BEMC, OARnet enable distance learning opportunities

A Mandarin Chinese class taking place through use of the OARnet network and BEMC's services.

Professor Chris Stellato waits patiently for his middle school student to answer the question he’s just asked her in fluent Mandarin Chinese. She fidgets meekly with the sleeves on her hooded sweatshirt as she struggles to come up with the right word. Even over the webcam image, Stellato can tell she’s tired today. He nudges her on with a verbal clue, and eventually she answers his question quietly, but correctly, in near-perfect Chinese.

A few short months ago, neither this student nor her classmate could speak a word of the language. However, thanks to opportunities provided through the Ohio Broadcast Educational Media Commission (BEMC), school districts across Ohio can offer distance learning classes with live instruction at a low cost. The seamless real-time video conferencing is made possible through OARnet’s high-speed statewide network.

“With a program like this, (a school) may have 10 to 15 kids that want to take Chinese in the whole school. So to bring on a Chinese teacher who may not be able to teach any other classes would be incredibly expensive,” Stellato said. “But with this, you’re probably looking at maybe a third of the cost. And I think actually it’s just as, if not more, effective.”

Since 2006, the BEMC Video Conference Network Operations Center (VNOC) has operated and maintained a statewide video conference network that provides reliable, multi-point video conference services to more than 1,200 customers in Ohio. The video conference service is offered at no cost to Ohio K-12 school districts, Ohio educational service providers and Ohio content providers.

The BEMC VNOC has been in operation since 2006.

A decade ago, the equipment to operate a class via video conferencing may have been a financial burden, but BEMC Chief of Operations Jarrod Weiss said that all a school needs today is a computer, webcam and a microphone. And if equipment cost presents a burden, Weiss said there are grants available to offset or even cover equipment purchases.

Through connections on OARnet’s 100 Gbps backbone, live video streaming is not only possible, but very accessible to rural districts in even the most remote parts of the state.

“The OARnet backbone, having that loop there allows for hundreds of schools and classes across the state to be able to connect to high-speed internet,” said Jarrod Weiss, chief of operations at BEMC. “It’s an incredible thing to see…It’s a large, fast internet capability and without it, those schools wouldn’t be able to connect to us and we wouldn’t be able to help them to provide these educational opportunities.”

The Chinese language classes are taught through the Confucius Institute at the East Central Ohio Educational Service Center. Director Michele Carlisle said the institute uses six instructors, including Stellato, to provide instruction to nearly 825 students.

“The bridging service and support at BEMC provide that necessary daily connection,” Carlisle said. “The bridging service allows us to add a daily class recording so that students are able to access their class content after class in the manner of a recorded session, while also achieving live instruction daily.”

The operations center at BEMC provides help desk support to distance learning instructors, as well as post-conference technical support to diagnose any issues that may come up during a class or conference call. As Stellato can attest, the service is a boon not just to students receiving instruction, but also to the instructors teaching into a webcam.

“It’s huge,” Stellato said of being able to interact with students in real-time. “Teaching – there’s a huge psychological element to it. With just voice, I don’t know what’s going on. So, especially with foreign language, it’s something where I think you need to see the individual.”

Written by Audrey Carson
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