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Beaming the World Into Our Schools: Getting Into Interactive Videoconferencing

By Richard Mellott - Posted Jan 1, 2010
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Some say that the first time they saw videoconferencing was in the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, when one of the main protagonists chats with his daughter back at home while he is in a weightless environment on a shuttle to the moon. Now science fiction has become reality and projects are sprouting up globally as the educational community investigates the possible uses of the technology. Videoconferencing has seen increased interest among those involved in tracking the movement of professionals in various fields, hoping to interest students in pursuing scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematics careers—the STEM movement.

However, interest isn’t limited to those areas. English teachers are meeting with children’s authors, social studies students are doing global cultural explorations, and art instructors are using virtual tours of various museums along with docent-guided tours to expose their students to the arts without having to go across town on buses. Holocaust survivors, now in high demand for visitations but somewhat limited in mobility by age, are turning to videoconferencing as a way to continue spreading messages of tolerance.

The Financial Hurdle

Educators at tech-savvy schools may have already experienced this most vivid multimedia experience. Those at less technologically sophisticated schools may feel they are on the wrong side of the digital divide when it comes to interacting with others in this manner. Either way, budget cuts at the state level are serving to level the playing field in a way, as funds dry up at an alarming rate for all public institutions.

So with all these exciting activities possible as a result of amazing technological advances, how does a school overcome financial adversity and maintain or build momentum as part of the 21st-century skills movement?

There is an economical way to introduce videoconferencing that involves inexpensive laptop computers and programs such as iChat, Skype, and ooVoo. A technology integration plan shared by a few pioneering districts in my area proves this point. Through it, schools have been able to make a serious commitment to the “new wave” of interactive technology at a minimal cost. Using readily available technological tools, students and teachers are videoconferencing with professionals, enriching the curriculum, and making connections with practitioners in many fields without a lot of investment or training.

An Initiation Into Interactive Videoconferencing

As recently as late 2007, I had never had a videoconference, nor did I have a webcam on my computer. When I was invited to present on a different educational topic at a local Computer-Using Educators Tech Fair, I happened to attend a workshop on videoconferencing presented by Glen Cornish. He demonstrated an educational use of iChat, the proprietary software application found on Macs, as he talked live with a music director—in Belgium!

Watching them interact over thousands of miles, I was hooked. After talking with Cornish about what could be done, I left with a new obsession. The next week, I bought a Macbook with an iSight camera and started using iChat with my wife, a graphic designer who’d been an Apple user for a long time. Then I bought a webcam for my desktop PC and started using Skype. I soon bought a tablet PC with a built-in video camera. For under $3,000 of my own funds, I was fully equipped.

Within a couple of months, during the summer of 2008, I worked with Cornish on a videoconferencing project from my classroom. He “beamed” into my classroom and discussed the writing process for filmmaking with my students, and they jointly composed a storyboard detailing a public service announcement promoting our school, Theodore Roosevelt Middle School in the Glendale (Calif.) Unified School District.

This initial success at inspiring my students caused me to cast about for more projects that would engage them. I wanted to have professionals as guest speakers in my class. I also wanted to find authors willing to discuss the writing process, as my English students were individuals with exceptional needs (IWENs) who needed extreme motivation to even pick up a pencil and put thoughts on paper.

Success Breeds Success

Eventually, two novelists beamed into my classroom and talked with my classes about their own experiences writing books (some of my students had never finished reading a book) and the ways in which they prepared their stories. A counselor from an after school program gave my students a motivational speech just before they were going to take a test. Then, in the fall of 2008, I got a positive response to an inquiry I had sent to the Freedom Writers Foundation, a nonprofit group founded by Erin Gruwell. (Gruwell was portrayed by Hilary Swank in the 2007 movie Freedom Writers.) When I approached my principal with the idea for a videoconference involving the Freedom Writers, she was enthusiastic, telling me, “This is too big. You have to share! Go talk to the English department.”

