Video Setup Tears Down Class Walls

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2008

Two dozen fifth-graders watched intently as a musical trio explained the basics of jazz on a big screen at Potowmack Elementary School this week. Chins in hands, they appeared engaged in an activity many fifth-graders are good at: watching television.

But then something curious happened. The two-dimensional figures on the screen began asking questions, and the students raised their hands and answered. When the musicians played, they smiled as the students nodded their heads and snapped their fingers in time. When the performers were finished, they acknowledged the applause, then took a few questions from the young audience.

Through videoconferencing, the Loudoun County students took a lesson from the Manhattan School of Music without leaving the comfort of their plastic chairs in Sterling.

Once the realm of such futuristic cartoons as "The Jetsons," two-way videoconferencing technology has been embraced by the business world and is rapidly gaining momentum in college distance-learning programs and a growing number of grade schools. Two years ago, Potowmack Elementary was among the first in the county to use the video camera, microphone and speaker set, at a cost of about $1,500. The county owns about six of the units for schools to use.

At Potowmack, first-graders have gone "mushing" on a dog sled in Alaska, second-graders have traveled to an Arizona desert to see NASA scientists testing moon buggies and spacesuits, and fourth-graders have visited with marine biologists in Florida as they fed a tank full of sharks.

"It's an interactive experience that literally takes away the classroom walls," said Adina Popa, a technology resource teacher at the school.

Popa often logs on to a message board for educators who use the technology to expand the reach of their lessons and find new ways to collaborate with classrooms remotely. The online bulletin board offers Spanish conversation partners, live museum tours or broader discussions about literature. Popa recently posted a call for social studies teachers interested in having distant classrooms teach one another about their home states, and she got 40 responses.

When she saw the posting from the Manhattan College of Music, a renowned conservatory, she jumped on it. Some Potowmack students have begun mixing music and technology by using software to compose songs in an after-school club.

The offer was to have doctoral students at the Manhattan conservatory custom-design a curriculum for the class that would incorporate state learning standards and the students' interests.

Music teacher Jennifer Iodice helped arrange the collaboration, requesting a focus on world music. In future classes, students will have a chance to play instruments with the professional musicians.

The class is free, because it is a college project for the graduate students. But the Manhattan School of Music also offers a roster of classes for a fee. Musicians there have brought remote lessons to students in 27 states and 15 countries, said Christianne Orto, the school's assistant dean of distance learning.

Orto said the conservatory got interested in distance learning a decade ago as a way to perform for more schools and create more class time, because its renowned faculty members are often on tour.

The students at Potowmack Elementary quickly became interested, sensing that this was something different. James Kenney, 11, said he was expecting a concert when he sat down for the class. What happened instead was much cooler, he said.

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