VTC-Enabled Instruction in Carter County, TN, Expands Learning at School, Between Schools and Around the World
As of 2012, the solution name became ENA Live.
When Lee Ruffin was approached to lead his district’s new credit-recovery program, he eagerly accepted. A band director for 30 years, Ruffin had just successfully completed a new music appreciation course and his administrators thought he might relish another new challenge.
“The program screamed for an administrator,” said Ruffin. “And I was screaming to get off the football field.”
Flooding by day, snowing by night, and mountainous all the time
The day ENA talked to Lee Ruffin, the distance learning coordinator for Carter County Public Schools (TN), his part of the state was experiencing flash flooding. That night, it had been forecast to snow, the year’s first hint of the 20 to 25 snow days that habitually come to the district. The caprices of weather affect most of us, but when combined with the caprices of geography, they can impinge on routines and plans even more. This northeastern Tennessee county is “spread out, mountainous and largely rural,” as Ruffin describes it. Even in good weather, the drive time between two of his high schools is 50 minutes.
If ever there was one, this was a district screaming for a distance-learning program.
Despite all the screaming, Carter County’s distance learning program originated rather more quietly than that. Eight years ago, the Niswonger Foundation, a non-profit whose mission is to create greater opportunity for students and communities in Northeast Tennessee through education, helped the district procure the Plato Learning online credit-recovery solution. When neighboring Cocke County Public Schools approached Carter County about jointly applying for a USDA (United State Department of Education) RUS (Rural Utilities Services) Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant, it seemed to make sense for Ruffin to take this project as well. Credit recovery over the Internet was not traditional learning, and neither would be instruction over video-teleconferencing equipment (VTC)—something the district had never tried.
“Our distance-learning program has grown organically,” explains Ruffin. “One thing just led to another.”
A VTC homerun
Since the RUS grant program exists to support highly rural and economically disadvantaged areas, Ruffin says the two districts “were sure we could hit a homerun.” They did. Awarded a $500,000 grant combined with $150,000 in matching funds from The Niswonger Foundation, the district equipped each of its four high schools with a dedicated distance-learning room complete with an H.323 video-teleconferencing system,
two 52-inch flat screens, high-definition camera, document camera and interactive whiteboard. With the RUS grant, the district also obtained three mobile units to be used in the elementary schools and the community at large and a content server to record and play all distance-learning sessions. Later, with a Perkins grant, the districts added four more mobile units to be used in the high schools and vocational school. The district has also secured other grants, one a $10,000 Race to the Top grant, to purchase content and training from CILC (Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration).
Today, Carter County is using all this video-teleconferencing equipment to deliver teaching, content and college credit to students that want and need it. Like many school districts, the demand for advanced and specialty courses outstrips Carter County’s ability—namely, budgetary ability—to supply the teachers to teach them. Their distance-learning program fills that gap perfectly. One district teacher accredited with East Tennessee State University teaches Calculus and Probability and Statistics as dual credits
(courses that satisfies both high school and college requirements) to all four of the district’s high schools. An instructor for nearby Northeastern State Community College teaches high-level English to all four high schools. With one high school without a French teacher, Carter County simply turns to an excellent French teacher in neighboring Johnson County to instruct two classes: one a regular-sized class, the other made up of two young men whose band class meets in the same period.
Instead, says Ruffin, “We found an available room and use one of our distance-learning carts to get to them.”
Sometimes, an occasion calls for even more creativity. For instance, explains Ruffin, “We had a really top-notch student get remanded to alternative learning. She didn’t want to miss her dual-enrollment classes so I set her up on video teleconferencing at the alternative school so she could attend her classes and not get behind.” It’s a perfect illustration of how video teleconferencing can transform situations that appear, at face value, to be learning losses into educationally profitable face time.
“When you have the technology, and are willing to use it, learning challenges become learning opportunities,” says Ruffin. Because these moments are oftentimes unpredictable, and because the price tag of the H.323 rooms prohibit easy scalability, the district will soon purchase ENA Video Connect licenses to supplement the investments they’ve already made. ENA Video Connect is cloud-based, multi-point solution whose only hardware requirements are a computer, a camera and a microphone/speaker.
