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Students in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District (KPBSD) in Alaska were familiar with videoconferencing. After all, distance learning via videoconferencing technology (VCT) had become a regular event in their remote rural schools, connecting them to professionals and other students around the globe.

But it didn’t take long for students to become the teachers.

At the 2017 Alaska Society for Technology in Education (ASTE) Conference, high school seniors Matthew Zorbas, 17, and Mara Youngren-Brown, 18, hosted a presentation titled “How Video is Changing K-12 in Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.” Two other students from Kenai schools joined the presentation by video and two teachers, Rob Sparks and Greg Zorbas, spoke briefly.

Session attendees heard from the students how beneficial and engaging distance learning can be. Each student presenter explained what and how they learned and why it was relevant to their education, as well as their futures.

The presentation also included a geography and cultural lesson in conjunction with a school in Ghana Africa in real time via video. 

And that was just one of their stops as videoconferencing experts.

The students have also shared their expertise with the state’s Senate Education Committee, at additional education and U.S. Distance Learning Association conferences, and with nearby teachers seeking some reverse mentorship in the use of VCT.

When speaking to teachers, the students typically present on the technical aspects of how to bring video conferencing to a classroom. When speaking with superintendents, the students share how distance learning can improve their district or bring courses to the district that they are currently unable to staff.

The presentations require significant preparation to be tailored to each audience and to meet a particular conference’s theme, Youngren-Brown notes. “By finding out who we’re presenting to, we can modify the presentation to best show them how videoconferencing can help them in their field or area of expertise.”

She acknowledges that despite intense preparation, she still gets nervous, especially when presenting to Alaska’s education committee. “We really wanted to make sure they understood how important integrating technology into education is,” Youngren-Brown explains. “We wanted to show how beneficial using technology is in education and why its budget shouldn’t be cut. This was important to us because the Senate Education Committee makes the decisions that really affect our education, and if we can show our passion and growth, we are always up to the challenge.”

Going from student to teacher all began in two classrooms across town from each other as part of a multi-semester program by teachers Zorbas and Sparks. At first, students come to understand the benefits of VCT through courses that use the technology to bring experts from around the world to the students. Another course introduces students to the use of VCT in the science, medicine and entertainment industries.

A level-three course has students shadowing someone in the VCT industry, engaging in blended learning and putting what they’ve learned into practice by coordinating a videoconference for teachers.

Level four provides students with a remote internship with Polycom, a corporation that develops video, voice and content collaboration and communication technology.

This spring, in addition to their conference presentations, the students became reverse mentors, helping Alaska teachers learn how to use videoconferencing in their classrooms. Students like Natalie Marlowe have helped a K-1 class in a school 20 miles away set up a virtual field trip. Student Matthew Zorbas helped a local middle school teacher post a request on CAPspace for a meet and greet, receiving 20 replies within 24 hours.

The students also pair up the teachers with other classrooms for distance or project-based learning.

“My favorite part is getting to see the kids interact with other areas, seeing Alaska kids and Texas kids talking about how life is different,” Marlowe said. “In one conference I recently set up, the Texas classroom showed the Alaska classroom their pet corn snake and the reactions were priceless.”

Marlowe also appreciates reducing the stress levels for teachers who are not familiar with videoconferencing but want to give it a try. “I also really enjoy the coordination piece. It’s super cool to be a student and to help teachers be sure they are ready for something like this. I enjoy getting everything ready so that the teachers don’t have to feel stressed out.”

The teachers and students alike point to how becoming VCT experts not only enriches their learning experience today, it’s preparing them for tomorrow.

Zorbas says the experience has been beneficial as he applied to colleges and has given him access to business entrepreneurship professors who were impressed by his experience.

Youngren-Brown agrees.

“I’ve learned skills that will be beneficial to me in the future. I’ve also learned that edtech is still a newer concept and that some people are still opposed to it. To me it seemed like a no brainer, but that’s because of the amazing experiences I’ve had,” Youngren-Brown adds. “You can’t change education overnight, but I believe edtech is the future of education and will be an integral part of creating global citizens out of today’s youth.”

In fact, all these skills — using the technology, teaching about the technology and advocating for the technology — address several of the ISTE Standards for Students, including the Global Collaborator, Creative Communicator, Digital Citizen and Empowered Learner standards.

Eric Soderquist, director of information services for KPBSD, points out that VCT is used daily for both student instruction and staff collaboration. “The bandwidth supports and foundation provided by the E-Rate program allow for effective use of this technology,” Soderquist says. “From the Wide Area Network perspective, E-Rate support provides the foundation of our ability to provide the necessary broadband capacity to keep up with shifting technology trends.”