Citizenship, Diversity & DistanceLearning: Videoconferencing In Connecticut

by Edward C. Sembor

Learning about, respecting and understanding a variety of cultural backgrounds, as well as recognizing the contributions of different cultures to American society, can only enhance our sense of citizenship. Despite its importance, however, this task has never been simple. Attempts to increase tolerance and respect for other cultures have been frustrated by the ethnic and racial distance that is evident in many parts of the country.

A recent program in Connecticut attempted to bridge the gap by employing the same kind of technology as that employed for distance learning. Its results suggest that the proper use of technology could allow schools to make headway in enhancing interracial and intercultural understanding, and thereby succeed in confronting one of the most difficult challenges of civic and multicultural education.

The Connecticut Mandate for Diversity
Even in areas where the population is very diverse, individual schools can be relatively homogeneous. In Connecticut, a law passed in 1993 posed very real challenges for some local school systems responsible for the civic and multicultural education of their
students. Public Act 93-263, "An Act Improving Educational Quality and Diversity," was largely the result of an effort to address the de facto segregation that has become characteristic of some school districts within the state. More than 80 percent of Connecticut's minority students are clustered in just 18 school districts. Seven of these districts are composed of more than 60 percent minority students, while 140 other districts are more than 90 percent white. In addition, 98 school districts have minority student populations of less than 5 percent.1
One of the primary goals of PA 93-263 was the development of regional plans that would help communities creatively address and raise the level of awareness of cultural diversity within their educational systems. The eleven regions throughout the state that were created as a result of this law were charged with developing plans that would: (1) improve the quality of school performance and student outcomes; (2) reduce barriers to opportunity, including but not limited to poverty, unemployment, and the lack of housing and transportation; (3) enhance student diversity and awareness of diversity; and (4) address the programmatic need of students with limited English proficiency with quality limited English proficient and bilingual programs.

This article focuses on how two local school systems responded to the goal of enhancing student diversity and awareness of diversity by some creative applications of technology. Using distance learning technology can be a very feasible approach to enhancing student awareness of diversity.

Civic Education and Video Technology
A citizenship education program developed and administered in 1994 by the University of Connecticut's Institute of Public Service used
Interactive Compressed Video (ICV) technology in a successful attempt to bring together middle school students from two culturally different and geographically separated communities within the state. At the time when this program was being developed, ICV was a relatively new technology available to the Institute of Public Service, and was being promoted for faculty use.

The Uses of ICV Technology
Interactive Compressed Video is a two-way televised communication system via telephone lines. This type of distance learning system processes video images and transmits them in real time from one frame to the next, reducing the bandwidth and allowing them to be sent economically over a standard telephone line. The resulting images may not have as high a quality as full-motion video, since they are being transmitted at 15 frames per second (as opposed to television's 30 frames per second), but a leader or instructor can still effectively interact with classes at remote sites.
In Connecticut, distance learning technologies such as ICV are implemented in limited capacities between cooperating cities for language or other academic subjects on the secondary level. These types of programs are currently offered for students wishing to take a course offered only at schools other than their own. The use of this type of technology is easily expanded beyond the bounds of traditional academics, and there is precedent for using technology in bringing together students of different cultural backgrounds. In 1993, for example, a U.S. District Court judge endorsed a plan to have black and white students collaborate on school projects via computer. This plan was termed a "building block" for the integration of Kansas City, Missouri, and its suburbs.2

Civic Education and the Institute for Public Service
There is today broad concern about the meaning of multicultural education in America and its place within the wider field of civic education. The state of civic education has been the subject of much discussion both within and without the field of education. In the 1990's, civic education's relationship to multicultural education has become a special point of focus. Paul Gagnon asserts that in a pluralistic society like ours:
multicultural and civic education very much need each other, that the health of each depends upon the health of the other. Both history and common sense tell us that a just and civil multicultural society is possible only among people with a common liberal vision and with the political sophistication to turn vision into reality.3
The National Standards for Civics and Government asserts that diversity is a fundamental value of American democracy, and that American students should have a firm understanding of this value.4 Robert Cottrol suggests that multicultural education should include the teaching of such democratic values as tolerance, justice, and individual rights.5 Sandra Stotsky argues that if American public schools are to survive, they need to fulfill their essential civic role of making our children responsible American citizens through the development of common values.6

Teaching skills of citizenship served as the context for exposing students to cultural diversity in the University of Connecticut's ICV program. The Institute of Public Service, a unit within the Division of Extended and Continuing Education, sponsors a variety of programs in civic education for the citizens, public officials, and young people of Connecticut. In an attempt to put into practice Gagnon's concept of combining multicultural and civic education, the Institute sought to bring together students in two middle schools in order to address the issues of both citizenship and cultural diversity.The resulting program provided an opportunity for these schools to fulfill the third mandate of the new state law on educational quality and diversity.

