Online Videoconferencing

Online Videoconferencing

Web tools such as uStream make video broadcasting accessible.
 

A K12 planning survey I reviewed several years ago indicated that videoconferencing was a top technology application of interest. At the time, the cost of equipment and the need for broadcast studios were major obstacles, so few districts participated in videoconferencing. All this has now changed, thanks to Web technologies that make broadcasting video easy to use and accessible to every school district. Best of all, the tools are free.

The following information includes overviews of the major online video technologies used in schools, examples of district applications, and places where you can get additional information. These emerging tools have implications for administration, public relations, communications, collaboration, teaching and learning throughout your school system.

uStream

I became a fan of uStream videoconferencing last November when a colleague asked if he could "uStream" the professional conference keynote discussion I was about to have with DA columnist Will Richardson.

My colleague pointed the Webcam attached to his laptop at the stage, "Twittered" to a network of friends that he was about to broadcast the presentation (see sidebar), accessed the uStream Web site and clicked the "Broadcast Now" button. As a result, numerous people across the country stopped what they were doing to watch the broadcast and used uStream's built-in chat feature to discuss what was happening, which produced 22 pages of text. You can see K12-related uStream examples, including Richardson's recent Web 2.0 presentation to deputy state education superintendents, on the Weblogg-ed TV site listed below.

uStream differs from previous implementations of Web broadcasting in numerous ways. No special hardware, software or recording studios are required, since any Web camera and high-speed Internetlinked computer can broadcast the video. And if you only need sound, you can transmit the audio alone. It's built-in chat feature allows participants to discuss presentations as they are happening, and since broadcasts are automatically archived, countless numbers of viewers can access programs long after they have ended.

For example, Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy (SLA), a public high school, uses uStream to record class discussions and presentations for later review by others, and to connect absent students to classes they would otherwise miss. SLA also hosted the recent professional conference Educon 2.0, and broadcast every presentation through uStream. While 250 people attended the conference physically, more than 1,000 participated virtually. Students were also assigned to monitor each live chat, so questions could be shared with people at the live event.

SLA's principal Chris Lehmann says, "Our classes have interacted with students and teachers from all over the globe. We've broadcast original student productions, and we've been able to work with people who otherwise would have no access to the Science Leadership Academy. This technology has given students insight into the lives of others away from Philadelphia, and meant that they could share their work globally."

In New York, Brian C. Smith, instructional technology specialist of the Monroe #1 BOCES, described a science curriculum application of uStream that broadcasted and archived a student-led Pond Partners Project presentation on local water quality. The chat feature also enabled viewers to submit questions to the students during the live presentation.

Smith explains that Web-based video tools, like uStream, lower the bar to videoconferencing viability for classroom teachers. "Educators shy away from video because of the time involved in editing and producing," he said. "uStream conserves that time, and the archive provides an opportunity to extend the learning experience." Similarly, in Colorado, Karl Fisch, director of technology at Arapahoe High School in the Littleton Public Schools, says that his district uses uStream to support author discussions and for district educators to share expertise with colleagues in other schools.

Skype & iChat

Skype and iChat technology lets you make free telephone calls from any computer to any number of computers. Skype also offers a paid option where you can call regular phones via Skype or vice versa. In addition, Skype and iChat allow you to initiate videoconferences among multiple users via your computer and net connection, and iChat allows users to share video, slides and presentations. There are also ways to record and archive Skype or iChat conversations, which allow educators to post the files on district Web sites and podcast them for future listening and viewing. Skype is a cross-platform technology, while iChat is Mac only.

Teryly Magee, a teacher from the Dogwood Elementary School in Knoxville, Tenn., describes the benefi ts of using Skype and iChat: "Web 2.0 videoconferencing brings fun and learning to the children in my urban classroom. Instead of vicariously learning from textbooks or Web research, my students get firsthand information from the people who actually live in the places they are studying. Using Skype and iChat, my children have experienced locations such as New York, California, Illinois, Oregon, Michigan and Wisconsin," she says.

Similarly, Skype is being used for professional development applications, says Laurie King, technology coordinator of Arizona's Dysart Schools. "Skype's availability, zero cost and ease of use make it a fantastic collaborative tool for students and professional learners alike," she says.

MeBeam

MeBeam is an elegant and simple way for staff and students to videoconference via the Web, by going to the MeBeam Web site and typing in the predetermined name of the "room" where users wish to meet. Up to eighteen viewers or groups of viewers in the same place may interact via audio or video, and MeBeam also allows users to conduct meetings on Web pages that can be bookmarked.

In addition to uStream and Skype, Colorado's Araphahoe High School uses MeBeam for Web-based conferencing regularly and recently invited educators from across the country to participate with honors English students in a weekly online discussion on the book A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink. I joined in while sitting in a Starbucks, using text chat to ask questions and share my thoughts (I could have talked into my laptop, but that would have made me look even more strange). The book's author also participated in a live videoconference at the culmination of the unit.

DimDim

Scott S. Floyd, technology specialist for the White Oak Independent School District in Texas, reports that his principal was looking for a way to support a longterm homebound student. Floyd decided to try DimDim. Even though the free DimDim software required installation on local servers, which might make the tool less viable for some districts, Floyd was happy with the results.

"We installed a Webcam in each of the student's core teacher classrooms. With the start-up page set as a shortcut on their desktops, teachers were just a few clicks away from starting a videoconference," Floyd says. Once a session is started, DimDim e-mails an invitation to the student to participate in lessons augmented with audio and video. The student also uses a chat window to ask questions or answer questions from the teacher or group. The homebound student was even able to participate in science labs, since his lab partners had a laptop and Webcam they pointed at the action, so the entire team could solve problems and collaborate in real time.

Evolving Video Technologies

Much has been promised about the power of videoconferencing, but costs and specialized facilities have challenged that potential. In addition to uStream, Skype, iChat, MeBeam and DimDim, there are growing numbers of other video-related technologies to consider, including Mogulus, Talkshoe and Yugma.

Videoconferencing products will continue to evolve over time, and many will become obsolete as superior products with new options become available. But thanks to free Web-based technologies, the creative power of real-time and archived video is within the reach of every online user and school district.

Gary S. Stager is senior editor of District Administration and editor of the DA blog The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate.


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