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Teleconferencing across borders: promoting literacy--and more--in the elementary grades.

Child: "Will we really see the children in Costa Rica when we talk to them?"

Teacher: "Yes, they will be on one of the TV screens, and we will be on the other one."

Child: "And we can ask them questions, and they'll be able to answer them right away?"

Teacher: "Yes, but you would need to wait/or your turn. When it is your turn, you will need to press this little button next to the microphone on the table. The camera will be able to zoom in on you, and then you can ask or answer questions."

This conversation, and similar ones, took place between teachers and 3rd- and 4th-graders in Buffalo, New York, as they familiarized themselves with the capabilities of the distance learning room in their school. Going one step beyond pen-pal and E-mail partnerships, the children soon would be able to use modern technology to build friendships around the world as they learned. Since the children were fascinated with video technology, they quickly learned how to operate the microphone buttons, and recognized the importance of sitting still and speaking slowly and clearly. The following article chronicles the experiences of teachers and elementary children from the United States and Costa Rica as they embarked on a journey propelled by a technology of the future--videoconferencing.

Technology in Today's Classrooms

At one time, children communicated with friends through paper cups connected by string. They could not begin to imagine advanced communications. Children today, however, are not even fascinated by radio or black-and-white television. They spend hours on the computer playing educational games, surfing the Web, or sending E-mail messages to friends.

Educational applications for the advancing technology have expanded in the past few years. Schools have access to increasing volumes of developmentally appropriate software to enhance students' learning. Some schools now plan "virtual field trips" to distant places, or invite guest speakers into their classrooms via videoconferences. While not all of the potential problems of technological innovations have been untangled, research is beginning to demonstrate that "technology-rich learning environments contribute definitely and positively to children's success in school" (Hancock & Betts, 2002, p. 11).

In order to provide a technology-rich, developmentally appropriate learning environment for young children, it is important to connect technology to inquiry whenever possible. Therefore, "it is incumbent upon educators to integrate constructivist designs that allow students to explore, question, and discover" (Stafford-Levy & Wilburg, 2000, p. 125). Learners must be allowed to experiment, take risks, and interact freely with the new technology equipment. In addition to carefully integrating technology into the curriculum, educators also should infuse it into assessment and instruction "to create a coherent system of teaching and learning" (Hancock & Betts, 2002, p. 27). With careful alignment of high standards and technology, it is possible for teachers to increase test scores (Cradler, McNabb, Freeman, & Burchett, 2002).

When carefully planned and tailored to the needs of diverse audiences and situations, distance learning opportunities can meet the needs of most students. In low-technology countries, for example, distance education at the primary or secondary level may be correspondence studies or radio broadcasts. In high-technology countries, students take virtual field trips and use handheld computers in their everyday learning. According to Eastmond (2000), "Distance education is seen as an important improvement to education (which is linked to economic growth)by dispersing education to rural areas, providing access to minority groups, increasing the quality of education, and reducing educational costs" (p. 100). Distance education also offers solutions to problems in countries or areas where there is a shortage of classrooms, facilities, and teachers. Instead of building more schools and colleges, or requiring people to move from rural areas to metropolitan areas, online courses could be developed to supplement traditional education (Son, 2001).

Furthermore, distance learning can bridge gaps in international communication and help erase cultural and social boundaries between countries. An electronic exchange of academic materials, and even teachers, could foster international cooperation (Son, 2001). This exchange and cooperation can benefit students by allowing them to take a variety of courses, learn from one another, and even participate in healthy student competition (Eastmond, 2000). The most efficient way to bring about such cooperation among students is through real-time videoconferencing. This relatively new educational possibility has been touted as an "exciting and engaging new medium for learning" (Gerstein, 2000, p. 186). Because it is new and exciting, students often are highly motivated to work harder. One appealing characteristic of videoconferencing is that it can take students virtually to distant places "while never physically moving anyone" (Gerstein, 2000, p. 182).