The Video Meeting of Classrooms
The University of Connecticut ICV program involved two classrooms of seventh grade students from diverse communities. One community consisted of mainly white, mostly middle class students from the small, rural northeastern town of Pomfret; the other consisted mostly of students of color from the large, urban southwestern city of Bridgeport. The seventh grade was chosen because the principals of the participating schools believed that students in this grade would have the level of maturity and understanding most beneficial to the success of the program. Choosing the seventh grade would also allow for a follow-up program in the students' last year at the middle schools.
The distance between Pomfret and Bridgeport is about 91 miles. For this program, the Pomfret students journeyed about 18 miles to the University's main campus in Storrs, Connecticut, while Bridgeport students traveled 27 miles to the University's Stamford campus. These two campuses are equipped with all the necessary technology to hold two-way interactive compressed video sessions. The equipment is administered by the University's Center for Instructional Media and Technology.

Critical to the success of this program was the cooperation of the schools involved. These were the Roosevelt School of Bridgeport and the Pomfret Community School. Principals from both schools, Tim James of Pomfret and William Tinkler of Roosevelt, lent all the support and cooperation necessary for making this program a success. The video classrooms in both locations can comfortably hold about twenty students. Limited to this size group, each school selected participants according to its own criteria.

In the case of Pomfret Community School, this involved a two step process. First, the seventh grade social studies teachers evaluated their students' writing assignments in terms of their understanding of civic topics. Then, the seventh grade students were observed in their classrooms by the principal in order for him to get a sense of how well individual students participated in, and contributed to, classroom discussions. A total of 21 students were selected based on these criteria. In the case of Roosevelt, selection was based upon teacher evaluations and assessments of students, and personal observation by the seventh grade social studies/reading teacher.

The program was structured to run for four sessions, three interactive video sessions and one wrap-up session that would allow the students to meet face to face. Each session would have specific purposes and specialized exercises for the students to engage in. Several of these exercises came from Making the Rules, a publication of Project Public Life based at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs of the University of Minnesota.7 The emphasis of the activities in Making the Rules is for students to become involved in decision-making and public participation.

Three ICV Sessions
The first session's main goals were to introduce the students to each other and to the idea that critical thinking is a skill of responsible citizenship. According to Suzanne Morse:
while critical thinking and the concept of political judgment are not synonymous, thinking is the vital component in the judging process. It is important for students to consider different views, comparisons, and contrasts in ideas as they read, write, speak and listen....8
An additional goal of the session was, therefore, to expose students from the different communities to more diverse points of view than they might usually experience.
Using an exercise from Making the Rules, students were asked to explore the public and private reasons for going to school. They were further asked to define and compare the following list of terms: justice, freedom, politics, power, and diversity. When diversity was considered, a lively discussion about race ensued. One African American student from Bridgeport asked, "What would you do if more black kids started coming to your school?" A white student from Pomfret answered, "I would welcome them. It doesn't matter if you have a different skin color, just a heart." The subject of guns also elicited discussion. The Bridgeport students mostly thought that there were too many guns in their city. The Pomfret students indicated that many people in their town had guns because a lot of them were hunters.

The second session introduced listening and discussion as citizenship skills. As preparation for this session, students had been asked to collect articles from newspapers or magazines about issues of importance to them. Students shared their thoughts about the issues they had researched, also participating in a rational exchange of ideas that further explored the concept of diversity.

Through use of video technology, it soon became obvious to both classes of students that they looked different from each other. But this observation was just the beginning of the comparisons they would draw. From this discussion, the Bridgeport students learned that Pomfret has no town police department, and basically has only one small general store. This was a revelation to the students from Connecticut's largest city. They wanted to know where people bought things like food and clothes. Were there any malls in Pomfret? Did Pomfret have curfews? Both classes of students realized that their life-styles were in many ways different.

