Videoconferencing hasn’t exactly fulfilled its promise in the corporate world (“What’s that, Bob? You want to plan a corporate takeover? I can’t hear you with all this static….Oh, a corporate makeover?”), but a few universities are putting the put-upon technology to innovative uses.
Last semester at the University of Washington in Seattle, geology professor Elizabeth Nesbitt used videoconferencing to teach students in six area high schools. The students, many of whom are minorities from rural areas who might not otherwise get to take classes for college credit, gathered once a week at their respective schools for videoconferencing classes that Nesbitt taught from Seattle. Nesbitt sent materials in advance, including boxes of rocks and minerals (actual, not virtual), and each school had a science teacher on hand during the classes.
At first, the classes suffered from some technology glitches?”The main problem seemed to be the network we were hooked into,” Nesbitt says?but by the end, things were flowing like lava. The university plans to continue the program this fall.
Meanwhile, at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., the Purdue Program for Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology, or P3T3 (tongue twisters, anyone?), allows education students to use videoconferencing to observe and communicate with K-12 classrooms in urban East Chicago, Ind. P3T3 is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The purpose of the videoconferencing initiative is twofold: to allow Purdue students to observe diverse urban classroom settings and to increase their familiarity with technology in the classroom. The classes employ Polycom videoconferencing equipment via the Internet, which allows teachers in training to present interactive lessons and even pan out or zoom in on specific students.
So far about 25 students from two classes in professor JoAnn Phillion’s introductory teacher education course have participated in the program. Some snafus, such as shaky audio and distracting background noise, have proven unavoidable. And not all the K-12 schools have enough bandwidth to support the videoconferencing. “The biggest problem has actually been getting the schools’ technical support personnel to work with our technical support people to punch a hole in the school’s firewall,” says James Lehman, codirector of the project and a professor of educational technology at Purdue. Nevertheless, the university is considering allowing all student teachers at Purdue to take part in similar projects.