If you go down to the woods today, prepare to learn a thing or two.
There, in a small clearing, is a manufactured tree stump within which sits a large screen TV. Over the screen reads a sign “Stump a Student and Win a Compass”. Within the screen sit two giggling elementary school students.
They explain that for the cost of a dollar you can try to ask them a question about the park they don’t know the answer to. So you drop a note into the attached glass case, and ask them something about bears.
Of course they know all about bears, so you miss your chance at the compasses on display in front of the screen. But it’s all in good fun, and it is all part of an ongoing video-linked course the students are taking about the history of California’s State Parks.
At least it could be, if the California State Parks authority was willing to reverse the flow of its Parks Online program.
Virtual Reality Forests
The real parks authority program, Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Schools (or, PORTS), isn’t all that different from the scenario above. There is a real video link from the several state parks to potentially any school that has the video conferencing equipment to field a call. Except in this case, the fonts of knowledge are the park rangers that care for California’s array of nature preserves.
And those rangers have been very busy. The PORTS program has delivered 1500 presentations to more than 46,000 students across 100 California schools over the past year.
The idea is to use remote video conferencing to allow schools that couldn’t otherwise afford to bus their students into the wild, a chance to still get their kids up close with nature.
The rangers drive utility vehicles–loaded up with the necessary video calling equipment to turn a tablet into a broadcasting studio–into environmentally significant sections of their park. Once stationary, they begin giving a real-time presentation to students about life in the forest, the importance of conservation, and the history of the Gold Rush era.
It’s a program that could be repeated at parks across America, each tailored to suit the geography and heritage of a particular area.
Virtual School Trips
More and more schools are choosing to take their students on virtual field trips.
They’re partly motivated by the continuing financial effects of the subprime mortgage crisis, and partly by the fact that video calling technology has become more affordable and reliable over the past decade. HD-quality webcams now retail for less than $100, while video calling platforms such as Skype and Google Hangouts are free to use when you’ve got only a few screens in play.
In addition to linking students with experts on the ground, video calling can also embrace basic virtual reality and online pre-programed narrated displays to take them to unreachable destinations like the moon or the bottom of the ocean.
Similarly, the tech could in the future push them into fun, abstract displays of virtual reality, where a teacher can guide them through literacy and numeracy classes staged within an alphabet soup of floating letters and numbers, just waiting to be pushed in equations and solutions.
For now though, the link works best when there’s an expert standing before the students discussing the history behind the magnificence of the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, or Death Valley.
So, back to this idea of switching roles, and letting the students take center stage among these natural wonders.
Reversing the Video Flow
The PORTS program has so far kept its focus on the Californian schools within relative proximity to the parks.
But there’s no technical reason, state funding aside, why the program can’t be rolled out to students across the nation. Internet connectivity is now commonplace across the U.S., and parks authorities throughout the nation could form a network of live ranger presentations to cover all the natural beauty the country has to offer.
And video calling technology is completely reversible. It doesn’t take a central nerve center to initiate or maintain a connection, which means the fictional, know-it-all students we talked about earlier can easily take over the spotlight.
There are even remotely operated video calling systems that can activate a distant connection without the need for a ranger to walk into the forest and set up the quiz kiosk. A supervising teacher can of course be on hand via a third video calling connection, but they can set their chat window to audio only so as not to disturb the visual presentation.
The system would give students a unique opportunity to put their lessons into practice, and depending on the cost of compasses, and the honesty of state park visitors, it could become a profitable fundraiser.
It would certainly add an unexpected surprise to any hiker’s morning walk.