The learning revolution in Texas

On the outskirts of Austin, Texas, a small high school of relatively modest means is fundamentally changing how education is being brought to students -- with video technology that lets students debate their peers in the most remote areas of this country, or even around the world in places like Iran, Taiwan, India and Bosnia.

School districts often fail to see the significance of technology in education, according to Michael Cunningham, the principal of Del Valle High School. He is embracing technology as the future for learning because it allows for low cost solutions to the increasingly expensive conventional approaches to education.

With video conferencing, Del Valle High School (part of the Del Valle Independent School District) now participates in international educational programs with 225 schools across 75 countries.

“What the PDF has done for books, video conferencing can do for teaching,” Cunningham explained. “Right now, a printed textbook may cost $100 or $200 per copy, whereas a PDF version of the same book can be available for almost nothing.” With video conferencing, he continued, the best lecturers from around the world can be viewed in a classroom for a fraction of the cost of hosting them in person.

World-Class Experience Made Affordable

Cunningham’s quest to provide a world-class school experience to his students has been an abiding passion for over a decade. “Del Valle is essentially a lower socio-economic school district, and students don't have many of the advantages available to their counterparts in other schools,” Cunningham said. “In the 2001 school year, we learned our school district had under utilised video equipment. We put it to work very quickly, in debates with schools first from Alaska and Canada. That has morphed since then into all kinds of other video conferencing applications.”

Just this past December, Del Valle students had a video debate with students in Kherad High School in Iran. Del Valle has been conducting debates with Iranian students from the past four years – at a time when the US government was not even having formal discussions with the nation.

A “what if” debate, the students considered the issue of what might have happened in world history if Cyrus the Great of Persia had taken over the Greek city states. “It yielded some interesting discussion,” Cunningham said. “Arguably, there might not have been Christianity, the Crusades – even the Muslim religion might not have come to be. Our whole way of government may have been different. Just one or two changes in world history could have resulted in a wholesale change in the way we understand the world.”

In most cases, the video conferencing tool being used by Cunningham and his fellow educators around the world is LifeSize ClearSea, an open standard, software-based system that requires no dedicated equipment. Proprietary systems from other providers would make the process considerably more complicated. The technology enables high quality video communications over very low bandwidth, so even students in countries with limited Internet resources can participate.

For Cunningham, video technology enhances educational opportunities for students who otherwise might not have access to such opportunities.

“In Bosnia-Herzegovina, local students walked to the nearby American consulate to take part in an online video conferencing debate with our students,” Cunningham said. “Most of our partner schools from around the world are now using this technology to speak with us. Without that technology, it would be not much more than a one-sided conversation.”

Later in 2014, Cunningham is planning a moot court trial of the Warren Commission, the report from which will see its 50th anniversary in September. Also in the works, Cunningham is interested in planning an event paying tribute to the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.

Redesigning Education

Underlying Cunningham’s use of video technology is his belief that current approaches to high school education are really a thing of the past.

“The traditional high school came about in the 1800s. There needs to be a complete redesign of the curricula in our schools,” said Cunningham. Video conferencing is key to his reimagining of the education process.

“A lot of schools have video conferencing capacity, but not a lot of schools utilize it,” he said. “By redesigning the curricula, we could begin to use almost our entire capacity for educating students. We could bring in tutors from around the globe, with specialists from specific areas of the world providing education on events of historical significance in that area. It completely changes the landscape for learning.”

For Cunningham, it’s a very compelling model for delivering a high quality educational experience, while dramatically reducing costs and using technology that in many cases is already in place in schools. “I can show you how you, as an educator, you can stay in your building and teach people off campus, right now, for no money. I can show you how you can tutor around the clock for a fraction of the cost. I can show you how to offer new electives without having to hire additional teachers.”

The difficulty, Cunningham acknowledges, is to be able to change the entrenched suspicion of whether technology over a decade old can actually create a fundamental change for the better in education.

“At the leadership level in many schools, there is an awareness problem of what video conferencing can actually accomplish,” Cunningham said. “There are only pockets of teachers at this point that are utilizing the technology, and if that teacher leaves, the entire concept tends to lose momentum.”

Whoever can effectively break down the skepticism and rebuild the educational system with video conferencing as a key components will be ‘a leader in the field’,” according to Cunningham. “We’re talking about billions of dollars in savings that could be redirected into making a vast difference in education.”

“Just as chalkboards have given way to whiteboards, and PDF books have replaced textbooks, so will video conferencing replace overhead projection, films, and substitute teachers or guest instructors,” he said. “With video, you can bring a world-class experience to your school for only a little money,” said Cunningham. “We are enabling our students to open their minds and see what is really going on in their world.”

This piece first appeared in Wired Magazine December 2013