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Pittsburgh Schools Go for Distance With Polycom

Through Pittsburgh's distance learning program, students play Spanish Jeopardy with their counterparts in other schools, debaters face off with teams from across town or in another state, and math students test their knowledge in video-based contests.

Pittsburgh Public Schools is accelerating its drive for excellence with a distance learning program, and tools from Polycom are powering the effort.

The district, which serves approximately 28,000 students, relies on video and voice communications to extend resources and enhance the learning experience at more than 50 schools. Video communication is also helping improve staff training and accelerate problem solving.

“We want to provide our students with the resources and functionality to expand their educational opportunities above and beyond being tethered to a book or confined to classroom” said Steve Mandarino, coordinator of telecommunications infrastructure and operations at Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Through Pittsburgh’s distance learning program, students hone their foreign language skills by playing Spanish Jeopardy with their counterparts in other schools, debaters face off with teams from across town or in another state, and math students test their knowledge in video-based contests.

In 2008, the district began expanding its distance learning footprint with Polycom ClassStation HDX telepresence solutions and Polycom video infrastructure conferencing platforms. The units have been so well received that the district will eventually replace its legacy video conferencing systems with Polycom equipment as the new distance learning standard.

Mandarino said the Polycom systems are well-designed for the dynamic K-12 classroom environment, which was not the case with previous systems.

“The previous systems were too sensitive and did not hold up well. This resulted in more field support time to address issues, which taxed our limited staff resources and made the systems unavailable for the students and staff,” he said.

With Polycom, however, the district’s experience has been far more positive. “Our staff is excited about the hardiness of the Polycom systems,” he said. “They’re easier to use and aren’t as sensitive as the previous systems.”

Standardizing on Polycom Telepresence
As a result, Pittsburgh last year decided to standardize on Polycom telepresence solutions using federal e-Rate funding set aside for technology upgrades. The district now has 55 endpoints now up and running, and about 20 percent of those are Polycom. The district will need 12 or 13 to completely equip all of its facilities and give everyone access to distance learning programs, Mandarino said.

One such program—a proven hit—is the district’s participation in MegaConference Jr. The annual full-day video conferencing event engages schools throughout the world in educational and cultural programs. “It was such a success that we’ve replicated that idea and are doing our own Megaconference among schools in the district,” said Peggy Shields, Pittsburgh’s coordinator of instructional technology.

In another program, an arts-focused school in Pittsburgh holds monthly video conferences with a similarly oriented school in Ireland. The district also offers virtual field trips to museums and on-demand programs available to any class whose building is equipped for video.

Beechwood Elementary’s Marie Mrvos recently relied on the network to engage her students in a NASA-sponsored project to “rescue” a malfunctioning spacecraft gone off-course. The 12-week math and science program culminated in a video conference with NASA’s “mission control.” When Beechwood students learned their efforts helped save the craft and crew, many stood and cheered.

“Video conferencing puts the world at our fingertips,” said Mrvos. “As they were walking out of the distance learning lab for the first time, the kids wanted to know when the next video conference was going to be.”

Extending the Infrastructure
Eventually, said Shields, Pittsburgh plans to use video to bring classes like AP physics to schools that lack instructors certified to teach them. But doing so means the video infrastructure must extend to every school. “The next phase is to make the technology available for every site, thus providing the technical environment that can support everyday curriculum,” said Mandarino.

That should be easy enough, based on the feedback from students and staff. “The voice and video quality really stands out for users,” Mandarino said. “The HD voice quality, in particular, is impressive. Polycom’s noise cancellation technology is a huge advantage in a school environment, where there’s a lot of background noise. Now students can really hear what’s going on.”

Staff and faculty benefit, as well. “A big part of our drive for excellence involves professional development,” says Mandarino. “To move staff from one area of Pittsburgh to another for a training session is a huge undertaking, requiring us to utilize back-up staff and substitutes. However, if all facilities have distance learning capabilities, then trainees can stay at their own facility and schedule sessions accordingly. We can rotate staff throughout the day, so training can be much more cost-effective and productive and less disruptive.”

The district’s visual communication network will enable staff to be more responsive and now enable quarterly in-person meetings via video.

With a current total of 12 Polycom ClassStation HDX systems—three mobile cart-based units and nine stationary systems—Pittsburgh Public Schools is maintaining its focus on outfitting every facility with Polycom solutions.

Polycom ClassStation HDX systems transform the educational experience by allowing students and teachers to interact naturally with other classes and outside content providers across distances. Polycom HDX systems deliver an UltimateHD™ experience with high definition video and HD voice in stereo, and the ability to share dynamic, multimedia content in HD.

“We are just tapping the surface with distance learning applications,” said Shields.

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