In my last article I discussed the myriad of ways technology is changing the way teachers teach and students learn. Virtual learning using video collaboration allows us to create classrooms without walls while still delivering a personal face-to-face experience.
At Polycom, we are committed to helping educators transform and improve the way they work. This means designing the technology that empowers educators to create a workplace and learning environment of the future.
One that delivers real-world benefits like helping schools retain best-of-breed teachers by being able to offer them flexible working arrangements. One that also provides the ability to break down barriers, allowing teachers to collaborate with other teachers throughout New Zealand, sharing ideas, best practice and resources.
I am often asked to explain the biggest issue schools face when introducing video and online learning for the first time. For me, this is the change-management process – the steps and planning required to ensure a successful integration of technology into a school’s curriculum.
Perhaps one of the best ways to address this question is to highlight a local example. I would now like to share a Q&A with Polycom customer, Carolyn Alexander-Bennett, E-Principal of FarNet. Carolyn provides insights into how video collaboration has been successfully introduced into the FarNet community of schools.
What is FarNet?
Established 10 years ago, FarNet emerged out of a project funded by the NZ Ministry of Education, which through Asnet Technologies, provided Polycom video conferencing equipment to schools with the aim of sharing teacher resources in the senior curriculum.
FarNet represents one geographic cluster of seven online school communities located throughout New Zealand and this year there will be 24 schools within the FarNet community. All member schools belong to the New Zealand Virtual Learning Network Community, a charitable trust and our professional body.
We share teaching and resources so that within our smaller rural schools, students can remain at their school of choice for longer. We deliver access to a wide range of learning opportunities ensuring students have more viable options for their future. This is important for our smaller FarNet schools as it has helped ensure their survival as they are no longer losing senior students, who previously relocated to city schools to continue their education.
Many of our schools are area schools, Year 1 through to Year 13, but the senior school Year 10-13 could only be 15 students, making it difficult to offer the range of subjects found in city schools. Our smallest school, Te Hapua, is located just 30km from Cape Reinga with 80 students from Year 1 through to Year 13 including nine college students. Te Hapua Year 9 and 10 students are taught at school, while Year 11 students currently travel four hours (return) to Kaitaia every day for lessons. In 2015, our aim is for Year 11 students to remain in Te Hapua where they will study virtually, eliminating their commute.
Can you describe your role as an E-Principal?
For the last six years, FarNet has been self-funding, though the Ministry provides a number of services to support the video conferencing bridge, which allows multiple sites to connect, including online tools. My role is to lead this online community and like other e-Principals within the wider New Zealand network, we operate in a similar fashion working collaboratively with each other, while maintaining our unique cluster identity, reflective of the type of schools and needs in our respective communities.
How do you create a classroom without walls?
The core use of video in most schools is for our students to attend classes. This happens at a set time each week for an hour, and is supported with a further three to four hours of learning. We initially started with senior subjects, NCEA Level 1-3, however we now offer courses at Year 9 & 10 and this year we will offer language courses at Year 7 & 8.
The e-teacher might have two or three of their own students with them while teaching. There will be up to 15 students from around the country joining the class and they can all see each other and their teacher. Students then continue their work collaboratively using social media and online learning management tools.
What type of Polycom solutions are you and the schools within the network using?
Many of our early adopter schools are still using their original Polycom VSX6000 video conferencing equipment. As new schools join FarNet they purchase the latest room-based models, which are fantastic to use.
We also use Polycom Real Presence Desktop, which has changed the way we work. We can now work anywhere, anytime and from any device including laptop, tablet or smartphone. This has transformed FarNet into a workplace of the future as we can offer employment opportunities for teachers wanting to work part-time or from home. Using video collaboration, teachers now have more choice and flexibility and this means we can keep good teachers within the education system for longer.
Has the rollout of the Government’s Ultra-Fast Broadband made a difference?
Absolutely. When we first started teaching online through video collaboration we could only see the last person who spoke on camera, but now with additional bandwidth, we can use more advanced features of the solution to see all our students on screen at the same time, and they see themselves and each other. This has been hugely beneficial for creating a real classroom environment. Students have been amazed at the changes made possible through ultra-fast broadband and schools moving to the Network for Learning initiative.