This type of distance learning tool also has proven successful in facilitating second language acquisition. "The live communication with native speakers has proven to be highly motivating for student success" (Mosby, 1997, as cited in Gerstein, 2000, p. 183). Its further advantages include providing children with opportunities to reduce bias, helping them become more tolerant towards one another, and preparing children for living in the global world. According to Cifuentes and Murphy (1999), "Schools might play a significant role in nurturing students' positive identity formation, spirit of community, and multicultural perspectives by providing them with opportunities to build distant relationships" (p. 94). This is what happened between children at the King Center Charter School in Buffalo, New York, and children at the Lincoln School in San Jose, Costa Rica.


King Center Charter School, Buffalo, NY, USA. The King Center Charter School operates in a former church, also a historic landmark, in one of the most economically depressed and high-crime areas of urban Buffalo. The former St. Mary of Sorrows Roman Catholic Church was facing demolition in the mid-1980s when a group of concerned citizens--educators, politicians, organizations, and business leaders--raised funds and advocated for saving the building. Over 10 years of commitment and hard work paid off when the church was transformed into a pilot school; a governing committee decided that the school would operate in close agreement with the developmentally appropriate guidelines espoused by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). In 1993, Yale University's Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy recognized the King Center as New York State's first 21st Century School. In 2000, the SUNY Board of Trustees approved the proposal for the school to become one of New York's first charter schools. The K-4 program now serves as a high-quality, research-based initiative to prepare children for the future. To reach this goal, each classroom is equipped with the latest in computer and video technology, including wall-mounted classroom cameras with infrared tracking devices. The school maintains a close connection with the community, and with area universities and colleges, through distance learning sessions, extracurricular activities, and pen-pal projects. Over the years, the King Center Charter School has become a model for collaborative urban education (Hoot, Massey, Barnett, Henry, & Ernest, 2001; Massey, Hoot, Ernest, Barnett, & Henry, 2000).

Lincoln School, San Jose, Costa Rica. The Lincoln School ( is located in the central highland plateau of Costa Rica. It is a private, nonprofit, coeducational day school for Pre-K to Grade 12 students. The school opened in 1944, and is governed by a Board of Directors. Both the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the Costa Rican Ministry of Education accredited the institution. The mission of the school includes educating children to achieve high measurable standards through integrated curriculum and through a close partnership with parents. The school also encourages continuing professional development of teachers, thus giving them the skills to help students stay up-to-date in our constantly changing world. Over 1,100 students, including some from the United States and other nations, are educated in the school facilities, which include 76 classrooms, science laboratories, music and drama rooms, computer rooms, a theater, an amphitheater, and art studios. It is recognized schoolwide that cross-cultural communication in a technologically rich world requires all children to become bilingual, and be able to read, write, and communicate at a high level in both English and Spanish. The school's bilingual programs are unique in Costa Rica. Many Lincoln School graduates continue their studies in the United States or in other countries. The school has been involved in various teleconferencing and student exchange projects with schools located in western New York.

CATE: Center for Applied Technologies in Education (1). Since 1995, CATE has been designing and developing Networked Learning Communities, which provide the groundwork for distance learning and videoconferencing opportunities. The center, founded by Donald Jacobs, works closely with K-12 institutions as well as colleges/universities and nonprofit organizations to bridge geographic, political, and cultural boundaries. In Buffalo, sites participate as part of the Western New York Fiber Distance Learning Network through the CityNet fiber optic distance learning network. Schools or organizations outside of this network can connect using ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Networks) or IP (Internet Protocol) technology, which is how the King Center made its connection with the Lincoln School. Besides ISDN and possibly IP technologies, each of these organizations also has a "closed" network that allows it to connect to other schools and organizations outside the network. This system also allows satellite programs to participate.

CATE enables distance learning courses, videoconferences to museums, and expert presentations; a special project is Project LOOP. This project links schools and communities in Costa Rica with Western New York to enhance cross-cultural communication among the participating sites. "Project LOOP established the first video teleconferencing system in Central America for the purpose of linking students, teachers, and communities of learners with their peers in the United States" ( viewcontent.asp?type=loop).

The Teleconference Project

The teleconference was initiated by students and teachers in Costa Rica. A group of eight 3rd-graders sought to develop their English-language skills by interacting with a group of students in the United States. Upon receiving CATE's invitation for a teleconference, the King Center agreed to participate in the session to provide students with a live, cross-cultural learning experience.

