Indiana’s Wilson Education Service Center services 27 school corporations in the southeast region of the state with cooperative purchasing, media services, and professional development and curriculum items. When Jerry Steuerwald arrived at the center in 2003 as a distance-learning specialist and big believer in the value of video conferencing in the classroom, he found little in the way of a communications technology strategy.
Although the center’s distance-learning program had received a grant and had equipped elementary through high-school classrooms throughout the area with more than 60 video conferencing systems, almost all sat unused, collecting dust. Steuerwald made it his mission not only to resurrect the languishing system deployment; but also to expand the program through outreach and training.
"My job is all about removing barriers to video in the classroom and getting people excited about the possibilities. I truly believe that schools and communities can be improved by using video conferencing," explained Steuerwald. "But when I first started with Wilson Center Distance Learning, there was little training and no services available to help educators with even things like finding content."
The first step Steuerwald took was forming a focus group made up of video conferencing users to solicit guidance and develop a relevant and robust distance-learning program in the region.
"My goal was end-user-driven distance learning, and what better way to achieve that than by going straight to the source?" said Steuerwald.
This group, which helped Steuerwald get started, is still active and growing today, meeting quarterly to support, promote, and use video for distance learning in the communities of southeast Indiana.
A one-stop shop
Once priorities were defined, Steuerwald constructed a video conferencing web site (http://www.wesc.k12.in.us/dl/NewDLWebsite.htm) that has become the foundation for the Wilson Center’s distance-learning effort. Truly a one-stop shop, this clearinghouse of information about all things related to video conferencing in southeast Indiana includes an overview of the region’s distance-learning program; a description of the services available through Wilson Center Distance Learning; explanations of the value of video conferencing as a teaching tool; a "tips for teachers" section; links to hundreds of content sources; information on easy-to-attain training; and a listing of colleagues with whom to collaborate.
"Essentially, what my web site does is allow customers who are interested in distance learning to go to one source for information," said Steuerwald. "They can access everything from downloadable training files on video conferencing, to a quick-reference, printable instruction form that can be laminated and placed next to the video system, to a form for scheduling a multipoint call over the IHETS network."
Keys to success
Today, there are more than 100 video conferencing systems deployed in the 12 Indiana counties served by the Wilson Center, including units in all of the K-12 school corporations that are members of the center. In addition, many public libraries, every technical school, and all of the area’s adult learning centers offer video conferencing. Steuerwald’s biggest customer, a school in Lanesville, Ind., holds 60 to 70 conferences every year. He credits the enthusiasm for video to two factors–training and content.
A three-part video conferencing training program developed by Steuerwald is available to all K-12 educators in the region. With a description of each program available via his web site, more teachers are beginning to gain video conferencing expertise by requesting this training.
"The program I developed allows instructors to choose the level of training they want–from the basics, to using video as a teaching tool," said Steuerwald. "I think the flexibility can make the training courses a success."
The training series includes "VC Basics" for those who plan to participate in video calls only occasionally; "Video Conferencing 101" for those interested in more advanced tools, techniques, and equipment and increasing their role in conferences; and "Incorporating Video Conferencing Into Your Teaching," an advanced course for educators who want to teach classes via video.
"Access to content was the second big issue for teachers," Steuerwald said. "You can have all the video conferencing equipment in the world, but if you have no one to connect with, it doesn’t do you much good."
A section of the Wilson Center Distance Learning web site for content providers links to the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC), a nonprofit program content provider, and the SBC Video Conferencing Yellow Pages. It also directs users to the Berrien County Intermediate School District (BCISD) Video Conference Program Database, the largest and most up-to-date listing of video content in the country–with more than 1,500 events, many of which are free of charge. Polycom is a BCISD partner in expanding and supporting the Videoconference Program Database, which can be accessed at www.polycom.com/education.
In addition to the web site content links, Steuerwald implemented a content provider awareness program, in which content providers present (via video) an hour-long program highlighting what they do.
"The content provider awareness program is a virtual handshake between the content providers and our schools and [is] a great step in getting educators excited about conferencing," said Steuerwald.
If users are unable to find appropriate content through the web site, they can also contact Steuerwald directly for help.
Video in practice
In the first year of the Wilson Center Distance Learning program, most video connections were made within the state of Indiana. Since then, participation and access to content have grown dramatically.
Field trips and classes over the past three years have included such programs as "Gods and Heroes from Greece and Rome" and "Impressionism" from the Cleveland Art Museum; lessons about the Chinese New Year presented by the East Asian Studies Center at Indiana University; a series on "Children of the Holocaust" provided by the Holocaust Memorial and Education Center in New York; the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s "Exploring Shakespeare"; numerous programs from the Indy Zoo; and two special treats–the "Secret Life of Dolphins" from Sarasota, Fla., and an "Introduction to the Great Barrier Reef" from an aquarium in Queensland, Australia.
"Our video network is host to such a diverse range of classes and virtual field trips," Steuerwald said. "One biology class will be connecting to the St. Louis School of Medicine to witness a live autopsy through its forensic science program, while another is hooked up for a virtual dive into Lake Michigan with a biologist–a pretty cool field trip for kids who live in a state with very few lakes."
Making the connections
As Steuerwald expands the Wilson Center’s video conferencing network, he deploys Polycom’s flagship VSX video conferencing solutions, not only because they offer high voice and video quality, but also because they are easy to use.
"Schools want the technology they deploy to be easy to use. If it’s not, they won’t even turn it on," he said. "I always say, You give me 15 minutes with a Polycom system, and I can teach you how to use it’–it’s that easy."
Steuerwald held a two-week testing session inviting actual users to try out multiple vendors’ video solutions. That testing reportedly resulted in the installation of 41 Polycom VSX 7000 group and VSX 3000 desktop video systems.
Furthering the mission
In three short years, Steuerwald has made a major impact on video conferencing for the Wilson Center. But he’s not one to rest on his laurels. He plans to continue his push for expanded conferencing throughout southeastern Indiana and is confident he will make further inroads.
In the meantime, he continues to focus on ways to enable easy-to-use conferencing solutions for his customers, as well as develop programs to get educators throughout the region excited about video’s unlimited possibilities.
Wilson Education Service Center