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See the power of what technology can do

Videoconferencing changed Marci Powell’s life. Here the President Elect of the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA) talks to INTERFACE about her experiences and how you can make the most of this technology.

Can we start by defining distance learning. What is it?
Distance learning is any form of learning at a distance. Definition is very important in the way people conceive what it is. Some only think online learning. It could be anything from videoconferencing to … smoke signals.

What impact has videoconferencing had?
It’s been huge across the board in education. First and foremost, it’s providing educational equity, especially in a country like New Zealand where you have so many rural students. I was told about a school earlier where students had been dropping out at age 13 but are now completing to 18 because they’re getting the connectedness through videoconferencing. They’re getting the higher level courses they need, they’re engaged and it’s interesting.
As well as educational equity, it’s providing an enriched learning environment, not necessarily just enhancing the curriculum but really teaching the curriculum in a very unique way – from bringing in content and experts you might not normally be able to access, to delivering full courses.

Has it made distance learning more like ‘normal’ teaching, than say something that’s writing based?
What we’re finding is where people do strictly online learning there are problems with student retention. Many people are implementing videoconferencing to offer face-to-face contact which is proving very effective – and not only between student and teacher, but also between students, so they can collaborate.

We talk a lot about the student but what do you see as being the impact of videoconferencing on the teacher?
What I’ve found is that inevitably everyone has part of the curriculum that they don’t feel comfortable teaching but they know they have to – or, for whatever reason, perhaps they’re not managing to get the message across. With videoconferencing people can bring in an expert or visit a science centre or a museum, and they benefit greatly. If you ever watch a good session going, just watch the teachers. They don’t care if the kids are learning, they’re having so much fun!

Will it become the norm for teachers to teach classes and students all over the place?
Yes. I think it will. In fact, it is the norm in many places already. Done right you forget there’s a distance.

What do you say to teachers who fear they’re going to be replaced by technology?
There’s a shift happening. The choice you make as a teacher is “am I going to go with technology and be part of it or am I going to be antiquated?” If you’re a good teacher, you’ll be even better with technologies and tools at your fingertips.
I say don’t fear losing your job. If you hate technology or don’t like change or whatever, you’re doing damage to yourself. If you don’t want to worry about losing your job then get with it, jump on board, be a leader, be a champion – and you won’t lose your job, what you’ll find is that there’s a higher demand for you.

Can people learn the skills to do it?
Videoconferencing is as easy as making a phone call – did anyone learn how to pick up a phone and make a call? If you know how to use an overhead projector, a document camera is no different. So, it’s not complicated skills.
Also, you’ll find your students probably already know how to do it. If there’s something you don’t understand, have them show you. It’s a good way for them to learn, too. If you get your students doing some of the teaching and using these technologies – and they’re showing you at the same time – you’ve created the optimal learning environment. Just realise that there’s help all around you. It’s really not hard.

What do you see teachers doing wrong?
Students today are not the students we had 20 years ago; teaching today must be very engaging and interactive. We must prepare them for their future not our past by teaching in a way that prepares them to work collaboratively, problem-solve, the things businesses want. There’s a pedagogical change that has to take place when you’re teaching with videoconferencing. Don’t feel like you’re boxed into the screen or can’t move out from behind your desk. If you become a talking head, that means all that’s happening is you’re lecturing and they’re taking notes – you’ve totally missed the value of the technology. Go out and sit or stand among your students. Have them see how interactive and engaging you can make it.
You can’t do handouts at a distance, so teachers have to be a little more prepared. You can easily post assignments online to print out. There are ways around it.
The other big mistake is treating distance students like they’re at a distance, like they’re not your students. Treat your students on the screen as if they’re sitting right in front of you. If you do that and pull them in, everyone forgets there’s a distance.

How did you get into distance learning?
My background is as a classroom teacher and an administrator. When technology really started hitting schools, I found I was a natural at it. I eventually became a technology director and worked at multiple school districts and regional service centres. I ended up at a school district in Texas that was very progressive. It became the ‘Lighthouse District’ for technology integration – we had people from all over the States and some from outside come see what we were doing. We started a virtual area of five school districts spread across the state of Texas. I won a grant for videoconferencing equipment … and it changed my life. It was then that I saw the power of what could be done. We subsequently received a $10 million grant from the US Department of Education to help learn how to integrate technology. I became very passionate about it and began to train and do the PD for teachers. Eventually I was approached by a manufacturer who said they couldn’t handle the magnitude of calls they were getting from teachers and wanted me to work with them.

You went to the Dark Side?
It’s not that bad! It’s not about selling boxes, it’s about how can we help schools and kids be successful. That’s what this company was saying to me. You can’t imagine what one little grant can do.

Can you give us an example of how videoconferencing worked in your classroom?
As a teacher, I have seen the level of learning increase dramatically. If I told my students that we’re going to write poetry in Spanish, I’d get the usual groans across the room. They do it, spit it out so you can grade and they can pass. With videoconferencing, I’d say that we’re going to connect with a school in Spain or Mexico, we’re going to read out our poetry to them and they’ll read theirs to us – and we’re going to talk about it. The quality of the work, and the thought and effort that’s put into it increases dramatically. But it also turns a boring assignment for them into something very engaging. That’s the beauty of videoconferencing.

Where do you see the technology going over the next few years?
Telepresence will be one of the next steps – this is life-size, real presence where you feel like you’re sitting in the same room. It’s a trend we’re already seeing
We’re also seeing the exact opposite with desktop videoconferencing. That’s really getting ready to take off – and not only desktop but also cellphone videoconferencing. We’re talking through our computers and that’s going to have a huge impact in education.

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