Face Time: Videoconferencing Is Adding a New Dimension to Social Networking-And a New Opportunity for K-12 Educators and Learners

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IT WAS THE PERFECT HALLOWEEN project. Each class would construct a three-dimensional "monster" out of common classroom materials (construction paper, cardboard boxes, tape, markers, glue, string, etc.), then write down instructions for building the monster and send them off to another class in the district, or in some other district, or even some other state. The students would have to describe the materials used and how they were assembled, and in some cases provide mathematical formulas for dimensions, angles, and shapes. At the conclusion of the project, the students would compare their monsters via a videoconferencing network the district had invested in years earlier.

"We needed the face-to-face part at the end of the project so the students could actually show each other the monsters they made to see if they matched," says Roxanne Glaser, the distance learning coordinator for the Education Service Center (ESC) of Central Texas' Region 12 school districts. "It was actually a necessary component of the project. We call it 'face-to-face,' though what we're talking about is a synchronous meeting occurring in a videoconference. But it connects the faces and voices with the e-mail and the texting. It approaches what we do in actual social interactions, where we hear and see each other. This is really what has been missing for us in K-12."

Glaser developed and coordinates the annual Monster Match project, for which she received a National Distance Learning Week Award in November. Since its inception in 2005, with 22 K-3 classes in the region, the project has grown to include 86 K-8 classrooms, 1,800 students, two states (Texas and Michigan), and 172 monsters. The project taps students' creativity while simultaneously challenging their math and writing skills.

What makes this project noteworthy from a technology perspective is its almost matter-of-fact reliance on a range of Web 2.0 technologies, from the wikis on which the monster descriptions are posted to the blogs through which the teachers share comments and questions. What makes this project a harbinger of a bleeding-edge trend is the modest preview it provides of how the merging of traditional social networking and videoconferencing technologies might surface in K-12 environments.

"I see videoconferencing as a new dimension of social networking," says Glaser. "We started using it in the high schools, with 'dual-credit' classes. The classes would share teachers via videoconferencing. But I believe we are poised to begin using this technology to build new relationships among classrooms throughout the nation, and even the world. And that's where we're going to see some very powerful educational experiences."

Glaser's specialty is educational collaboration through videoconferencing technologies. She currently supports 58 districts in Region 12, which serves 77 K-12 school districts and 10 charter schools. Glaser works on Monster Match and other projects with video network engineer Shane Howard, who built the Monster Match website. Howard maintains the EdLinkl2 Telecommunications Network, which was developed by ESC Region 12 and is housed at its headquarters in Waco, TX. The network--which provides internet access, e-mail services, voice communications, secure data exchange, and video-conferencing--has grown over the past five years. Region 12 now relies on a network based on the H.323 standard for transporting multimedia applications over local area networks. Most desktop videoconferencing systems use the H.323 standard.

Glaser and Howard are using a new social network to expand the roster of schools with which they can partner on videoconferencing projects. Aimed at educators who use the technology in K-12 environments, the Polycom Collaborations Around the Planet (PCATP) website provides a global directory and professional network of videoconferencing users. Launched jointly in September by Polycom and Two Way Interactive Connections in Education (TWICE), Michigan's K-12 videoconferencing organization, PCATP is a free collaboration tool available to videoconferencing educators. …