Video and Unified Communications have been steadily overhauling education and how we view the modern classroom for at least 20 years with the continued uptick in Distance Learning. Now students can chat with students a world away in Palestine, or they can receive music instruction from world-class musicians. The possibilities are endless with inspiring video connections such as these.

That’s why the Public Sector View editorial staff recently reached out to Alli DePuy, co-founder of Inspired Classroom, to hear about their newest program, Killer Whale Tales.

Keep reading below to learn more about the incredible things Inspired Classroom is doing for students:

Public Sector View (PSV): Can you tell our readers more about Inspired Classroom and how the Killer Whale Tales program came about?

Alli DePuy (AD): Yes, we started pursuing the idea about three years ago. It really came about through a chance meeting between John Floberg, the executive Director of the Washington Parks Foundation, whose mission it is to improve upon state parks and facilities within Washington state.

1Through our chance meeting with John, he learned a little bit about Inspired Classroom and what we were starting to do, which is deliver engaging, authentic and relevant distance education programs to students across the country and across the world via video teleconferencing.  John was intrigued by our program and decided to look into it as a possibility for Washington Parks Foundation.

We continued talking with John and also pulled in Killer Whale Tales run by Jeff Hogan. Killer Whale Tales offers environmental education about orcas and the Puget Sound.

But, like with many things, funding was an issue and stalled the program for a while.

Then, John called me in the fall. The funding had been secured from Peach Funding, and I had about 24 hours to pull together the program proposal. All of the partners then came together, and we started working with Killer Whale Tales to make this happen.

When it came time to choose equipment we went to Polycom. We at Inspired Classroom already had a good history with them, so we reached out to them about this new opportunity. They were on board and also brought along GCI, who provided the satellite uplink for us through their education sector. Vision Net also came on board to with the support of a live RSS and bridge room.

All of the partners started coming to the table. Inspired Classroom pulled together the program and curriculum materials. We prepared the content and helped the presenter adjust his content to mesh with the schools’ standards and curriculum.

In the end, we had three days’ worth of incredibly successful events May 23-25 with Killer Whale Tales and the Washington Parks Foundation.

PSV: How many students has Inspired Classroom reached? How has the program been received by teachers and students?

AD: Killer Whale Tales was really exciting and a big win for us!

The program allowed us to reach a lot of students as well as teachers across a pretty broad spectrum.

2Each of the three days we had 5 interactive distance learning events. In those classes we had generally anywhere from 2 to 5 classrooms participating live. When we cap the maximum number of classes to 5 or less, we find the interaction between the schools’ increases. And that interaction is very important. To add to the interactive component students also received a virtual tour of the park from F.O.L.K.S., the Friends Of Lime Kiln Society.

In those three days, we reached about 1200 students- in Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Montana. And, we have had some very positive feedback so far from teachers. When asked what their students learned, one teacher excitedly shared- We learned about the different sizes of orca whales, what their calls sound like and how they communicate.

To me, one of the beautiful things about Distance Learning and Interactive Distance Learning is that we can reach very small communities in rural areas with really small classes of 5 to 20 students.

For example, we had an AK Teach group that worked with families in very remote areas of Alaska to enhance student education. We had quite a few AK Teach families join us.

While we had about 1200 students for the live, interactive sessions, we also had a live RSS feed that we encouraged the teachers to share with others.

We had originally thought that we had reached about 1700 students. But, according to the analytics, we had over 500 class connections to the RSS feed as well, bringing that number way up. While the exact total is difficult to determine, we approximate that over 3000 students experienced the event from the U.S., Canada, Austria and Germany, via the live interactive show and the RSS feed.

For this project in particular we had reached out to whale experts to do the presentations. And, what struck me most was that you could have easily replaced “orca” with “grizzly bear.” A great deal of the conversation about conservation, politics, habitat, research and so on is interchangeable.

Different animal, different location but the same collaborative, interactive learning.

PSV: What benefits do you feel distance learning delivers to teachers and students? How has distance learning and the use of video teleconferencing been beneficial to students and contributed to success for the program.

AD: What I love most about Distance Learning is that the benefits are so numerous. That said, often what I find most beneficial are the surprise benefits.

For example, we did a program out of the University of Montana, celebrating Native American scholars.

The goal was to go into public schools across Montana and connect those students with role models at the University of Montana. A group from Browning brought their drummers to the connection, and one of our presenter role models was a well-known Native American drummer. He and the student drummers ended up having a drum off during the session. It was this amazing, unscripted part of the experience.

Another interesting and surprising benefit came to light during the whale event too.

One of the participating schools was from Yakama. The teacher wrote a letter to us about how 98% of her class is Hispanic, has never left Yakama, and have never seen the ocean. During the connection, one of her students wanted to know where were the Hispanic kids in the other classrooms. His question then led to a discussion about diversity and how their culture is very homogenous. They had the opportunity to not only learn about the orcas and the ocean but also about students in other areas. It was a huge benefit for her students to learn about life beyond the walls of her classroom.

Creating experiences like that really is what we try to do. At Inspired Classroom we strive to bring relevant and interesting learning experiences to students that will hopefully inspire them and enable them to think about the world at large.

PSV: Do you see the distance learning program evolving? Are there new classes that you’re planning? Are you planning new ways to increase engagement with students?

AD: One of the things I see with Distance Learning is that the equipment and the tools are becoming accessible to students and teachers. The evolution in the equipment itself has made it more accessible and a great deal less prohibitive.

When VTC first started, it was very expensive to get into which made it a little bit prohibitive. Now, there are so many options. We work with Polycom’s equipment, including the Real Presence Desktop and the new group series.

Real Presence is fantastic for teachers. We use it in every conference with a variety of end-points. Being able to connect all of those end-points to our system and still know that what we are delivering is of the highest quality is pivotal to our success.

So that in and of itself has been a huge revolution.

We also have a green screen studio where we do some green screen work with students because we can’t always be in the field. We have excellent resources allowing us to a great deal of incredible work right from our studio that is really engaging for students.

But, one of our most interesting resources is our Mobile Teaching Unit. It is a trailer that you can tow behind an ATV that, when you open it up, has a full video suite inside. There are two monitors, a sound mixer, really anything you would need to host a connection from the field. It is pretty fantastic.

The unit is made to go outdoors and is made to be rugged, so that you can do video from just about anywhere.

What I’m seeing from an education stand-point is that, for a long time programs were handed down to teachers, or they had to choose from a list of virtual field trips.

But, Inspired Classroom is flipping that a little bit by asking educators- Ok, what do you need? What do you want to see more of? Experts? Role Models? How can we help you build collaboration that will fit into and enhance your curriculum?

At Inspired Classroom we thrive on building engagement by watching expert teachers via video; seeing and experiencing them teach from the field is the greatest joy!

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