A Learning Revolution in Texas: Bringing the World to the Classroom

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

Trade Show Robots: Defying Convention

I take a rather dim view of the new technology of service robots in the workplace. Recently, though, I’ve come across a new use for the technology that makes a lot more sense: video conference-enabled trade show robots.

Unlike robots in the office, trade show robots could be a boon for the $100 billion-plus global trade show and conference industry. Combined with video conferencing capability, these robots could dramatically change how trade shows and similar events engage attendees.

First, a little background. There is a market boom in so-called “service” robots, as opposed to “industrial” robots like the ones used on assembly lines. The International Federation of Robotics estimated the worldwide market for robot systems in 2012 at $26 billion. Service robots, meant for personal or professional use, saw a 20 percent increase in 2012 sales over 2011. From 2013-2016, that segment alone will likely have a market value of $ 17.1 billion.

How does this play into the trade show world? In October 2013, Suitable Technologies made 50 of their Beam “remote presence” or “telepresence” robots available for rent at the RoboConference in Silicon Valley. In a conversation with a trade editor, Suitable’s founder Scott Hassan suggested he could have 10,000 of his robots at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

It’s not such a far-fetched notion to have robots roam the trade show aisles. Some show goers are already renting Segways to cover more convention area quickly. This would just be removing the human element altogether, and replacing it with so-called robot “avatars” already making a splash on the market.

Robot builders originally suggested a far less practical business model, which was to use the technology in the workplace so traveling workers could have the same kind of access as when they’re actually in the office. I just can’t see the market for very many business robots, zipping around on their little robot wheels, popping their little robot video heads into offices. It’s hard to justify more than a couple of these service robots in even a very large company, and that’s not a growth strategy.

Trade shows, though, now that’s another thing altogether. The economics of using robots makes sense there. When CES rolls around, it’s hard to find a hotel room in Las Vegas for less than $400 per night. Add the travel costs, and it becomes prohibitive to have a group of attendees at the show. That cost is even greater for international travellers. Robots would eliminate that expense, or at least reduce it greatly.

And with telepresence robots (that is, robots with video conferencing capability), you’re not limited to one attendee per robot. Today’s video conferencing technology allows for multiple shared calls on the same device. An entire group can attend a conference on a single robot, with eight or nine shared views. Participants can drop in or out at any time, depending on their interest in what’s happening at the time.

All this begs the question of whether exhibitors and show coordinators will have to create robot-friendly environments. It may no longer be practical to have raised platforms in booths and exhibit areas. Printed information like brochures or show guides may be gradually phased out in favor of scannable QR codes to download the information right through the robot.

If robots catch on, we can expect shorter cafeteria lines as more attendees opt for the virtual experience. (On the other hand, it will put a crimp in concession revenues -- and a real dent in the promotional gift market. Expect substantial sales drop-off in stress balls, t-shirts, mints and other promotional items when robots roam the floors.)

Of course, not all show organizers would want to manage 10,000 robots. That opens up an entire new potential line of business, which I’m dubbing “fleet robotics.” Suitable’s Scott Hassan has the edge on the thinking here. Fleet robot rental companies could provide and manage large numbers of robots for trade show or event companies that don’t want the hassle of their own service robots.

It’s not unlike rental car companies that offer fleet services to other businesses. And it opens the robot market to a company like Suitable to supply new channels for their products -- they can sell direct, offer fleet services themselves, or create inventory for an emerging fleet rental market.

Believe me, that market is likely to happen. If we’ve learned anything from Arnold Schwarzenegger, it’s that robots are pretty hard to stop.

This article first appeared in Wired Magazine January 2014