The Computerworld Honors Program
Honoring those who use Information Technology to benefit society
Final Copy of Case Study
LOCATION:
North Rocks, NSW, AU

YEAR:
2009

STATUS:
Laureate

CATEGORY:
Education and Academia

Technology Area:
Video conferencing solution

ORGANIZATION:
Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children

ORGANIZATION URL:
http://www.ridbc.org.au

PROJECT NAME:
Providing deaf and blind children in remote areas access to quality education through video conferencing

Introductory Overview
In 2002, The Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children (RIDBC) in Sydney, Australia recognized that many families living in rural and regional areas were not able to access adequate support for their child's hearing or vision loss because professionals with appropriate qualifications and experience are in short supply in these areas(Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Committee, 2002). In response to this inequity, RIDBC created an innovative program known as RIDBC Teleschool which successfully utilizes professional videoconferencing technology to provide specialist hearing and vision support to children and their families. Videoconferencing initially takes place in an existing studio near to the family home. After a trial period, families are provided with professional grade videoconferencing equipment which is connected to the television in their home. The aim of RIDBC Teleschool is to provide families in rural and regional areas of Australia with access to the same level and quality of service available to families living in metropolitan areas. RIDBC Teleschool supports children from birth to 18 and typically provides a one-hour individualized videoconferencing session each week. 

Multimedia instructional resources are regularly used to support and enhance videoconferences and to assist in the dissemination of personal and professional support. A variety of multimedia, including video, web, and portable media are used to provide additional teaching and learning opportunities for families enrolled in RIDBC Teleschool.


The Importance of Technology
How did the technology you used contribute to this project and why was it important?
Videoconferencing has proven to be an effective method of service delivery because it allows families in rural and regional areas to have regular face-to-face contact with experienced professionals and to access specialized hearing and vision support without having to travel great distances. The use of in-home videoconferencing further reduces the amount of travel time necessary, allows greater flexibility in scheduling and provides an opportunity for other family members and local professionals to participate in weekly sessions. In-home videoconferencing also allows teaching staff to experience in real time, the natural interaction between children and their families and thus provide more effective support services. 

Choosing high quality videoconferencing equipment was a critical component of our project. One benefit of professional grade videoconferencing equipment is that the teacher can assume control of the camera in the family home and manipulate it remotely. This feature is especially beneficial for families who are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with technology. Professional grade videoconferencing equipment also provides superior picture quality and clarity which are essential for children with a vision impairment as well as those using sign language. For children using hearing aids or cochlear implants, professional grade videoconferencing equipment provides high quality audio as well as synchronicity of the audio and visual signals. 

The integration of interactive multimedia resources into the service delivery model complements the videoconferencing component of the model. Within a videoconference, multimedia resources provide visual variety and serve to engage the participants more fully. Outside of videoconference sessions, supplemental multimedia resources provide opportunities for additional learning, self evaluation and ongoing review of the child's progress. 

The application of videoconferencing and multimedia technologies eliminates the inequity of access that exists in rural areas and provides a unique avenue for families to obtain the same level and quality of specialist hearing or vision support as families living in metropolitan areas.


Benefits
Has your project helped those it was designed to help?  
Yes


Has your project fundamentally changed how tasks are performed?  
Yes


What new advantage or opportunity does your project provide to people?
RIDBC Teleschool provides families with access to support services that would be otherwise unavailable to them in their rural and regional locations. This is especially true for indigenous families living in extremely remote locations. In addition, families living in remote areas often experience feelings of isolation and anxiety in relation to their child's disabiity. Videoconferencing provides a direct link to a knowledgeable and empathetic teacher who can provide support and reassurance thereby lessening the impact of the family's geographic isolation. The flexibility of a videoconferencing model also allows families to move or travel to another location while still maintaining a continuity of high-quality service for their child. 

The use of videoconferencing has also seen a shift in pedagogy which enables increased parent participation thereby capacity building within individual families and ultimately enhancing the knowledge and skills in their communities. RIDBC Teleschool also provides professional development opportunities for local professionals who may not have experience working with children who have a sensory disability. This leads to enhanced local services in rural and remote areas.


