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December 1, 2009

Digitally Speaking / A Digital Bridge to Homebound Students

Homebound students—whether they suffer from life-threatening illnesses or are temporarily sidelined by the flu—are often left out of classroom activities. But new digital tools can bridge the home/school gap for students who can't physically come to class. With worry about swine flu looming, it's a good time to consider how this might work in practice. The story of Celest—a 9-year-old girl with leukemia—shows how.
Celest's chemotherapy treatments left her too immunocompromised to spend any time at school. She was placed in Brian Crosby's 4th grade class at the Agnes Risley School in Sparks, Nevada, in fall 2006 simply to make her eligible to have a home studies teacher. "I was told not to worry because I would never see her," Crosby told me (personal communication, August 29, 2009).
But worry was the last thing on Crosby's mind. A digital innovator who cared deeply for his kids, Crosby was determined that Celest would become a full-fledged member of his classroom community. With a bit of determination and the support of his school's guidance counselor, he arranged to have a webcam set up in his classroom and a computer in Celest's living room. Then, he used Skype (www.skype.com)—a free tool for making Web-based video calls—to introduce his students to their homebound peer.

Making Celest Visible

The results were nothing short of amazing. Like any other student in Crosby's class, Celest was placed in a student group for discussion and projects. The only difference was that Celest "came to school" digitally, appearing on the screen of a laptop set on the table where her seat would have been. When Celest needed to follow a lesson, Crosby pointed the webcam at the board. Celest could raise her hand to ask questions; she could also hear questions from her peers, and they could hear her responses.
"When we did group work, the students in her group spun the laptop and the camera around so they could see one another, including her in the discussion or activity," Crosby explained. "It worked phenomenally!"
Over time—and after the kinds of lessons on respecting others that have always been part of Brian's instruction—meaningful relationships developed between Celest and her peers. Instead of seeing her as an outsider, they embraced her.
"They would stop by her house and talk to her through the window," Crosby recalls. "During recess, they would stay in class and talk to her over Skype. We even exchanged valentines. She sent hers in with her sister, and the students in her class dropped theirs in front of her laptop. A volunteer read some of them to her [over Skype], and they were all sent home with her sister."
And when Celest was well enough, she stepped right into the class without missing a beat. "She was just here now instead of coming over Skype," Crosby said.

Lessons From Celest

Celest's experiences—and Crosby's efforts to involve her—show us that homebound students do not need to be left out of classroom activities. For students healthy enough to participate from home in real-time learning experiences, synchronous communication requires nothing more than two computers, two webcams, Skype, and access to the Web. Total cost to schools that already have computers and high-speed Internet connections? About $75 to purchase entry-level webcams for each computer.
For students who don't have the physical stamina to participate in class in the same real-time ways as Celest— for example, a student receiving chemotherapy who can only work two hours at a time before needing rest—a range of digital tools makes asynchronous participation possible. Three that are well-suited to work done in classrooms are VoiceThread, Google Docs, and Diigo.
VoiceThread is a Web-based discussion forum that enables groups of students to engage in ongoing conversations around any kind of media imaginable after signing in to a password-protected Web site. Have a video you're watching in class? Upload it to VoiceThread and ask students probing questions. Wrestling with a topic like poverty or global warming? Upload a series of images or statistics designed to make students think. Regardless of content, VoiceThread breaks down the traditional conversation barriers of time and place. Anyone—including homebound students—can add comments to a developing VoiceThread conversation at any time as long as they have a connection to the Internet.
To see what VoiceThread looks like in action, check out this conversation by a group of students studying genocide:. To try out VoiceThread on your own, visit http://ed.voicethread.com. The site will walk you through setting up a free educator account.
Google Docs enables groups of students to collaboratively create traditional products for sharing information, such as word-processed documents or spreadsheets. Through Google Docs, teachers and students can create online documents on a password-protected site and edit together. Students can contribute new content to the document regardless of their location; they can also upload drafts of their work for teachers or peers to proofread online. Go tohttp://docs.google.com to get started.
Diigo enables a person to highlight and add notations to online text as he or she reads along. After creating a free account (at www.diigo.com) and installing a toolbar in your Internet browser, you can annotate any Web-based document. Highlighting and annotations become visible directly on the original document, either publicly to the entire Diigo community or privately to members of predetermined student groups, depending on the setting choices you make.
Teachers can use Diigo to engage homebound students in reflecting on content posted online. Those reflections then invite interaction: Homebound readers can highlight important terms, ask questions, and find their thinking publicly challenged as others in the class respond to their annotations. To see how I have used Diigo with students, go tohttp://digitallyspeaking.pbworks.com/Social-Bookmarking-and-Annotating.
The implications of Celest's experience are clear: Homebound students no longer need to be left out or left behind. With a bit of digital gumption, they can be included in any activity and become a vibrant part of any classroom community.

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