In order to make the conference productive, the project administrators carefully implemented the following stages of distance learning delivery (Willis, 1993):

The Design Stage. Project designers first identified specific needs of the audience/participants. The Costa Rican students had specific questions for their U.S. counterparts. They asked questions about the United States, the King Center, animals, plants, and about the U.S. students' families, pastimes, and favorite entertainers. The children in New York also wanted to ask questions. After formulating their lists of questions, each group sent the questions by E-mail to the participating teachers in the respective countries. Gerstein (2000) considers E-mail to be "the best, easiest, and most affordable form of communication for this purpose" (p. 179). These questions provided the basis for individual presentations.

Understanding the participants at both sites was an additional step in the design stage. The audience/ participants in Costa Rica were eight 3rd-grade ESL students (one girl and seven boys) who wanted to use their second language in a live, meaningful context with 3rd- and 4th-grade United States students. The audience/participants at the King Center were two girls and two boys in Grade 3, and two boys and two girls in Grade 4 who had been studying Spanish as a second language during the 2002-03 school year.

The main instructional goal of the teleconference was determined to be enhancing students' academic skills through a telecommunications exchange. Moreover, New York State learning standards were addressed in the areas of English language arts, career development, languages other than English, math, science, technology, and social studies.

Finally, the participating teachers decided to begin the teleconference with individual introductions and student presentations at both sites. Then, the students would have 15-20 minutes of informal conversations.

The Development Stage. Upon evaluating the characteristics of each group, and the main instructional goal, project administrators developed session objectives. These included establishing live interactions among the students, and allowing the children to conduct research by utilizing various tools, develop presentations, practice presentation skills, and experiment with the technology.

An outline for each practice session indicated which activities students needed to be engaged in to accomplish the session objectives. Each student answered research questions on a specific topic by using books, the Internet, magazines, pictures, maps, and encyclopedias. Upon completing their research, children at the King Center worked on presentation posters to be used during the conference.

In Costa Rica, the students worked on individual self-introductions, and short presentations about the Lincoln. School and about their county. They also located a short video about arribadas (turtles laying eggs) to show. The students gave their presentations in English. At the King Center, students prepared presentations on the United States (states, population, favorite pastimes, food, climate, animals, and plants), on New York State (state symbols, climate, animals, plants), on the city of Buffalo, and on the school. The amount of information to be delivered via presentations was carefully considered so as to prevent "listener fatigue."

Students at both sites took the preparation seriously, and showed enthusiasm for the process. According to Gerstein (2000), "Planning a videoconferencing session requires focused organization and attention to detail. Participation in this process provides students with an increased awareness of organizational skills and a more cognizant realization of how language skills are used and perceived by others" (p. 184).

Students in Buffalo also created "self-introductory" collages that provided information about themselves, their families, and their favorite activities and subjects. They illustrated these collages with drawings and photos of children and families. The students were excited about bringing in photos and little objects from home "to show to the Costa Rican students." The practice sessions lasted for 30 minutes every day for three weeks. Each day, the students asked the same question: "Will we be able to see them today?" The answer, however, was always the same: "No, only on the day of the conference."

During the last practice sessions, when the individual presentations were videotaped in the distance learning room at the King Center, the initial goal was to consider the length and flow of the presentations. The videotaping resulted in something more, however. After the students had the opportunity to view themselves on television, they reflected on their own performances. As a result, their communication and presentation skills greatly improved; they reminded themselves to talk slowly and clearly, pronouncing each word in a way that would be understandable for students whose native language is not English. The students also shared ideas about improving the quality of the session, by sitting still in the chair and refraining from pressing the microphone button while somebody else was speaking or touching the microphone (which would result in static noises on the videotape). As they practiced, the students overcame the initial excitement of seeing themselves on the television screens and became more conscious of their appearance and behavior in the distance learning lab.

The Day of the Conference. In order to prevent glitches, technology coordinators were present at each site to provide immediate support, if necessary. Both sites also communicated with CATE in advance to ensure that the connection would be established and monitored. All of the students were very excited about finally meeting their long-distance friends. They were ready to give their presentations and carry out informal conversations.

