Charlie Brown calls it an effort to make the world a smaller place. The distance learning facilitator of the Magnolia (Texas) Independent School District, just 40 miles northwest of Houston, is the technical advisor responsible for connecting his students to videoconferences with students all over the world.
At the start of this school year, the students of Alpha Academy, a high school for at-risk students, acted as ambassadors to students from schools in South America, Africa and Asia. The topic was HIV and AIDS. In September 2005, a foursome of young educators from Global Nomads Group, an international education consortium that establishes videoconferences, set out on Currents 2005, a three-month tour designed to share information and cultural views about the sexually transmitted disease.
The roving band of Global Nomads traveled aboard a Semester at Sea cruise, the cruise line that offers higher learning for teachers and graduate students while at sea. They visited eight countries and broadcast Town Hall meetings from Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, Vietnam, Myanmar, Hong Kong and Japan with videoconferencing tools from Polycom, a sponsor of this endeavor.
Mark von Sponek, executive director of Global Nomad Group, says four U.S. ambassador schools actively participated in each broadcast, while a second wave of classes listened in and viewed the exchange but could not participate until the end of the session. Students from districts lacking videoconferencing tools viewed the conferences as Webcasts.
During the one-hour broadcasts, students at the American ambassador schools led the discussions. Alpha Academy is the only institution that participated in every single Currents 2005 broadcast. According to Brown, the videoconferencing helps students to see their future in a global economy. "We are trying to expose the kids to get them to be more comfortable with hooking up with someone in Ireland and South America. [They must be aware that] there are differences in cultures that impact relations."
The dialogue about HIV and AIDS was illuminating for students and teachers alike. "I was surprised by the openness of the other cultures," admits Brown. "The beauty of the whole series is that the kids ran it. The Global Nomads directed it here and there, but the kids set the pace and the tone. Even at the other ambassador schools in this country, it was evident how well they accepted one another."
Brown says the technology worked well, although there were some slight delays, which is commonplace with global video transmissions. Also, no one predicted the heavy rains that cancelled the videoconference from Vietnam. That said, the biggest challenge was accommodating the time differences. "The last series with Japan proved to be quite interesting. The first session was at 5 a.m. and the last one was at 5 p.m., so we had kids here for 16 hours that day," recalls Brown.
According to von Sponek, future possible topics for global videoconferences include world religion, the role of oil in global politics and the rights of girls and women.
The Culture Clash
The facilitators found out that discussing sexually transmitted diseases with students in conservative countries can be dicey. Von Sponek remembers one intense conversation among young medical students in India who argued about the level of sexual activity among their peers. "We were in a very conservative community and only recently are they feeling more comfortable to discuss HIV and AIDS," he says. "At one point, our colleague called me on his cell phone during the live broadcast because the university professors might want to take their footage when we are done."
Likewise, the videoconference between Alpha and students in Japan raised a minor ruckus in the local Texas media. According to Brown, one of the female Japanese students removed a wooden phallus and demonstrated how to apply a condom. When word of this leaked out to the Magnolia press, the program came under hot water. "A local journalist blew it out of proportion, saying that sex was being taught in classes," says von Sponek. Brown says if such an active demonstration occurs again, he'll stand in front of the monitors.
Other critics stopped the video sessions before the cameras were even set up. The group was not allowed to broadcast from Myanmar, due to the Southeast Asian nation's oppressive military regime. "The U.N. in Myanmar said it was practically impossible to get permission for broadcasting," says von Sponek.
A Smaller World
International videoconferences are nothing new to Brown, who has set up interactive sessions for his district's students and their counterparts in Darfur, Sri Lanka, the Sudan and the Gaza strip. "We have been all over the United States and we've thoroughly soaked Texas," he says. "Yesterday, we had a videoconference between an elementary school and a scientist working in Antarctica. We have had live conferences with
Advocate Christ Medical Center in Chicago and our students got to interact with doctors while they
performed open-heart surgery."
These video sessions have a special urgency for Brown and Alpha School Principal Matt Clark. Brown remembers being impressed with the enthusiasm and the level of participation ownership, he calls it among the at-risk students. "Some of these kids have a child or have dropped out or have failed so many times that they are two years behind. Others have had some kind of involvement with drugs or trouble with the police. We're not talking about kids who don't like school; they are kids that just do not care."
But the Currents 2005 sessions made an impact on his students and Brown recalls an epiphany with a shy student. "We had a girl at the very first videoconference who sat in the back row and made me swear not to put the camera on her," he says. "By the last videoconference, she was in the front row, facilitating the session."
Phil Albinus is the editor of Waters, a financial technology magazine. He lives in Ossining, N.Y.