If possible, include an example of how the project has benefited a specific individual, enterprise or organization. Please include personal quotes from individuals who have directly benefited from your work.
Case Study #1
C is a four year old boy who was diagnosed with significant vision impairment two years ago. Currently, C can only see objects within 10cm of his eyes and unfortunately, his condition is progressive meaning he will eventually be left with no useable sight. To read, C. uses a special magnifier to enlarge the print but eventually he will rely on Braille. Through RIDBC Teleschool, C and his family have been learning to read and write Braille. These lessons take place each week in the family home through videoconferencing. C's family have been saving up to purchase a brailler, a machine that produces Braille dots but in the meantime, RIDBC Teleschool has loaned one to the family. In addition to Braille resources, C's teacher sends books and other educational resources that have parts C can feel or contrasting images that C can distinguish. A child with vision impairment has limited access to traditional teaching resources and having a different set of specialised materials arrive every few weeks makes learning more engaging for C. Each week C, his mother and his RIDBC Teleschool teacher have a videoconference and work together on activities that help C develop his understanding of the world around him and teach him strategies that will ensure his future independence. C is an active participant in videoconferences, sitting close to the television screen to see his teacher and even adjusting the camera angle to help him see better! C's mother said, "We didn't know what to do when C was first diagnosed with a vision impairment - It was a very scary time. The assistance we have received from RIDBC Teleschool has made the world of difference. We are so grateful that RIDBC Teleschool has been there for us."

Case Study # 2 
J is a little girl who was diagnosed with a significant hearing loss at birth. Her family is Chinese and their first language is Cantonese. J was fitted with hearing aids soon after diagnosis and her family was very committed to developing her spoken language skills. The only supports available in their local area were sign language programs. Consequently, J's family began  videoconferencing with RIDBC Teleschool at a local hospital when she was just three months old. Weekly sessions were initially conducted by an English speaking teacher from RIDBC Teleschool in conjunction with the RIDBC Chinese Community Support Worker who served as an interpreter and liaison for the family. When J was eight months old, the family decided to investigate the possibility of a cochlear implant for their daughter. RIDBC Teleschool assisted in this process by arranging a meeting via videoconference with a Cantonese speaking family in Sydney who had been through a similar experience with their daughter. RIDBC Teleschool was also able to review test results with the family and answer questions about the surgery and follow-up procedures in the family's native language. J received in-home videoconferencing equipment when she was ten months old. At the same time, RIDBC employed a Cantonese speaking teacher who began working with J and her family. J's family value the support RIDBC Teleschool offers,saying "Videoconferencing is so helpful because it teaches us strategies we can try with J. ourselves instead of just observing the professional doing activities with her." J has made significant progress since enrolling in RIDBC Teleschool two years ago. She now communicates effectively in both Cantonese and English.


Originality
Is it the first, the only, the best or the most effective application of its kind?   All of the above

What are the exceptional aspects of your project?
RIDBC Teleschool is unique in our extensive use of in-home videoconferencing. Our network currently includes more than 60 Polycom units installed in homes throughout Australia. Many of these families are located in extremely isolated areas, including one indigenous community which is more than 600 miles from any major town. In addition to our in-home network, another 60 families are supported through studio based videoconferencing. RIDBC Teleschool has pioneered the use of in-home videoconferencing and is the largest and most comprehensive service of its kind in supporting children with sensory disability. 

Another exceptional aspect of RIDBC Teleschool is the group of professionals who form our educational team. Our program employs some of the most highly qualified and experienced teachers and therapists in the field of sensory disability. RIDBC Teleschool is unique in that it brings all the advantages of city based services to even the most isolated families in Australia. In remote locations, it can be difficult to recruit and retain qualified staff. Often, professionals in remote areas are required to provide service to a broad caseload encompassing clients of all ages with a range of disabilities. Staff at RIDBC Teleschool have specialised training and extensive experience in working with children who have a sensory impairment. Videoconferencing allows us to bring that expertise to rural families by providing regular and consistent access to expert support regardless of the family's geographical location.

In addition to our outstanding educational team, RIDBC Teleschool also employs specialised staff including a multimedia instructional designer, technical support personnel, IT staff and videoconferencing specialists.  These staff members have been instrumental in the ongoing development of RIDBC Teleschool and their innovative contributions have resulted in a more effective project. For example, the integration of a multimedia instructional designer within our team offers the teaching staff greater exposure to multimedia and a unique understanding of how to utilize new media technologies in delivering support. Equally, it gives the multimedia designer invaluable insight into sensory disabilities. This unique collaboration has fostered the development of many innovative projects including print materials, CD-ROM, and portable media applications. 


Difficulty
What were the most important obstacles that had to be overcome in order for your work to be successful? Technical problems? Resources? Expertise? Organizational problems?
Initially, a significant amount of time and effort was spent on determining the most appropriate technology for the needs of our program. This included not only investigating specific models of videoconferencing equipment but also securing the necessary technological infrastructure to support such a vast network of users. A further obstacle arose in choosing the most effective transmission method whilst still ensuring privacy and security for families using the equipment. 

