It’s harder than usual today to concentrate on what the teacher is saying. Through the plastic taped over the broken window, the girl can see her father and some neighbors cutting away pieces of the tree that crushed the family car.
Her teacher notices the girl’s wandering attention and calls her name, pulling her focus back to the laptop computer in front of her. School is being conducted by video conference today. The hurricane has torn a major section of the school’s roof away, so the teachers are conducting lessons from home, gathering their students in group video chats.
The whole town is busy working to repair the damage done, but at least one part of normal life can resume. With video conferencing, the girl and her classmates can continue their education after a natural disaster.
A Video Calling Secret Weapon
That scenario became a reality for students of Orange County, Florida, when Hurricane Irma struck their hometowns earlier this year. Nearly 70 Orange County schools were left without power for a week following the storm, while many suffered substantial damage to buildings or were left strewn with debris from fallen trees and light poles. All 2.8 million students from across Florida missed at least two days of school because of Irma.
The Orange County schools, however, had a technological backup plan ready to minimize disruption to their students’ education. At the beginning of the school year, the County’s public schools issued more than 75,000 laptops to middle and high school students and their teachers. As the storm approached, social media messages urged everyone to fully charge and safely store their computers. After the hurricane passed, those laptops could be used to stage virtual classes online using the purpose-designed education video conferencing program, Safari Montage Live. That program has enough features to recreate an entire classroom experience remotely, provided that power and an internet connection are available to run it.
Flexible Learning with Video Conferencing
Safari Montage is a niche product few social or business video callers would come across. Like Blackboard, it caters specifically to the education field, designed to accommodate large groups and multimedia streaming. It can store video libraries and even record student progress. The Orange County schools hadn’t planned on making the platform part of a break-in-case-of-emergency virtual campus. Rather, its use, and the deployment of all those laptops, was a way to make learning more flexible and personalized.
In the face of necessity, however, potentially thousands of students can use it as an educational life raft while buildings are repaired and roads are cleared. In Florida, it has been used to take children on virtual field trips, to let senior students continue their SAT preparations by speaking with tutors and teachers, and to host entire classes online with two teachers calling in from off-school sites to share the remote burden.
It’s also flexible enough to let the whole class get together from home if the school is damaged, or to let individuals join their classmates at school if their own path to class is blocked. That flexibility means video conferencing can be used to keep students occupied before, during, and after a major storm.
Virtual Education After a Natural Disaster
Orange County has demonstrated how VC can be used to pull students back into the classroom after a natural disaster, but it can be part of more than just the recovery plan.
As the storm warning starts sounding across the media, schools can help move people out of harm’s way by shutting their classrooms and opening their video calling portals. A video call can reach the length and breadth of the internet, so provided there’s someone on hand to teach the class, students can attend school from their grandparents’ condo in the panhandle as easily as from their own homes.
As the storm makes landfall and the terrifying images of breaking trees and flooding rivers emerge, students can stay occupied on their educational video calls, away from the worst of the nightmare-inducing moments.
Such alternatives would arguably work best if the concept of the flipped classroom is adopted. Under this scenario, the roles of homework and classwork are reversed, so that students are introduced to new material on their computers at home, and then join their teachers for follow-up questions and clarification. That model would make a teacher’s virtual life easier, as they could meet with smaller, more focused groups online.
Video conferencing has already expanded the classroom into a global playground where students can mingle with peers in other countries, and on other continents. In times of natural disaster, it could also become an intimate shelter.