When you have a couple of students that want to take a distance-learning course or when you have teachers and administrators that want to video chat, cloud-based video teleconferencing “really, really comes in handy,” says Ruffin.
So many possibilities, you just don’t know where you’ll end up
A few recent examples of Carter County Public Schools’ use of video teleconferencing:
- A Dinosaur of a Day. An elementary class studying dinosaurs took a virtual field trip (through the Center for Interactive and Collaborative Learning, or CILC for short, a partner of ENA’s that provides both video-teleconferencing professional development and content) to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, Canada. The Tyrrell is one of the world’s foremost scientific museums on paleontological history. Following the field trip, a Carter County high school science class gave a Prezi presentation they prepared to the elementary school class via video teleconferencing.
- Snow Days Aren’t Slow Days. Remember the dual-enrollment Calculus classes? On snow days, the students can watch the day’s lecture, recorded by the teacher, from home via the Internet.
- Brushing Up on Dental Health. A high school health class virtually lectured on dental care and demonstrated how to brush and floss to elementary students.
- Kids Can Be So Dramatic. A second-grade class performed a play they had learned to a second-grade class at another school.
- Mission Possible. A computer teacher in an elementary school created a “Mission Impossible”-themed game for a class studying QR (Quick Response) codes. Ruffin recorded the instructions for the class which the students found at the content server, complete with the iconic theme music playing in the background.
- Dial-an-Expert. Ruffin simply can’t keep up with all the fascinating virtual field trips that district classes have taken. But he does recall that students have “met, talked to and had discussions with” Martha Washington (a reenactor at the Mount Vernon Estate), a dog sledder in Alaska (complete with virtual “mushing” via a sled-mounted camera), a Holocaust survivor, medical examiners performing autopsies, Santa Claus, a watershed ecologist and, for vocational students, professionals in landscaping, architecture, pharmacy, milk production and the textile industry.
- Math in a Pinch. A district math teacher recently had to be out of town and, in order for her students not to get behind, she taught three days of classes from her hotel room!
“Happy … means good teaching is going on”
As he enumerates these and other extraordinary trips his students have experienced through VTC, Ruffin’s excitement is evident. “This job is fun. I love electronics. This technology is like a big boy’s toys. I love going on these virtual field trips. I am a facilitator. My job is to keep my teachers and their students happy. If they’re happy, that
means good teaching is going on.” To ensure that everyone is happy, Ruffin has two 22-inch monitors on his desk. With one, he does his work. With the other, he keeps an eye on all of the district’s distance-learning classes as they happen. “If there’s a problem, I try to fix it before the teacher can even call me.”
He gives the Carter County Public Schools administration and Carter County School Board the ultimate credit for all of this VTC-inspired happiness, excitement and cost-effective collaboration. “Everyone in our administration and on our school board is so supportive. Even with great teachers and eager students, you still have to have people to help with distance learning. To set up the equipment. To proctor. That sort of thing. Our district has a lot of small schools with limited staff. Who does these kinds of things? Principals and assistant principals, that’s who. That’s what I call great support.”
Let’s take everyone forward
The benefits of VTC are clear, according to Ruffin. It leverages the teaching resources you already have and those that are nearby. It eliminates transportation costs in fuel, maintenance, drivers, lost time and risk. It makes collaboration instant, easy and therefore more frequent. But most of all, says Ruffin, it’s the newfound learning opportunities.
“So often, when educators talk about new learning strategies, it’s about bringing the bottom up,” says Ruffin. “And that is a very worthwhile aim. But sometimes it’s the upper level students that get left behind. That’s the real value of distance learning. With our awesome teachers and this technology, we can get all of our kids, but especially our ambitious kids, the classes and the college credit they need.”
For more information
ENA has everything you need for harnessing the educational power of video teleconferencing! For information about ENA Video Connect, a multi-point, cloud-based VTC solution that is secure, easy to use, inexpensive and works on any computer with connectivity, e-mail ENA Technical Product Manager Michael Pfannenstiel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information on virtual field trips, VTC professional development and other content from CILC, e-mail ENA Consortium Manager Kylie McGee at email@example.com.