Recognizing the need to engage a new generation of students who are visual learners, Maryland’s Baltimore County Public Schools–the nation’s 25th-largest school system–has installed video servers and a video-on-demand system in all of its 169 schools.

The system, SAFARI Montage by the Library Video Company, will allow teachers to access and play more than a thousand video programs from leading publishers such as National Geographic and Scholastic. It also will enable Baltimore County to expand not only its curricular offerings, but also its professional development, according to school district officials.

"The vision is to make the curriculum more 21st-century and engaging," said Della Curtis, coordinator for Baltimore County’s Office of Library Information Services (LIS).

The use of video on demand is nothing new for schools. A growing number of districts–including such large school systems as the Chicago Public Schools and Nevada’s Clark County School District–have begun integrating digital video clips into lessons. But what distinguishes Baltimore County’s effort is that the district has convened teams of teachers in each school to brainstorm ways of using the new resources to their fullest potential across each academic discipline.

"Our school system is proud to have won local, national, and even international awards for its use of technology in furthering student achievement," said Joe A. Hairston, Baltimore County superintendent and a 2005 recipient of eSchool News’ Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award. "It is important for us to provide our staff and students with technology that supports the essential teaching and learning process taking place in our classrooms every day. We are always interested in technology that is user-friendly and proven effective and that provides staff with the flexibility to meet students’ needs."

School district officials aim to implement the system district-wide to "support the entire curriculum, and make it multimedia," said Andrew Schlessinger, CEO of Library Video Company. Baltimore County educators "are spending a lot of time developing lesson plans for the 2007-08 school year, but they’re also using them already," Schlessinger said.

He added that Baltimore County’s video project "represents our vision for how we’d like to see the product used. … This is really the first district I can honestly say is 100 percent behind everything that SAFARI Montage can do."

The video content isn’t hosted on Library Video’s servers, Schlessinger said, but instead resides on the district’s network in a peer-to-peer type of relationship, much like a YouTube-style environment, but which is controlled and targeted specifically for the school field.

Curtis said Baltimore County evaluated streaming video products for the past two years and chose SAFARI Montage as its solution because the system will allow the district to bring multimedia and moving images to classrooms without compromising bandwidth.

Content from producers such as PBS, National Geographic, and Scholastic also was a plus, she said.

Baltimore County’s own television studio, The Education Channel, broadcasts to the district and community during the day and evenings. Before implementing SAFARI Montage, Curtis said, if educators wanted to have a copy of the educational programs that appeared on the channel, they could either copy these programs during the daytime broadcast, or at home during the evening.

Now, with SAFARI, educators also can show these programs in their classes at any time.

"It’s a delivery system for our own knowledge assets," and not just Library Video’s content, Curtis said: "Particularly our own educational productions–productions that are intended to support the delivery of curriculum."

Curtis said district leaders have met with Maryland Public Television officials, with the goal of having Baltimore County access and distribute MPT content through the system, too. Although discussions were under way, no deal had been reached as of press time, she said.

From the main LIS web page, Curtis and her team have started building a web portal with all vital information on the SAFARI distribution system and its available video content. The district’s teachers also have embraced the system and have formed leadership teams at each school, she said.

Each school’s principal is responsible for implementation, and he or she is in charge of selecting a SAFARI Montage leadership team that will provide school-based leadership and a teacher forum to ensure an effective transition, Curtis explained. These leadership teams are getting professional development and guidance from the district’s LIS office, as well as the instructional technology office.

From the district’s LIS web site, staff members have access to several academic exercises and activities that already have incorporated SAFARI content to enhance the curriculum. Teachers can incorporate SAFARI video clips into their lessons and can view videos showing best teaching practices, such as a science-experiment guide that shows how the experiment should be conducted.

The implementation has been a combined effort of the district’s offices of professional development, library information services, instructional technology, and information technology.

"What was really phenomenal was that in 169 schools, it only took two and a half weeks to put a server in every school and set up logins for teachers," Curtis said. An IT staff of just a few people dedicated themselves to setting up the servers in each school.

"So those who would say [implementing a video-on-demand project is too much trouble], that’s the legacy for this project–it’s surprising how quickly it was deployed and how quickly teachers were using the system," she added.

Baltimore County’s video project comes as an audit from Phi Delta Kappa International sharply criticized the district for a lack of oversight and teacher training that has undermined academic progress and perpetuated an achievement gap among minorities, auditors said. Among other recommendations, Baltimore County needs to improve its management and development of curriculum, according to the audit.

Curtis said SAFARI Montage’s presence in the district will "move us in positive ways toward addressing some of the recommendations of the audit."

One of the audit’s recommendations "was that our curriculum needs to actively engage kids, and the children we teach right now watch hours of TV and use the internet all the time … it’s a very media-saturated generation, and when it comes to media, I think our kids are mass consumers," Curtis said.

"This resource is … going to be very appealing to our kids but is also going to empower our educators with a tool to help teach kids some skills that are very important, [such as] media skills and being able to look at media content with critical listening, viewing, and reading skills," she added.

"I have never implemented a technology like this that the teachers are really embracing and excited about and just started using intuitively," Curtis concluded. "Our curriculum needs to have active learners and query-based learning. Giving kids the tools they’re used to using and bringing them to the classroom is going to be a lot more motivating than a textbook."

Links:

Baltimore County Public Schools
http://www.bcps.org

SAFARI Montage
http://www.safarimontage.com