No question about it: The classroom isn't limited to the classroom anymore.
The Internet and the global grid of high-speed computer networks mean that face-to-face contact with teachers and students from around the world no longer requires hopping on a jet. Online videoconferencing has been a staple of the corporate world for years; now it's starting to hit the classroom.
If you choose this mode of travel, keep in mind that your aim is communication. You're videoconferencing much as any high-end business might do. You're just looking to do it more cheaply, using as many easily available tools as you can. But remember that you want a quality level high enough to make the presentation understandable and useful.
It's not as complicated as it sounds. Most computers now have video and sound cards that let you hook up your video and audio equipment directly to the card. That will be the key to using the videoconferencing software -- and for the most part, you'll be able to use software that's either included with your computer's operating system, like Microsoft Windows NetMeeting, or is easily available and free, like iChat AV for Apple's Macintosh OS X platform.
A side benefit is the ability to capture your video material into the computer into a raw format that can then be converted to such common viewing platforms as Apple's QuickTime, Microsoft's Windows Media, or RealNetworks's RealMedia that will allow your students to view the footage at any time. (This software is frequently included with computers.)
To begin, you'll need a digital camera. You can use a basic video Web cam, like the Creative WebCam Live or Logitech's QuickCam Pro 4000, which run up to about $100. But to do it right, it's better to spend $300 to $700 on a real digital video camera that you can mount on a tripod or hold, move around easily, and use to zoom in and out. Make sure that the cable connecting the camera to the video card is as long as possible. You'll be plugging this into your computer's universal serial bus (USB) or FireWire port; the latter is preferable, as it provides a much faster signal and will limit any video distortion.
Although you can use your camera's built-in microphone, you'll probably get better sound quality using a dedicated mike to plug into your computer's sound card. Make sure you have a microphone that will clearly pick up voices from anywhere in the room. A headset mike with a long cord is perfect if you don't expect anyone else in the room to be speaking; otherwise, use an external mike that can be set down on a table. Prepare to spend $50 to $100 on this.
You're almost done. If your goal is two-way communication, free packages like NetMeeting or iChat, or even instant messaging (IM) software that has video chat capability, like AOL Instant Messenger or Yahoo Messenger, will serve nicely. All of these packages typically will display windows showing your video image; the remote video image; a text chat window, useful for illustrating quotes or clearing up material that didn't transmit well; and a whiteboard window that can be used for dragging in illustrative objects like photos or charts.
If your classes need to be one-way only, you can use streaming video software like QuickTime, Windows Media, or RealNetworks's RealPlayer. Your connections will work the same as they do with the chat software, but you'll also need to dedicate a computer that has those applications' streaming server software to send the video link. The chat-style videoconferencing programs will work well on a one-way basis, too.
For a high-quality upgrade, you may want to investigate your state education department's programs for video-education assistance; increasingly, many states have efforts along the lines of the TEACH Wisconsin Video Link program. These programs leverage state resources to create classrooms with equipment and high-speed Internet links that use a standardized gateway-meaning that it won't matter what software you're running to establish the link. Keep in mind, though, that your school or district will probably have to foot the equipment bill.
The Internet has proven that distance doesn't matter. The business world has known this for years. Now it's the schools' turn.
Donald St. John is a veteran technology journalist in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Credit: Fisher Electronics
$700 -- Fisher CameraCorder
This device produces DVD-like quality and fullmotion video, plus 3.2-megapixel stills, while storing almost 4,000 photos or two and a half hours' worth of video. It records to an SD memory card, so you can transfer the results to your PC. All this in an ergonomic package that fits neatly in your hand.
Credit: Sony Electronics
$600 -- Sony Cyber-shot
Capture digital photos and camcorder-quality video on the LCD together or separately; features a rotating vertical design and one-touch recording buttons.
$100 -- Logitech QuickCam Pro 4000
Feed live video to instant messengers and mobile phones, and email video files. It includes video-editing software and shoots 1.3-megapixel photos.
Credit: Creative Technology Ltd.
$50 -- Creative WebCam Live
This device captures images at 1024x768 pixels and transmits video footage with a high-quality sensor; included software lets you make postcards, calendars, and the like. It also features a snapshot button and a separate microphone.