Having been around distance learning for the better part of 20 years, I’ve had the honor to meet colleagues from all around the world and watch how they’ve made a difference in student’s lives through the use of distance learning. Each year the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA) recognizes the preeminent distance learning practitioners from around the world. I first met Greg Zorbas and Rob Sparks at the USDLA annual conference in the spring of 2016 as they were there as award recipients for what they called the ‘Classroom without walls” (CWOW) project.
The CWOW originated with three high school history teachers in a fairly modern but remote part of Alaska who, back in 2005, sought to collaborate. I was amazed to learn how resourceful these guys actually were; they took unused, obsolete Polycom video conferencing gear and built a distance learning network that would be operated by each of them. I recall the joke they told about working together they probably equaled one good teacher!
Teaching in Alaska is no easy feat; Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula Borough School District (KPBSD) spans more than 25,000 square miles – an area larger than the state of West Virginia. Some schools, small and separated by wilderness or seawater, are as much as three hours apart. All that distance makes collaboration among schools vital, but it also makes it extraordinarily difficult. After getting to know Greg and Rob it was obvious that they thrived on these types of challenges.
Like any good distance learning project they established a set of goals to increase student engagement through student-to-student collaboration, broadened learning opportunities and state-of-the-art tools.
They ultimately realized all of their goals using distance learning – the mastery of subject matter was enhanced, their students learning 21st century skills and they also found that even stodgy old teachers (themselves) could learn and grow, too. Just look at a group of students in Kenai connected with a partner classroom (actually a one-room schoolhouse) in Cooper Landing some 70 miles away. The power of distance learning!
Not being ones to standstill, the CWOW project continually evolves. Now in its eleventh year, a new selection of classes offer a certification program designed to help develop individuals who have a desire or need to understand the world of video conferencing & the impact the video solutions have in multiple industries.
The benefits of distance learning are numerous but one that truly sticks out for me is the ability for teachers to teach to their individual strengths, while simultaneously giving students the benefit of learning from content experts. This is not financially possible in most remote, rural locations and helps to provide the opportunity for small and remote schools to collaborate with larger more dynamic classrooms. Greg and Rob also encourage digital citizenship by educating students on the proper use of technology and research tools as well as on collaboration and videoconferencing etiquette (something many adults could benefit from as well!).
The CWOW has gone on to bring together schools and communities in Alaska as well as around the world. What started out as a bunch of guys breaking down the traditional classroom walls, has turned into a tower of teaching for the local community and state of Alaska.
See Greg and Rob’s dream in action at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tUs5Yn_jNfA
Pat Cassella, USDLA Board Member
About United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA) The United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA) is a non-profit association formed in 1987 and is located in Boston, Massachusetts. The association reaches 20,000 people globally with sponsors and members operating in and influencing 46% of the $913 billion dollar U.S. education and training market. USDLA promotes the development and application of distance learning for education and training and serves the needs of the distance learning community by providing advocacy, information, networking and opportunity. Distance learning and training constituencies served include pre-k-12 education, higher and continuing education, home schooling as well as business, corporate, military, government and telehealth markets. The USDLA trademarked logo is the recognized worldwide symbol of dedicated professionals committed to the distance learning industry. https://usdla.org.