After establishing a secure and reliable network, the next obstacle was developing expertise in teaching via videoconference. Meetings dedicated to upskilling staff in videoconferencing pedagogy as well as troubleshooting the equipment were held on a regular basis.

As with any new and innovative program, some unique challenges have emerged. RIDBC Teleschool has sought to overcome these challenges by bringing together a highly specialised team of professionals dedicated to exploring the differences in educational pedagogy and further developing a high quality model of remote service delivery.


Often the most innovative projects encounter the greatest resistance when they are originally proposed. If you had to fight for approval or funding, please provide a summary of the objections you faced and how you overcame them.
As a charitable organization, there is a constant need to maintain existing funding sources as well as researching new funding opportunities. Initially, RIDBC Teleschool used existing funding to create a small pilot project involving just four families. This established a proof of concept which allowed us to expand our scope to include families throughout the state. In 2004, RIDBC Teleschool was recognised for providing an exceptional statewide service and was awarded a major grant from the Australian Federal Government to expand the project to the national level.


Success
Has your project achieved or exceeded its goals?  
Exceeded


Is it fully operational?   Yes

How do you see your project's innovation benefiting other applications, organizations, or global communities?
RIDBC Teleschool demonstrates how the effective use of technology can eliminate the inequity of access that exists for clients living in remote areas. The provision of regular face to face sessions via videoconference can be an effective means of addressing the needs of families in rural areas, including families from non-English backgrounds and those needing specialized support. Service delivery by videoconference is a viable model that not only provides direct support to clients but can also improve recruitment, retention and professional development issues often encountered by staff working in rural locations. We believe the RIDBC Teleschool model could be duplicated by other organizations in a variety of fields such as education, allied health, medicine and social work. 

In an effort to share our knowledge, RIDBC Teleschool hosted a conference outlining our project, including how to set up a similiar service, overcoming technical issues and thoughts on distance pedagogy. The conference was attended by professionals from many sectors, including education, health and social work, who all sought to use a similar application of videoconferencing technology in their respective disciplines. We received very positive feedback including the following comments:
    - "The conference was full of wonderful new ideas that could be easily used to enhance many    existing programs as well as creating new programs especially to support remote and regional communities."
    - "Thank you. This was a very generous sharing of experience and learning."
    - "The information presented was most useful, specifically the technology and videoconferecing tips, techniques and requirements for training."

Staff from RIDBC Teleschool have also been asked to present at various education, technology and disability conferences throughout the world including Australia, USA, Italy, Samoa, Fiji and China. As a result, we have received numerous requests from other organizations who are eager to set up programs similar to RIDBC Teleschool. These requests vary from information gathering to demonstration of a videoconference to training in distance pedagogy. For example, RIDBC Teleschool was asked to consult on a pilot project at Utah State University. Training sessions were delivered via videoconference and provided basic information about using and troubleshooting videoconferencing equipment as well as more sophisticated information about the pedagogical aspects of teaching via videoconference. 

The success of RIDBC Teleschool has inspired other organizations to consider how to use videoconferencing to enhance or expand their existing services.


How quickly has your targeted audience of users embraced your innovation? Or, how rapidly do you predict they will?
We have seen a rapid acceptance of our project. Clients are excited by the possibility of accessing a specialized service that would be unavailable without the use of videoconferencing technology. By encouraging families to participate in studio videoconferencing prior to the allocation of in-home equipment, families are able to become familiar with the equipment and develop confidence in using videoconferencing. When families are provided with in-home videoconferencing equipment, a technician visits their home to install the equipment and provides basic training in using the equipment. This preparation enables users to embrace the technology with ease. 

RIDBC Teleschool has also generated tremendous interest throughout Australia with frequent enquiries from professionals, clients and media. Our enrollments have increased dramatically from 70 clients in 2007 to 141 clients in 2009. We frequently receive requests from families in other countries such as India, Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea who wish to access specialist support via videoconference.

Perhaps the best indicator is the responses of our young users:
     - While watching television, one child asked his mother "to turn on the Tricia station" so he could talk to his teacher! 
     - Another mother reports that her daughter no longer watches 'regular television shows' because they are not as engaging as a videoconference with her teacher.

Our students each respond differently to videoconferencing, but their responses are overwhelmingly positive. Whether sitting in front of the television waiting for their teacher or high-fiving the television screen, our users have well and truly embraced our innovative method of service delivery.


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