What is one really cool thing you have been able to achieve with video collaboration that you could not do before?
A few years ago I was teaching accounting using video and I looked out the window of my home office, which overlooks Tapuaetahi Bay and saw a pod of dolphins. I stopped the class, turned my camera around and zoomed in. Many of the students had never seen dolphins before and although it had nothing to do with our lesson, it was one of those “educational moments” you don’t forget.
Breaking down barriers, engaging students and showing them the possibilities of the technology.
What benefits are you seeing from using video technology – for students, for teachers?
Our e-teachers are initially challenged as to how to take what works best in the classroom and transfer this to an online environment. Once they have experienced online teaching we see them taking what works back into their face-to-face classes. This is where we are seeing truly powerful learning and collaboration as teachers stop seeing themselves as deliverers of information. They release this control, letting students learn in a more blended environment. Students and teachers are collaborating and learning together, which creates a higher trust environment.
Video technology is fostering more informal communities of practice among teachers with collaboration and sharing through meetings to discuss common challenges.
What advice would you offer teachers starting out on their video collaboration journey?
I ask them to remember what it felt like to be a first-year teacher, as this is similar to how it will feel when they first start teaching online. It is also important for teachers to share with students that they are anxious about using technologies. Students will appreciate this.
Although we refer to our current generation as “digital natives” this does not mean they know how to use these technology tools in an educational context either.
Teachers also need to be prepared to take advice from their students as to what tools are best to communicate with them and share in the learning. For example, students do not use email, they instant message, use Facebook and other forms of social media. It’s about understanding how students prefer to communicate online and being prepared to adapt and participate in the journey with the students.
Are you an advocate of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies for students in the digital learning environment?
There are huge advantages for BYOD, but it has to be based around pedagogy, student learning and engagement. Fifteen years ago my own children were required to bring their own devices to school, however it was a waste of time as the teachers were not prepared. It can’t just be replacing a pen with a tablet or laptop. It cannot be restricted to certain apps either, but it must be about what the apps allow you to do and how this transposes or assists in learning or collaboration. I believe not one thing alone will make the difference, but that a range of tools are needed so I am a great believer in a blended approach. I also use a learning workbook because we still need to prepare students to sit and write for three hours at year-end exams. For me, it’s good for the soul to get away from my devices and read a book, so I believe it’s the same for students.
How do you use mobile devices like tablets and smartphones within the learning environment?
We have a one-hour weekly video conference with our online students, which doesn’t seem a great deal of teaching time, and in fact a lot of the teaching actually takes place outside our online environment. Using the flipped classroom approach, I use video conference time as the opportunity for students to share their learning and ask their questions from the previous week’s work or learning. It is also an opportunity for them to talk with each other, rather than being teacher driven.
Having access to devices during class time is a great learning tool as students can share digital content to show their work. Unfortunately not all students have this resource, but I think it will rapidly increase, because we are using complementary online learning management tools as more and more students have smartphones. Most schools have wireless and instead of banning smartphones many schools are seeing their educational benefit as a learning device.
How do you measure success / ROI for your investment in video collaboration technologies?
Success for us is not just measured by hard student achievement data but we look at student engagement leading to student achievement and therefore we are enabling students to have a voice about their enjoyment in their classes. We are also measuring student retention during the year and through student surveys we are able to use their feedback for our e-teachers. We also measure success on how prepared we are making our e-students for future tertiary study and we informally receive lots of feedback from our past students on how this experience has helped them with university.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I believe video collaboration has broken down the competitiveness of our schools, especially city schools, creating a collaborative and supportive community. New Zealand is too small to not be sharing teaching resources and we are seeing a real shift in our education culture towards more sharing without a fear of others judging. There is also a ripple effect happening from our online classes into our face-to-face classes. Over time I believe this will pave the way for dropping the e- from e-learning. It will just be referred to as learning and become our future way of working.
Marci Powell is Polycom’s Global Director for Education Industry Solutions and Chair Emerita and Past President of the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA). She began her career as a classroom teacher and has over 20 years’ experience in her field, with wide-ranging expertise in thought-leadership and strategic planning in the use of technology to address education needs.