Friday, February 5, 2016

Keeping Kids Connected: Using Video Conferencing as a Bridge for Homebound Students

Today's blog post was shared by Katherine Maras Haulter. Katie teaches 6th and 8th grade Honors English and co-teaches English/Language Arts in an ESL inclusion classroom at River Valley Middle School, Greater Clark School Corporation in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Follow her on Twitter at @Katie_Haulter and subscribe to her blog:

Teachers are constantly working to find new, innovative ways to engage our students in the classroom. From total participation techniques (as discussed by Pérsida Himmele and William Himmele [Himmele, Pérsida, and William Himmele. Total Participation Techniques: Making Every Student an Active Learner. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2011. Print.]) to the use of video games or coding in the classroom, we want students to have fun, to be involved in the learning, and to acquire and assimilate each day’s lessons. Yet some students are unable to participate in the exciting, interactive lessons that we’ve created because they are absent from school. Approximately 64,000 U.S. students were homebound or hospital bound last year due to a medical condition classified under IDEA. If schools are tasked with providing education for every student and are focused on consistent involvement in the classroom, then they are responsible for the use of resources for this purpose. One way to bridge learning gaps for some homebound students is through the use of video conferencing in the classroom.

Classroom video conferencing, or distance learning, has been used for well over a decade at the college/university level to promote diversity in learning across the country and around the world. This technique, which allows students to participate in classroom learning from home or another setting, has a place in our upper elementary, middle, and high schools as well. It can be an effective tool that allows participation for students who are unable to be with us in the classroom. Classroom video conferencing works especially well for students who are unable to attend class because of anxiety, social disorders, or other medical conditions which would still allow for students to participate at a particular time each day.

Recently, I had an eighth grade student, “Rory”, who was a member of my 8th grade Honors English class. Rory had a medical condition which precluded him from participating in our class for a good portion of a 9-week quarter. Rory was under medical care for this condition, but was still able to complete school work from home. In order to keep him involved, I consulted with his parents, and we decided to try video conferencing with Rory during our class time, whenever possible.

We set-up a video conference through Google Hangouts, since our school uses the Google Apps for education platform. Rory was able to log-in to the hangout from his home computer, and one of our district technology coaches set-up a web cam on my classroom desktop computer. Rory was ready and waiting to read along with us that day. He was able to interact with the other students, participate in our classroom discussion, and even get the homework for that night. We were able to keep him involved in our classroom without any kind of social awkwardness (in fact, the other students had been very concerned about Rory’s absences, and they were very excited to take turns sharing/working with him during class). 

What do you need to set-up classroom video conferencing for homebound students?

Classroom video conferencing can be set-up in a very short amount of time. After conferencing with the parents/guardians of your student for permission, you will need to have/do the following:
  • Put a camera on both ends. 
    • For the student: If your district has a 1:1 initiative in place, the student may already have a camera through their device. If not, your district may be able to provide the student with a loaned device, or the camera on a cell phone/iPod will also work. The student must have access to the internet for conferencing to happen. 
    • For the teacher: If teachers have laptops or tablets, the device’s camera can be used, or a webcam can be attached to a desktop computer as well. We had our interactive board/projector on during the conferences, so the whole class could see Rory, and he was able to see all of them as well. 
  • Choose a software system that works on both ends. 
    • For Apple devices: Facetime, Messaging, and Skype are the best. 
    • For Android/Windows devices: Google Hangouts and Skype work. 
    • If you have a webcam installed, there may be a proprietary software program that you have to use. Check with your district tech team for help with this. 

Special Considerations 
  1. Technology notoriously fails when we need it to work. Set-up a practice session with the student/family outside of class time, just to make sure everyone understands the hardware/software you are using. 
  2. Engage the homebound student as much as possible. Assign certain students to partner with the student during class. This can be as simple as asking “turn-and-talk” questions, where all students are talking to someone else, and an assigned classroom student moves to the camera to speak with the homebound student. 
  3. Give the homebound students whatever hard-copied materials the class will be using ahead of links/documents where these can be easily found. 
  4. Allow for questions afterward. It is important to check-in to make sure nothing from class time was lost in the transmissions. 
  5. Remember why the student is home in the first place. It is very likely that the student will have days when he/she is too ill to participate. Be mindful and patient with these, allowing alternatives for classroom participation. In these times, you could simply use the webcam to video the class discussions, sharing this with the student afterwards. 
In the end, classroom video conferencing should not make the situation more stressful for the student, the teacher, or the student’s family, but should offer a way to continue the student’s engaged learning in the classroom.

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