Both classes then participated in another exercise from Making the Rules, which asked them to write five words describing themselves. One student was chosen to appear on camera, while other students from both sites were asked to provide five descriptive words about that student. The students compared their lists of words with the list written by the student on camera. The purpose was to discover how accurate the lists were based upon physical appearance only. The students came to realize that although they might look a little different, many from both schools shared the same kinds of interests, and it was hard to guess what these interests were just by looking at someone.

The main goal of the third session was to introduce students to methods of communicating their ideas and concerns publicly. Local officials from both Pomfret and Bridgeport were invited to attend the session and respond to students' questions. The two communities were compared in terms of how their governments worked, what public issues were of concern, and how individuals could participate as citizens in the local government system. The Bridgeport

students discovered that Pomfret has no mayor, but rather, someone called a First Selectman. The Pomfret students learned that many more people work for the local government in Bridgeport than in Pomfret.

Both classes knew how to call the police for help, but discovered interesting comparisons about police response time. Students learned that a Bridgeport police officer could normally respond within minutes. In the case of Pomfret, a Connecticut State Trooper would respond as fast as he or she could to an emergency call; but because the Trooper's patrol area includes several towns besides Pomfret, it could take considerably more time than in Bridgeport. Both communities have a Town Hall, which one could call to find out who owned a piece of property or when the street would be plowed of snow.

A Survey of Results
At the end of the last ICV session, a survey was distributed to both classes, and students were asked to respond to a set of ten statements about the ICV citizenship program in which they had participated (see Table 1).
The survey responses were set up in the form of a Likert scale, with categories ranging from strongly agree to disagree strongly (see Table 2). The responses show that the great majority of students in both classes thought that the Interactive Compressed Video program was a good way to learn , and would participate again if the opportunity arose. They also indicated that this program should be offered again at their own schools as well as to other seventh graders in Connecticut.

Several other survey questions addressed how students' feelings and attitudes might have been influenced by the program. Of particular note is the question addressing the students' comfort level with others who are racially different. While 55 percent of the Bridgeport students either agreed or strongly agreed that they felt more comfortable with racially different people since their participation in the program, 91 percent of the Pomfret students felt more comfortable with racially different people after this program.

One possible explanation for the difference between the classes is that while Bridgeport has a high population of people of color, there are also a sizable number of white residents. In contrast, the small town of Pomfret has literally only a handful of people of color living there. It would not be surprising if students with more experience of cultural diversity perceived the effects of the program as less dramatic than students with more limited intercultural experience.

The response of the Pomfret students, while it cannot be generalized, does suggest the possible utility of ICV programs for providing multicultural experiences to communities with low cultural and racial diversity. In terms of civic education, students reported that after having participated in the ICV program, they felt more knowledgeable about their own community and others.

Program Costs and Benefits
In this pilot program, the University of Connecticut provided the equipment as well as the institutional and administrative support. The $3,105 budget developed for this project included facility rentals for both ICV locations, line access fees, transportation, copying of student materials, and planning, administration and coordination by University of Connecticut staff. Funds to support the project were provided in total from organizations and businesses located in the Pomfret and Bridgeport areas.
Virtually any school, institution, or business with the equipment could lend its support to a project like the Connecticut ICV program. The University of Connecticut uses the Picturetel Model 4000 system. Besides the telephone line hook-up, the equipment basically consists of a main video camera for each location for viewing the classes. At the near end, or the location from which the instruction takes place, one camera focuses on the instructor, while a second document camera allows the instructor to write (as on a blackboard) or to display documents (as on an overhead projector). Both locations require large screen monitors and microphones.

Any attempt at measuring the cost effectiveness of a program like this would require a comparison with other programs that hope to promote both civic education and an appreciation of cultural diversity among participating students. Without commenting on any other such programs, the cost per student (total = 44) for this program came out to be approximately $70. The educational benefit of the program, which reflected eight hours of real contact time between students and several additional hours spent in preparation and travel, was considered by both schools as well worth the cost.

There were some minor obstacles, such as occasional audio and video problems concerning the equipment. Over the course of the three two-hour-long sessions, the video link was lost once and the connection had to be re-established. On another occasion, there was sound but no image. A University of Connecticut ICV technician easily and quickly fixed these situations. The lighting in the far end video classroom in Stamford at times could have been brighter and provided students at the main studio in Storrs with a clearer image. However, these infrequent distractions failed to dampen the students' enthusiasm, which proved to be the essential variable. Despite their differences of race, region and background, both classes made the effort to learn from and understand each other, and the rewarding results of their efforts will hopefully will have a long term impact on how they view others who differ in ways from themselves.

