NORTH ADAMS -- From a new space nestled inside the Charles H. McCann Technical School, sophomores in Ken Recore's U.S. History II course had a lesson pertaining to the 1947 Truman Doctrine, taught by a British historian from a museum in Missouri.
Also sitting in on the class were kids from Texas and Arizona and a teacher in Alaska.
Welcome to the 21st-century classroom.
Although live videoconference technology has existed for decades, new developments have made the practice more accessible, practical and specialized for educational settings and integrated instruction.
Over the summer, school officials and construction crews worked to renovate the school's library, known as the Westall Media Center. The renovations include reconfigured space, new laptop and retractable computer workstations, shared meeting space and a new teleconference center -- all organized under the guidance and concepts of information technology instructor Rick Bergendahl, librarian Rick Moon and the school's principal, Justin Kratz.
Last week, Recore's history students were the first to test drive a national teleconference, presented by education specialist Mark Adams, from the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Mo.
"It's a great opportunity for McCann to participate in to show what we can do as a school, but it also gives students practice in real 21st-century working technology and communications," Recore said. He said the program topic also tied in with his current curriculum around the Cold War era.
Kratz said the school contracted with a company, Polycom, which specifically curates educational resources and videoconferencing opportunities for classrooms, and provides training and support for teachers and IT staff.
The custom videoconference room at McCann is designed with dual large flat screen display monitors, mounted on the wall at the front of the classroom. Installed on a shelf above the screens is a receiver and two swiveling cameras that can pan across the room and zoom in on a speaker in real-time. Two high-powered microphones dangle from the ceiling at the middle of the room. Six conference tables, with retracting workstations and rolling desk chairs, give the room an executive look.
"I have no clue what to expect," said Ryan Meehan prior to the start of the Truman videoconference. A student of the school's culinary program, he purposely planned to wear a green polo shirt versus just showing up in his chef's whites.
The students were silent while waiting for their school to call in to the program and connect, not knowing who might see or hear them across the country. After a brief hiccup with its video monitor, McCann was up and running.
Adams could be seen speaking on the left-side screen, while he simultaneously put up digital copies of historic documents and other materials on the other screen. Students speaking and responding to the presenter's questions would be featured in a picture-in-picture (PiP) feature.
One of the first things they learned was the importance of preparation -- some schools had previously studied the materials given to them through the Truman Library, while other students were less prepared. Fortunately, the McCann sophomores were well prepared with printouts and questions, which subsequently led to them having more interactions with Adams.
"That was McCann in Massachusetts," Adams told the school groups, after some of Recore's students discussed the message in a political cartoon on display. "You did a really good job," he told the North Adams students.
"It still blows my mind," said Meehan, after participating in the nearly hour-long session.
"I think this was a more convenient way to communicate with people from other places, instead of sending emails back and forth," said McCann student Danielle Felten.
The group agreed it was interesting and helpful to them to be able to hear from different students from different schools in different grades, in addition to talking with a field expert.
Student Lukas Yelle said he'd like to be able to videoconference with people from other countries.
Superintendent James Brosnan said students now will be able to communicate with corporate recruiters and employers across the country. He said the new technology also will be able to better connect McCann staff with other schools in the Berkshires and beyond for professional development.
Kratz said he was impressed at how well the students adapted to the trial videoconference. "At first there were jitters ... but by the end, you guys were participating and articulate," he told the class.
Recore told The Eagle, "The workplace that's awaits them is going to be like this. It's going to be expected that they'll be able to professionally communicate electronically. That's why this is so important for our school to have."