When the connection was established, the Costa Rican students started their introduction, followed by the King Center students. After they got to know each other, the individual presentations enabled students to share their knowledge about their respective research topics. During the last 15-20 minutes of the session, the students held a relaxed conversation in which they shared their perceptions of their similarities and differences. The audio/visual aids (presentation charts, video presentation, and pictures) further enhanced the quality of the session.

The Evaluation Stage. Evaluations took place not only after the teleconference, but also during the preparation sessions. Teachers monitored whether they were addressing high academic standards and whether the technology was being integrated in a developmentally appropriate way. During the teleconference, teachers evaluated the students' performances. At both sites, students were well-prepared for the presentations, seemed relaxed, and had numerous high-quality interactions with one another.

During the follow-up session, students had the opportunity to share their experiences and brainstorm ideas for future sessions. One child commented: "I think it was awesome seeing other people from a different culture.... I have learned a lot from the movie they showed about Costa Rica. I'd like to visit them one day!"

The Costa Rican students became so excited about the conference that they started a pen-pal project with the King Center students. The participants now design and write their own postcards on a regular basis, sharing additional information about one another, their school, and their families. Below is a sample exchange of postcards sent between a student at Lincoln School in Costa Rica and a student at the King Center.

Postcard # 1 From Costa Rica

"Dear C., I also like math, too. I have three sisters. Do you like soccer? Your friend, D."

Response to Postcard # 1 From Buffalo, NY

"Dear D., Thanks for the letter. I would rilly like three sisters but I have two brothers. I like watching people play soccer. Your friend, C."

The student decorated the front of the card with various math problems for the Costa Rican friend to solve and send back.

At the King Center, the classroom teachers displayed each postcard on the walls next to the world map, thus encouraging map reading skills and keeping the connections alive. The 4th-grade teacher, Ms. Kaity, commented after the teleconference: "The students were very motivated to talk to their peers and adults about the teleconference. They even asked their Spanish teacher for information about Costa Rica, even though she is not from that country originally. It was a sign that students made the connection between Spanish-speaking countries.... All the students are very excited to take part in future on-line collaborations."

The Revision Stage. After evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the conference, teachers at both sites discussed areas in need of improvement or revision for future sessions. Some of their planned changes include more informal interactions among the students, rather than taking 35-40 minutes of presentations, and exchanging written hand-outs for easier reference to key points of the session.

Parent Involvement. The parents of the students were kept informed about the progress of the preparations, and were encouraged to work with their children at home to prepare them for their individual presentations. Many parents came in to observe the session and hear their child's presentation.

Problems Encountered

While the teachers and children unanimously agreed that the project was highly successful, a few difficulties did emerge and should be shared.

Scheduling Problems. The teachers, technology coordinators, and CATE organized the session via Email. Establishing an appropriate time for both sites was critical but proved difficult, considering the time difference between the countries. Unfortunately, the first scheduled conference did not take place, due to a miscalculation of the time difference. At the King Center, students, teachers, parents, and community representatives (including a legislator) patiently awaited the connection at the proposed time. Although all the details were discussed in advance, running a test session would have been a useful way to double-check the time zone difference and identify any necessary modifications. The children were very disappointed that they could not talk to their Costa Rican peers at that time, but remained excited when the new day and time was confirmed.

Technical Difficulties. Technical difficulties--such as experiencing and transmitting static noises--need to be worked out before conducting any future sessions. Scheduling the video connection about half an hour before the actual presentation time allowed enough opportunity to work out last-minute technological problems, with the help of an on-site technical assistant. Scheduling the disconnection about 5-10 minutes after the end of the scheduled conference is also advisable so that no presentation need be abruptly cut off (Pachnowski, 2002).

Cost of the Distance Learning Lab/Upgrading. Start-up and upgrading expenses associated with distance learning programs can be very expensive. Institutions should carefully investigate the various types and costs of available technology, consulting, for example, the literature on funded projects and grant programs (e.g., Porter, 1997). The King Center participated in making a citywide collaborative grant proposal to Bell Atlantic to defray costs for the initial distance education room. Upgrades and extensions have been possible through corporate and federal grants.


