Monday, February 27, 2006

To Test or Not To Test

I am forever reminded of the importance of testing. Here are a few cases in point. Today I was at a school where they had 2 unsuccessful test calls. Since the school just started videoconferencing this year I felt maybe my experience would help. So I went to the school to see what I could do. It was not a routine H.323 connection but a Click to Meet site that was trying to connect to our Polycom VSX7000. I never connected before to this "different species". This was for a Read Across America conference on Wednesday and I knew time was running out. The Click to Meet site had to make the call. However, there was only audio, no video was transmitting. I knew I was in over my head and the only thing I could think of was to call Janine Lim who is chairing the Read Across America. I knew she had tested with all the participants and if anyone would know what to do it would be Janine. First I made a test call to Janine's Polycom VSX7000 to check our system was working properly. Then the Click to Meet site made a test call with Janine and she had the idea that instead of a 263 protocol a 261 should be used instead. Lucky for us it worked, The children would not be disappointed on Wednesday. Our test call had hopefully averted a disastrous connection.

Unlike two weeks ago when I attended a vendor presentation on using videoconferencing in the classroom. Here we were in a hotel conference room with state of the art videoconferencing equipment. An audience full of educators all eager to learn more about the technology of videoconferencing. A middle school at another location with a group of students and teachers enthusiastic to present their videoconferencing project. The call is made but the connection fails. The tech people go into high gear but to no avail. The problem is mystifying. They can connect to their home office but not to the middle school. So they went to plan B. You always need a plan B. There was a powerpoint which showed the project. A lively discussion about the project. But no videoconference. As I was leaving the vendor said to me "we tested the equipment with our office we should have tested with the middle school".

We have all had the experience of the technology not working as planned. I myself presented at a conference last year when I was unable to do a live videoconference as planned. I was also guilty of not testing in advance. I planned to test an hour before the event. Bad idea. A test is not a 100% guarantee that your videoconference will happen but it is a pretty high guarantee that things will work. A test can give you time to troubleshoot like today. It will give all participants some peace of mind. So that is why tomorrow, and the next day within my busy schedule I will be taking time to do three test calls.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


Today one of my schools participated in MysteryQuest. MysteryQuest to me is a perfect videoconference. It combines collaborating classrooms, active learning and student presentations. This project comes out of the Berrien County Intermediate School District (BCISD). This school district is located in Michigan and provides interactive videoconferencing not only for their schools but for schools all over the United States with collaborations like MysteryQuest. BCISD is also part of TWICE, which stands for Two Way Interactive Connections in Education. They are an organization made up of school districts in Michigan that support videoconferencing in K-12 education. I first became aware of TWICE when I took an online videoconferencing course with Janine Lim. Janine Lim is the Collaborative Projects Committee Chair and Webmaster for TWICE and also a Instructional Technology Consultant for BCISD. She is also the author of "Out on a Lim" her blog which I have a link to on my blog. The TWICE website is one of my favorite resources and I always share it with my teachers during workshops. Here is their website:
Now back to MysteryQuest. The MysteryQuest was about the western hemisphere. The 6th grade students had chosen the country of Guatemala. One of my colleagues had visited there this summer so I suggested she go in the class and share her stories and photos. She did. Some of the students worked on a powerpoint presentation. They had to pick a city too. So they chose Chichicastenango where many of the photos were from. They had to present clues for the city and country. Today they videoconferenced with six other classes. All had a mystery country and city. All had a presentation. All gave clues. Next the students were given 35 minutes to do research. We divided the class into 6 teams each used maps, an atlas, books and the internet to try and guess the mystery city. The Principal walked in when one of the other classes was presenting. She got so involved she did not leave until the end.

The enthusiasm and interest during the research part is amazing. After that the classes get to ask a clarifying question for each group. For example does your county start with the letter "G". If you get a yes you know you're on the right track. A no means back to the books. The students are given another desperate 10 minutes. Then it is time for the guesses.
Of our six teams, four got the country and city right, one got the country right but the city wrong and one wasn't in the right country. As for our mystery country and city, EVERYONE got Guatemala but NOBODY got Chichicastenango!

Monday, February 13, 2006

Dr. Ben Carson

Yesterday as New York City's blizzard was breaking its own snow accumulation record I was sure the NYC schools would be closed. Now I love snow days as much as anyone else but I knew that today was the Dr. Ben Carson videoconference and my joy for a snow day was tempered by my disappointment of missing this special event. So, when Mayor Bloomberg, in the tradition of the mayors before him, said the NYC schools would be opened I was happy for this one reason. We would be to participate in this videoconference.
Dr. Carson has been healing and educating children for years. He is a brilliant pediatric neurosurgeon. He
has separated conjoined twins and performed countless life saving surgeries on the brain and spinal system. However, in the words of Dr. Carson his greatest pride comes not from those individual lives he saves through operations but from the impact he has made on so many countless lives through his books, talks and philanthropic work. Today was one of those inspirational meetings. Dr. Carson spoke to classes of students spread across the United States. He talked about his childhood in Detroit. His feelings of stupidity. His single parent home. The positive influences he found. His accomplishments in medicine. Six of the participating schools asked him prepared questions. Which he answered with long and thoughtful answers.
I looked at the faces of the students at IS126, the school that was participating in New York. They were listening attentively. I tried to see who he might be having an effect on. But you really never know whose life will be forever changed by such an encounter.
I really liked this videoconference. I enjoyed listening to this man who was so accomplished and caring. I think it was better than a snow day.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Poetry Slam Winter 2006

Our Winter Poetry Slam is over and it was wonderful. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday saw eight of our 5th through 7th grade classes participating in a friendly competion of original written poetry performances. Our Queen's finalists even had the opportunity to go on to Slam with another school Region in the Bronx. In all their were a total of six slams involving 22 different connections and not one site was unable to connect. That is technology at its best.
Of course this wasn't the case the week before our Poetry Slam. No, the week before saw "Murphy's Law" in full effect. A cable modem at one school inexplicably stopped working, another cable line got chewed up in a door, and the icing on the cake was that six of our 8 Polycom VSX7000's had a software version that would crash the bridge if they were not updated to a later version. On a personal note I had to be in California for a family event and so I was working against a ticking clock. Miraculously, the cable repair was done as scheduled in both schools. So much for the bad rap the "cable repair guy" gets. I was able to remotely, with the cooperation of school techs, upload the new software from 7.5 to 8.0. And I flew to California on Friday and back to New York on Sunday without any airport closings because of a winter snowstorm (fortunately it's not this weekend where over a foot of snow is expected). So, on Tuesday morning we were ready to SLAM!
Our Poetry Slams were great. Our students and their poetry was just wonderful. The poets from UrbanWord, the spoken word residency that had been in the schools for ten weeks working with the students, were there supporting their students. So were their teachers, classmates and school administrators. I hope to post a link soon to some of those performances. In one e-mail I received from a principal he said " I must say it was a tremendously positive experience!  Thank you for bringing such a wonderful opportunity to our kids."
I am so proud of our teachers, our poets, our tech support, our administrators, our judges but most of all our students for such a spectacular event. Next month we will host an Open Mic in one of our schools where all the students, not just the team members, will get a chance to perform their poems. Then of course there is our Spring Poetry Slam in May where we get to do it all over again.