With Glen Cornish and Katie Warren (my district’s technology specialist) as technical support, we arranged a whole-school assembly built around a videoconference with two of the original Freedom Writers. I prepared a preconference curriculum unit for the English department. The whole school watched the movie during English classes, becoming familiar with the story. Students put together lists of interview questions for the Freedom Writers. Finally, after much preparation, I moderated an iChat videoconference involving 1,100 students and staff in Glendale, a high school English class located in Binghamton, N.Y., and the Freedom Writers in Long Beach, Calif.

The next day, we had a mathematics-focused videoconference with a financial advisor for the math department involving 300 students and their teachers using the VOIP program Skype. After that …

And the list goes on.

This amazing set of simple skills has brought the world into my classroom and my students into the world.

Resources for Learning About Interactive Video Conferencing

The educational uses of interactive videoconferencing have barely been plumbed, nor are there that many resources for getting useful information out to classroom teachers. Higher education coursework for teachers tends not to cover this medium as an approved lesson format.

However, there are websites and loosely organized associations dedicated to educational uses of videoconferencing. Here are several I participate in that may interest you:

I am a member of the Flat Classroom Project ( as well as a member of its professional educators’ Ning social network, dedicated to videoconferencing, using videos in the classroom, and global education. Interestingly—perhaps tellingly—it is based in Bahrain, in the Middle East, and was created by an educator from Australia.

I’m also a member of The Global Education Collaborative (, an organization that promotes videoconferencing and other digital exchanges across the globe.

I am on the board of directors for the Painted Light Images Educational Corp. (, which promotes videoconferencing between professionals and in the classroom. Our efforts are paying off in a collaboration among many schools working on larger and larger projects, such as an upcoming videoconference event that will be joining five schools from across the U.S. with the Freedom Writers Foundation and will involve 3,000 students.

The videoconferencing movement is gaining credibility as the applications get more commonplace. An ever stronger case is being built in the educational literature for the validity of the medium. By seeking out information about it and consulting experts, I was able to come up with a simple and inexpensive way to implement these applications and make connections to people of interest. I found they would come into my classroom—virtually, at least—on a volunteer basis, simply because I had asked. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

More Resources

Members of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) have published the second edition of a guidebook for K–12 teachers, Interactive Videoconferencing: K–12 Lessons That Work, by Dr. Kecia Ray and Jan Zanetis (ISTE, 2008). This book includes lesson plans; links to the ISTE National Educational Technology Standards for students, teachers, and administrators; strategies for setting up videoconferences and classrooms; and tips on behavior management and netiquette. ISTE also hosts an online community where you can visit its Special Interest Group on Interactive Video Conferencing (SIGIVC) if you’re an ISTE member (

Another useful resource is on AT&T’s Knowledge Network Explorer website. This page is a collection of videoconferencing resources for parents, students, and educators. From the website: “Effective use of videoconferencing technology for interactive learning requires practice and planning as well as attention to a few important instructional strategies. Two-way video works best as an interactive medium, but because we all have years of experience watching video rather than communicating with it; instructors must make extra efforts to involve and engage learners” (

The Texas State Library and Archives Commission has an informational page on interactive videoconferencing with an FAQ. This will be of great interest to those who are new to the medium or are seeking to convince others that it isn’t as difficult as it might seem. From its website: “The Texas State Library and Archives Commission regularly utilizes videoconferencing technology for meetings and continuing education workshops for librarians. Through a series of frequently asked questions, this page provides more information about videoconferencing technology” (

There is also my website,, where I have compiled many of the resources I’ve used as well as posted a list of videoconferences I’ve done. You’ll find links to Painted Light Images Educational Corp., the nonprofit founded by Glen Cornish dedicated to bringing professionals and schools together.

These links and resources should provide you with excellent information—more than enough to get you started. The free or inexpensive services of iChat, Skype, and another up-and-comer, ooVoo, bring interactive videoconferencing within the reach of every school. For those who fear their inexperience is a barrier, consider the fact that I knew little about videoconferencing only 2 years ago, and now I’m considered an expert!

Richard Mellott is resource specialist at the Glendale Unified School District in Glendale, Calif. His email address is

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