This distance learning experience allowed students to not only enhance their academic and technological skills, but also work with other students as team members. Through this cross-cultural exposure, students came to understand and appreciate different cultures (Nordgren, 2002). A community feeling was established among students and teachers, and between the schools. Students' self-esteem and multicultural understanding increased (Cifuentes & Murphy, 1999). Some students began considering future careers in technology.

Nordgren (2002) asserts that in order to succeed in a global world, children will need the ability to work "cooperatively and collaboratively within teams and across cultures" (p. 319), and will need to acquire technological skills. To achieve this goal, teachers need to be well-trained in the use of technology in the classroom. School systems should provide both training and support for teachers to help them integrate technology into the curriculum. Teacher training institutions must emphasize quality technology training (Wetzel, 2001).

A recent UN report asserts that "the combination of education and technology can have powerful and long-lasting effects on the quality of life for our students, our global neighbors, and ourselves" (cited in McNabb, 2002, p. 61). In order to achieve this positive outcome, it is necessary to foster the development of higher order thinking and literacy skills, along with technology fluency. Furthermore, the cost of distance education programs must be lowered or met through government or corporate funding to make such programs accessible for everyone. It may be a challenge, but it is our responsibility and mission as educators, organization leaders, and policymakers to provide the highest quality learning for all children.


Cifuentes, L., & Murphy, K. L. (1999). Distance learning among Mexican and Texan children. Educational Technology Research and Development, 47(4), 94-102.

Cradler, J., McNabb, M., Freeman, M., & Burchett, R. (2002). How does technology influence student learning? Learning & Leading with Technology, 29(8), 46-49.

Eastmond, D. (2000). Realizing the promise of distance education in low technology countries. Educational Technology Research and Development, 48(2), 100-111.

Gerstein, R. B. (2000). Videoconferencing in the classroom: Special projects toward cultural understanding. In D. L. Johnson, C. D. Maddux, & L. Liu (Eds.), Integration of technology into the classroom: Case studies (pp. 177186). Binghamton, NY: The Haworth Press.

Hancock, V., & Betts, F. (2002). Back to the future: Preparing learners for academic success in 2004. Learning & Leading with Technology, 29(7), 10-13, 27.

Hoot, J., Massey, C., Barnett, M., Henry, J., & Ernest, J. (2001). A former church as a center of excellence for children. Childhood Education, 77, 386-392.

Massey, C., Hoot, J., Ernest, J., Barnett, M., & Henry, J. (2000). From near-rubble to rebirth: A former church building as a centerpiece of collaboration for children. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 21(1), 75-84.

McNabb, M. L. (2002). Global human development through technology: How can education help? Learning & Leading With Technology, 29(5), 58-61.

Nordgren, R. D. (2002). Globalization and education: What students will need to know and be able to do in the global village. Phi Delta Kappan, 84(4), 318-321.

Pachnowski, L. M. (2002). Virtual field trips through video conferencing. Learning & Leading With Technology, 29(6), 10-13.

Porter, L. R. (1997). Creating the virtual classroom: Distance learning with the Internet. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Son, T. T. (2001). Distance education and its contribution to rural development in Vietnam. Childhood Education, 77, 351-355.

Stafford-Levy, M., & Wilburg, K. M. (2000). Multicultural technology integration: The winds of change amid the sands of time. In D. L. Johnson, C. D. Maddux, & L. Liu (Eds.), Integration of technology into the classroom: Case studies (pp. 121-134). Binghamton, NY: The Haworth Press.

Wetzel, K. (2001). Preparing teacher leaders: A partnership that works, part 2. Learning & Leading With Technology, 29(3), 50-53.

Willis, B. (1993). Distance education: A practical guide. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Willis, B. (1994). Distance education: Strategies and tools. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Web sites

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(1) Information about CATE was obtained from Barbara Buonanno, Manager of Networked Learning Communities in Buffalo, NY, and from the CATE home page:

Judit Szente is Research Coordinator at the King Center Charter School in Buffalo, New York.
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Title Annotation:teleconferencing project between King Center Charter School, New York and Lincoln School in Costa Rica; possibilty for enriched learning if properly planned and integrated
Author:Szente, Judit
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:2COST
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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