003 est.): 149,232
County Superintendent: John D. Anderson, since 1997
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer based in St. Louis Park, Minn.