Edmonton students get up close with sharks via videoconferencing

TORONTO – A group of elementary school students in Edmonton took a field trip to a marine laboratory thousands of kilometres away to learn about sharks without ever leaving the classroom.

From a room at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), 26 Grade 7 social science students interacted with an instructor from the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota Springs, Fla. in real time using video communication technology. The students used the facilities at NAIT, which has been using video conferencing technology for its distance education programs since 1997. The visual aid allows students to observe sharks in an enclosed environment, providing a first-hand experience with the animals as if they were there in person.

“Visual communication technology has evolved,” said Boris Koechlin, regional director of Tandberg Canada, which is based in Toronto. “It is ready for more than just boardrooms.”

Koechlin was speaking at a joint Toronto and Edmonton press event that allowed journalists to view the students’ experience first-hand. Jan Zanetis, global market manager of education and corporate training, Tandberg, also joined the call from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

The students, who attend Spruce Avenue Elementary Junior High School, are part of a program called Connections from visual communications company Tandberg.

The Connections program, which is now being offered to Canadian students, provides virtual field trips like this one to students in grades K-12.  The program also provides users with a content search portal where they can find providers from around the globe. Costs range from US$50 to US$300 per class, per session.

Bruce Rooney, assistant principal and Grade 7 social studies teacher at Spruce Avenue Elementary Junior High School, found out about the program from the school’s communications contact before the holiday break. Overall, Rooney felt that his class responded really well to the presentation, even if they were a little unsure of what to expect at first. He said this type of medium is good for all types of learners, especially the verbal ones.

“Some kids may not do paper and pencil tasks really well or be the good readers but they often can demonstrate they’re listening to my lessons,” said Rooney. “Some kids are quiet and shy but you look at them and they’re engaged.”

For Tuesday’s event, Toronto was connected to Edmonton via an ISDN connection at 384 Kbps. NAIT was connected to Nashville via TeraNet 4 and Mote was connected via Internet2 research network at 768 Kbps. The connection was secured by Tandberg’s firewall appliance, Border Controller, which is scalable from five traversal calls. The calls were bridged using Tandberg Gatekeeper, which is scalable from 25 to 200 concurrent calls. The configuration took less than one day to set up and is designed to deal with a variety of Internet connections and video devices.

NAIT was able to expand its use of Tandberg’s technology thanks to the Alberta SuperNet initiative, which through a partnership with the province, Bell and Axia has constructed and connected 12,000 km. of fibre and wireless technology. The institution uses the video technology to train students such as apprenticeship students at sites closer to their homes than the main campus so they don’t have to spend time away from their families and work.

“The technology makes it economically viable for us to train students,” said George Andrews, vice-president of external relations at NAIT. “We’re at maximum capacity. We have to use technology to leverage more students to come out the other end.”

Andrews added working with K-12 students like those at Spruce Avenue, is extremely important to NAIT and, especially, to the kids. “These are our future students,” he said. “Students need tools so that they can be more effective. This will help with graduate levels from Grade 12.”

In an age where children are learning most of their information from television and the Internet, Rooney believes this multimedia interaction is an appropriate way to reach them. Unlike TV and the Internet, however, if a student has a question, he or she is able to get it answered straight from the source with video technology.

“They might watch a TV program and have some unanswered questions,” he said. “They were able to ask the things they were thinking of right off the bat and got immediate response and feedback to it.”

As for other applications of this technology, Koechlin said Tandberg Canada is in talks with “cultural icons” but has yet to sign any of them up. The technology is also being used in other verticals such as health-care where a doctor in Toronto for example, was able to diagnose a patient in the Arctic who had fallen off of his ATV.

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