Videoconferencing uses electronic means of communication to allow for live, two-way, interactive exchanges. Cameras, monitors, document software, and audio equipment create networks that allow users in different locations to communicate in real time. Users can virtually attend meetings, watch presentations, or share information across distances. Systems that enable videoconferencing range from a simple set-up of a camera and microphone hooked up to a computer to a dedicated videoconferencing system with large-screen monitors, multiple computers, and audio systems. In education, videoconferencing creates opportunities for students to take virtual field trips, learn from experts, or connect with learners in other communities.
Planning for videoconferencing with scientists, middle school students learn to ask good questions
Laura Gonzales teaches middle school science in a community where the main industry is agriculture. Many of her students are native Spanish speakers, and most parents have limited formal education. Gonzales looks for ways to go beyond the textbook and bring science to life for her students.
Gonzales's school district recently purchased videoconferencing equipment for use by all the district's teachers and students. The district's technology coordinator offers training and professional development on using the technology with students.
Gonzales realized that a videoconference could introduce her students to real scientists, without the expense or time required to take a field trip. She e-mailed the coordinator that she wanted to schedule an event with an astronomer as part of a seventh-grade unit on the solar system. She suggested the regional planetarium as a possible place to find an expert.
The planned videoconference gave Gonzales the opportunity to focus on the role of questioning as a strategy to support learning. Her goals were to deepen the students' understanding of science through higher order thinking and questioning.
Gonzales framed the videoconference as a chance for students to ask an expert challenging questions that they couldn't answer by reading the textbook. She asked students to think about what they already knew about the solar system and what they wanted to find out. Students brainstormed some broad topics that interested them, and Gonzales divided the class into teams focusing on topics that came up in the conversation. The teams would generate challenging questions.
Gonzales scheduled time in the computer lab for teams to conduct online research. She provided each team with a list of suggested Web sites. Their assignment: Come up with four challenging questions to ask the astronomer about your topic. She provided students a scoring rubric for this activity that assessed both research skills and teamwork.
In the one-hour event, there would not be time for every team to ask all its questions. The teacher would help each team choose its best question. By setting priorities among their questions, students were prompted to think about what they most wanted to find out. They were motivated to ask questions that went beyond the basics and reflected their research efforts. Finally, Gonzales told the teams they could decide which student would ask the question on camera
Gonzales scheduled two hours after school with the district's videoconferencing expert. She helped explain what would happen and how the process worked. She even let Gonzales practice in front of the camera. She learned that high school students were part of a support team and would be there to help if she needed it.
Before the videoconference, Gonzales explained to her students what would take place during the event. She explained about the lights and cameras, and had the students practice asking questions.
On the day of the videoconference, Gonzales's three seventh-grade classes gathered in the school auditorium. The equipment was already set up, including a large projection screen on which students would be able to see the astronomer. One student from each team lined up near the video camera.
The videoconference began with a brief introduction from the astronomer, who described some of the equipment he used to study the stars. Then students were invited to ask their questions, which the astronomer carefully answered. At the end of the event, he complimented the students on their thoughtful questions and told them that curiosity is a hallmark of a good scientist.
Gonzales's students were clearly engaged by this opportunity to talk with an astronomer, and the questioning strategy facilitated a deeper understanding of the science. The experience of videoconferencing also gave the students a glimpse into the world of a real scientist.