Sonoma elementary school embraces a new era of ed tech

NOUN video conferencing empowers students to broaden their horizons.|

The calendars have turned, and now we can review the past decade through a number of lenses. Perhaps the most impactful change - and the one most easily taken for granted - was in how we interact with our screens. Although 2010 might not seem like long ago, our daily relationship with technology was much different back then. Most professionals holstered a flip-phone or Blackberry, and college students could get by without a personal laptop. Then the market began to change.

The first iPhone was released in 2007, the first iPad in 2010, and Google released Chromebook - a low-priced disruptor in the laptop market - in 2011. By 2018, Chromebooks were nearly two-thirds of all computers purchased by schools in the United States. Smartphone ownership has increased from 36 to 96 percent since 2011. These devices made their own contributions to a revolution in how we consume information. The most significant changes to this relationship are yet to come, and many of them will be in the classroom.

Sonoma Valley’s Prestwood Elementary School has become an incubator for one of education’s newest horizons. Video conferencing is poised to become a decisive addition to the future of learning. Virtual interviews and field trips will allow teachers to bring the world into their classrooms and open doors to learning experiences that are both memorable and inspiring.

Dave Sickert is the director of NOUN, an emerging educational network that helps teachers hold student-led interviews across miles and time-zones using video conferencing software. For the past three years, Sickert has worked on-site at Prestwood as a media and library specialist. His wealth of experience building commercial media platforms has provided a foundation for the project.

“With guidance from principal Katie Larkin and teacher Emily Brown, we’ve begun building curriculum-connected interview modules designed to bring authenticity to the students’ educational experience,” said Sickert.

Face-to-face interactions with global professionals help students develop their communication skills while braiding new relevance into existing lessons. Imagine 2nd grade girls meeting a female American Airlines pilot, bilingual students exchanging stories in real-time with peers in Madrid, or math students asking a state senator how big data influences policy design. These concepts are now an emerging reality.

In late December, a group of Prestwood third, fourth, and fifth graders held a teleconference with State Sen. Bill Dodd. Their teacher, Emily Brown, saw the event as having deep learning potential.

“One of the most amazing aspects of this program are the real-life skills that the students are developing in an extraordinarily engaging manner,” she said. Brown works with Sickert on the NOUN platform as an advisor, and her students have participated in several NOUN interviews.

The conversation with Dodd was kept relatively apolitical. Brown noted that no parents opposed the meeting after letters were sent home to families. The event allowed Brown to “frontload” the meeting with additional training and preparation.

“Students wrote their own questions,” said Brown, “and the interview gave their writing an authentic purpose and helped them prepare for public speaking. Many kids have also seen the senator’s billboards around Sonoma and St. Helena. All of this gives the lessons more context and makes the experience more impactful.”

The state senator’s virtual visit lasted about 20 minutes, and Brown’s students led the way. Several took turns stepping up in front of a webcam and presenting the senator with rehearsed questions. Although nervous, many were eager to practice public speaking and interviewing in front of their teachers and peers.

Another example of the platform in action occurred last September, when sixth graders at Petaluma’s McDowell Elementary School led a virtual interview with Duchess Harris. Harris is a college professor in Minnesota and author of the book “Hidden Heroes.” Students used the time to ask questions like “Have you met anyone you’ve written about?,” “How long did your grandmother work at NASA?” and “What is it like to be an author?”

Their teacher, Carly Costello, is a former Prestwood teacher.

Both Harris and Dodd were patiently aware of their respective audiences, finishing some responses with an encouraging “Does that make sense?” A video of Harris’ conference with McDowell youth, compiled by Sickert, is currently posted on the NOUN website and on YouTube. Similar footage of Dodd’s engagement at Prestwood will be available this month.

The next steps for NOUN’s adaptive technology will be rolled out this year. Sickert and Brown are in the early stages of building a new module that will connect elementary school students in California with students in Madrid. Prestwood students previously used NOUN technology to chat with their peers in Argentina, an exchange that revealed some potential obstacles to future coordination with other overseas classrooms.

“The biggest challenges at the moment are time differences,” said Sickert. “We need to wait until Daylight Savings Time begins in March, or launch a new site on the east coast.” Sickert believes that developing an east coast expansion could be a “heavy lift.”

Other future NOUN modules include a virtual field trip to the MoMath Museum in New York, which will also be facilitated by Brown. Sickert said, “Seeing the potential for NOUN from inside in the Prestwood library compelled me to move the project forward. Watching students work with Emily and educators like her to expand learning beyond the classroom is quite rewarding.”

Video conferencing has the potential to become an asset to education on several fronts - it can help keep costs down and make class time more efficient, all while building relationships between students and global professionals.

Ultimately, the technology offers teachers a way to expand the walls of their classrooms and inspire young students in real time. If the best is yet to come, it all started here.

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