Improving Interagency Collaboration Agencies Involved
Location: Montana Office of Public Instruction, Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (NWREL), Northwest Educational Technology Consortium (NETC), and various school districts in Montana.
Description Two-way, interactive desktop video systems have been in use by several state education agencies in the Northwest and the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Oregon since 1995. The Montana OPI has been highly active in exploring various aspects of implementation, including interaction between two SEAs, (State Education Agency) interaction with resource agencies such as NWREL, and interactions between OPI staff and school district staff. These activities have demonstrated an opportunity for cost savings, improving operational efficiency, and for providing direct and timely technical assistance and resources.
Scott Buswell, Montana Office of Public Instruction
Some observations by Scott Buswell...
"This video system has really changed the way I have interacted with folks, certainly at the Lab but even around the state. While we don't have the pervasiveness of this technology around the state that I would like to see, I think it's real important that we've gotten involved on the leading edge to learn some of those weird quirks about this technology and how it's used. With the size of a state like Montana, we can't physically travel to all spots and the more that we can travel electronically using video systems, the better. It's cheaper, much more time efficient, and means a lot less windshield time for the specialist here in the office, and that's real important. It's an effective means of communication and something that I think in the next few years is really going to make a difference in education."
Improving Operational Efficiency
"We have become certified as a Kinko site. Virtually anyone in the country who can get to a Kinko's copy center that has video capabilities can interact with us. We've set up a couple of interviews with folks applying for positions around the state where they were able come down to a Kinko's. We avoided travel time and were able to conduct interviews with those individuals across the systems. That's very valuable and it helps for virtually any kind of video collaboration to have that kind of standard set up where you literally reach out to just about anywhere in the country."
"We really didn't get involved with videoconferencing as an effort to save money. We were looking at ways of communication, ways to collaborate, but I believe that you probably can save money, and I know we have saved money just in travel time to some sites. I can collaborate with staff at NWREL on various issues using the video system and I don't have to buy a plane ticket to Portland or vice-versa. I think that has been very handy. That was not our intent in starting this project, but certainly an off-shoot. Certainly, as this technology becomes more pervasive throughout the state, we in the state department will be able to avoid travel in many situations and still do our collaborations, and I think that is real important."
Connecting School Districts with Resources
"At one point in time, Gary Graves (NWREL representative) and I, and a group in Mineral County schools, a consortium of some 23 schools, were working on a challenge grant. Gary had planned to come into Montana and visit with those folks to do some grant planning. As it turned out, Gary turned ill and wasn't quite healthy enough to fly, so we fired up the two-way video system and the folks from Mineral County came to the office here. We spent between 6 and 7 hours with Gary, collaborating using the tools in the video systems to actually share documents, and update a document, edit it, make changes and what not. We worked on a challenge grant, which unfortunately we weren't successful for, but the opportunity to get together across the distance from Portland to Helena and spend that kind of time was extremely valuable for those individuals and for myself. There was a case of travel avoidance, where we would not have been able to do that kind of an activity without the two-way video system.
"One of the larger videoconferences I've done here in the office was on Mista School Improvement Project that we have here at the state. I think there were 5 or 6 folks at the Lab working with about 12 people at the OPI site here in Montana. They spent some 2 hours discussing alternative assessment in a real lively conference, again, one where body language really meant a lot about how people where feeling about the whole issue. I think that really came through the video session."
"We've spent a fair amount of time adapting our system into a room-size system, where we can have a one-to-many or many-to-many videoconference. Where that becomes important is when we have various workshops around the state where we can't bring all of our specialists from the state department out to a particular conference and where we've been able to use the two-way video system to communicate back to the office. We've been able to move the specialists in the various disciplines in front of the video system to work with a group remotely out around the state. That's been very effective when we've had that opportunity. As the technology grows and as we have more bandwidth around the state to enable this, I think you'll find in this state department that the two-way video systems will be used far more for that kind of collaboration."
"We had our programmers from this office work with programmers in the Oregon Department of Education, collaborating on how to handle educational data. It's a pretty big issue among all the state departments: how you formulate that data, how you give people access to it, and what kinds of things you collect. We had the Oregon systems development crew work with our systems development crew, and shared some really interesting ideas and stories, and that was very valuable."
"There's reluctance on many peoples' part to be on TV. They don't like being on the monitor. Even when I leave the system up in our conference room or here in my office and the TV camera is always on, they walk in and they're very self-conscious. You'll notice as they come in and stand in your office, they'll back up and get out of the camera's view. I think that's one thing, the comfort level in and around the cameras."
"It's new, and a lot of folks haven't found the value for themselves. I think you need to experiment with the equipment a little bit, and we've had some interesting uses of the systems. One of the more creative ones for getting people to use the system was an open house in our training room. We invited people from all over the community and all over the state to come in and see our new training facility, and we had the videoconferencing system up. We had personnel from the Northwest Lab on the other end in a videoconference and they were able to visit back and forth. I found many people who came to that particular open house who said, 'Boy, this is an interesting technology, we're able actually to communicate with people in Portland, who we've met in the past, maybe not personally, but have spoken with over the phone, and we've now had a chance to meet and collaborate with them.' I thought that was a good way of introducing folks to the video system."
"One thing I've noticed over the past several years in working with the video system, you can't get a good feeling for how someone really feels about an issue just over the phone. You can pick up a few clues through intonation of voice but body language means so much more. When I see someone on the video system and their arms are folded and you know they've got the quizzical look, that means a lot to me. It just adds a whole other dimension to the conversation."
Technical and Support Issues
"Looking back over the last 5 years, several things come to mind. One is that you need a technical presence here in the office, actually on both ends, for the video system. This is a fairly new technology, and there's a lot that can go wrong. We've fought audio problems, we've fought video problems, and we've even had sections of our telephone line cut out. You have to be prepared to react at all times to the things that are going to go wrong. I have found you really have to have someone who has that technical knowledge of rebooting the machines or reinstalling software or whatever to keep the equipment up."
"The equipment, once it's operating and becomes stable, works fairly well. But there are so many things about these systems, so many different configuration changes you can make, that you almost have to come up with a set of standards. You have to have each system configured very similarly or they're not going to communicate well. If they are configured well, typically most people can walk up and use the system without any problem. You do have to have that technical person in the background though, ready for a phone call or to assist. Many times I've had folks come in and actually use the equipment without a hitch. You have to have equipment that will dial just about any thing across some kind of video standard. If you have proprietary equipment, you really reduce the number of folks you can communicate with."
"One of the problems we've had with the video system we use here (desktop system), is some limitation in terms of size. Most of these systems are one-on-one, maybe a two-person to two-person. We've spent a fair amount of time adapting our system into a room-size system, where we can have a one-to-many or many-to-many videoconference. Unfortunately, bandwidth is an issue. We don't have the bandwidth or the lines that we need in-state everywhere we would like it to be."