Media Archive

Technology beams students, teachers into one virtual classroom

Article from The Piscataquis Observer, Vol. 166, No. 37, September 15, 2004

By Jessica Lee
Staff Writer

MILO The classroom at Penquis Valley High School looks like something out of a sci-fi film.

The teacher expertly manipulates a touch-screen at a computer on her desktop, resembling a pilot maneuvering a ship through outer space.

Students in classrooms dozens of miles away interact instantaneously thanks to a high-speed cable connection and a projection screen, asking questions of their teacher, sharing ideas and comments on the day's assignments.

The ATM classroom short for asynchronous transfer mode, a broad band, fiber-optic networking system that transmits voice, video, and data is wired with microphones and video cameras, which broadcast live feeds from the class in the Milo school to like classrooms at Piscataquis Community High School in Guilford and Dexter Regional High School in Dexter.

Through this technology, approximately 20 high school students in those three schools are, ironically, able to take a course in science fiction and fantasy an arts elective. Other ATM classes being offered this year at these participating schools are AP Calculus, Advanced Biology, Spanish 4, History of Journalism and Maine History.

"These are high-interest, work-intensive courses that schools couldn't offer on their own" due to budget constraints, said Penquis Valley Principal John Robinson.

During the science fiction and fantasy class last week, students in all three schools discussed the book "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," written by Douglas Adams, with teacher Amber McMillan, also the 10th grade American literature teacher and the eighth gradg language arts teacher.

"I'm not a Trekkie; I don't speak Kling-on," she joked with her students last Thursday morning, during a discussion about the book and science fiction in general. The teacher does, however, know how to beam her students up quite literally.

With a touch of her hand on a computer screen, McMillan can change a camera shot in any of the three classrooms to project an image of a single student or a group. With ease, she broadcasts a radio recording of the space opera, which can be heard in stereo in all the classes, as well.

The students at Penquis Valley are excited to be taking a course in a favorite topic. Many of them admit to reading fantasy and science fiction books voraciously anyways, so homework (at least in this class) doesn't seem much like homework.

They also will be writing novellas or short stories in the genre this year, and all of them share their ideas (vampires, dragons and time travel are popular) with the teacher eagerly.

According to student James McGuinness of Brownville, who also is taking the Maine history course taught in the ATM classroom, there is "sometimes a delay" in the interactive set-up, but "it's not too bad."

Christina Day of Brownville said, "It's not much different than a regular class except you interact over a screen."

Devin Gillespie of Brownville was thankful for the opportunity to take the science fiction and fantasy course and recognized the ATM technology made it possible.

This is the second year that the ATM classes in all three districts have been up and running in earnest since their installation. Principal Robinson said this year the principals in the schools met to coordinate school schedules.

"We're just beginning to realize what this [technology] can do for us," said Robinson.

While students from Nokomis Regional High School in Newport also are taking some of the same ATM courses, that school was unable to offer any classes of its own through the ATM this year due to budget problems, Robinson said. Originally, Newport would've contributed two classes to the schedule, making a full-day of course offerings in the schools.

"We're taking a good stab at it to get it going and we'll continue to try to make a go of it," Robinson said. "It's growing every year."

SAD 41 Superintendent David Walker agreed that the ATM technology bought and paid for by the state has been beneficial to the students at PVHS. He said it is far beyond the ITV (interactive television) technology of the 1990s, where students could see their teacher but not talk to him or her without dialing a telephone.

"It's a neat technology; it's like sitting on opposite sides of a window and communicating," he said. "This is live, real-time, and there's really no hesitation in the communication between the sites.

"I think this technology has the potential to solve a lot of the problems inherent in smaller rural high schools. It's an alternative to putting students on a bus and shipping them off to a regional location."

NOTE - This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the TRC Alliance Team.