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2 Schools To Try Teaching From Afar

Classes Could Be Linked by Video

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page LZ01

Loudoun County's two newest high schools will boast cutting-edge distance learning technology that will enable them to share some teachers by allowing an educator standing in one classroom to appear on a television monitor in a classroom miles away.

Administrators say they hope the setup at Brambleton's Briar Woods High School and South Riding's Freedom High School, which will open in August, will permit a host of new educational opportunities, including virtual field trips and speeches by guest lecturers from across the country. In the short term, however, they will use it to expand course offerings at the schools, both of which are scheduled to open with fewer than 500 students in grades nine through 11.

With so few students in their first year -- the schools have been built to accommodate 1,600 -- there are bound to be some courses selected by only a handful of students. Freedom's principal, Christine Forester, said her staff would examine whether four or five upper-level classes could be offered jointly. A teacher would split time between the two schools.

On days when the teacher was not physically present, students in the remote classroom would watch the lesson on a television screen. They could speak to the teacher through microphones, and their images would appear on a monitor in the teacher's classroom.

The technology is in use in Stafford County, but this would be the first time it is used in Loudoun. Preston Coppels, director of instructional services for Loudoun public schools, who is helping the two schools set up the classrooms, said the key to success is choosing flexible teachers able to make virtual instruction work.

"As they're telecasting this across 10 miles, they've got to have something that will hold the kids' interest," he said. "It will require a very special instructor."

Forester said classes considered for the experiment will be those that rely heavily on lecturing, such as psychology or marketing.

Without the distance-learning option, some classes would have to be canceled because of low enrollment, she said. It is also better than the other option, she said, which would involve busing students to another school to take a class.

"It's a way of offering students what they want to take and doing it in their own schools," Forester said.

A classroom aide -- perhaps another teacher with a planning period -- would monitor the remote classroom to ensure discipline and give students a human touch. But Coppels said he thought students would be so wowed by the innovation that discipline would not be a problem.

"We're hoping this is so dynamic and so different that the kids will be too excited for that to be a problem," he said.

Coppels said the technology comes with many options. Microphones can be installed on the ceiling or even on each student's desk. Typically, the camera is noise sensitive, automatically swinging to focus on whoever is speaking. In some setups, circular pads on the classroom floor -- say, in front of the chalkboard -- can also activate a camera when stepped on. The pads mean that the camera can quickly focus on a teacher or student writing on the board, even if he or she did not speak.

Other options allow for a direct feed from a computer monitor onto the remote television screen. That way, work done on a computer screen in one classroom can appear crisp and enlarged on the television in the other room.

"It depends on how much we want to spend," Coppels said.

The technology is expected to cost $50,000 to $60,000, which will come from the construction budgets for the two buildings.

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