Table 1. Ten Statements about the ICV Program
1 I think that participating in an Interactive Video program is a good way to learn.
2 If I had another opportunity to participate in a program like this one,
I would.
3 I think that this program should be offered to other seventh grades in
4 I think that this program should be offered again at my school.
5 Since my participation in this program, I would say that I am more
comfortable with people who are racially different from me.
6 After having participated in this program, I feel that I am better able to
listen to other people.
7 After having participated in this program, I feel more comfortable talking about public issues to other people.
8 After having participated in this program, I feel that I know more about my community and its government.
9 After having participated in this program, I feel that I know more about people who do not live in my own community.
10 I would like to actually visit the other school which participated in this
program with my school.

Table 2. Pomfret-Bridgeport ICV Survey: Responses to Ten Questions
B=Bridgeport, N=20, *N=19
P=Pomfret, N=21
Strongly Agree Agree No Opinion Disagree Strongly Disagree
Statement #1B25651000
Statement #2B*1184500
Statement #3B35402500
Statement #4B20651500
Statement #5B253025200
Statement #6B15651550
Statement #7B35352550
Statement #8B204520150
Statement #9B20655100
Statement #10B304515010

The impact of the Connecticut ICV program has been most encouraging. Students from both middle schools were exposed to ideas and individuals they might never have otherwise encountered. Educators from both schools were very impressed with the program and its potential for enhancing the awareness of diversity among students. Gerry Teja, a teacher at Pomfret Community School, said of her students: "It is opening their minds and throwing away some of the stereotypes."9 Alana Callahan, a teacher at Roosevelt School in Bridgeport, remarked at one point during the program: " I cannot tell you the excitement our kids are feeling, the sense of growth. Their ultimate goal is to meet the Pomfret kids. They were quite surprised at the lack of diversity, considering the amount of diversity we have."10
The culminating activity was of course the meeting of the two classes at the state capitol in Hartford. Students were greeted by Americo Santiago, Assistant Secretary of State who is from Bridgeport, and by Jefferson Davis, a State Representative who lives in Pomfret. The classes spent time together on a tour of the capitol building and then had lunch. While writing as pen pals had been encouraged at the outset of the program, it was not a required component. Now many pen pals met and had a chance to talk with each other. Many smiles and telephone numbers were exchanged. Most students indicated in the survey that they would like to visit their partner school some day. Maybe that is the next step.

1. Paul J. Aicher and Martha L. McCoy, Quality Education and School Desegregation in Connecticut, A Study Circle Discussion Program (Pomfret: CT: Topsfield Foundation, 1993).
2. Peter Schmidt, "Judge Backs K.C. Plan to Promote Integration Via Computer," Education Week 13 (September 1993): 7.
3. Paul Gagnon, "Multicultural and Civic Education: Can They Live Together?", Basic Education 35 (May 1991): 3-5.
4. Center for Civic Education, National Standards for Civics and Government (Calabasas, CA: Author, 1994).
5. Robert J. Cottrol, "America the Multicultural," American Educator 4 (Winter 1990): 18-29, 38.
6. Sandra Stotsky, "Cultural Politics," The American School Board Journal 178 (October 1991): 26-28.
7. Peg Michels, Suzanne Paul, and Harry C. Boyte, Making the Rules, 2nd ed., Project Public Life (Minneapolis: Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, 1991).
8. Suzanne W. Morse, Renewing Civic Capacity: Preparing College Students for Service and Citizenship, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 8 (Washington, DC: School of Education and Human Development, the George Washington University, 1989); see also Edward Glazer, "Critical Thinking: Education for Citizenship in a Democracy," National Forum 65 (1985): 24-27 and Richard Paul, "Critical Thinking: Fundamental to Education for a Free Society," Educational Leadership 42 (1984): 4-14.
9. Elsa Aviza Oberg, "Forging Links by Video," Norwich Bulletin 13 (November 1994).
10. Susan Campbell, "Video Hookup Helps Kids Reach out Across Miles," The Hartford Courant 14 (November 1994).

Edward C. Sembor is an Associate Extension Professor in the Institute of Public Service at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.