Habitat for Learning

With videoconferencing, educators at a city zoo can teach about animals directly from their habitats.

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A Wireless Wave

The zoo is among a growing number of institutions, particularly ones that have campus settings, that are benefitting from wireless infrastructure, says Gartner Inc. analyst Michael King.

"Increasingly, we're finding that college campuses, zoos and other public places are enhancing either students' learning experiences or connectivity by utilizing any number of wireless technologies," King says. He notes that some organizations use wireless to offer self-guided audio tours to visitors, although he hasn't seen other zoos adopt wireless videoconferencing capabilities like the Cleveland zoo has.

The zoo now has 19 access points, enabling presenters to deliver programs from the seven most popular attractions, including the primate, shark and rainforest exhibits.

Some educational programs are still broadcast from Adventure Hall, but Ryan says there's no question that adding the wireless infrastructure has delivered significant returns.

The zoo saw a 25% increase in the number of classrooms scheduled to receive programming after the wireless implementation. From Jan. 1 through Aug. 31, 2008, the zoo's programming reached 171 schools (with 4,500 students) throughout Ohio and in other states, including Alabama, Texas, New York and Pennsylvania.

However, because the programs are free, the increase doesn't translate into a financial ROI.

But zoo leaders aren't calculating returns in terms of money. The biggest benefit, Searles says, is bringing live, real-time action to children who are eager to learn. Students can interact with presenters as they interact with the animals -- and that's something that couldn't happen even from Adventure Hall, where presenters had to use videotaped segments.

"When the kids know they're actually seeing something live, it makes a big difference," Searles says.

For example, Schoffner has taught classes that focus on how different animals use tools. He says students learn more when he can point to a chimp in the background who picks up a branch and strips off the leaves to make it into a digging tool.

Ted Schoffner assistant animal care manager at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
Ted Schoffner, assistant animal care manager at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

"They can see the animal right there, they see it moving. It just brings the learning to life. Now they really want to learn. It's just so exciting," says Dessie Sanders, principal of the Michael R. White School, a K-8 school in Cleveland.

Such feedback gives officials even more incentive to expand the zoo's wireless infrastructure, Searles says.

Already, they're installing more access points, starting with the wolf and koala exhibits. And they're looking at whether they can transfer their success with wireless and mobile technologies to other areas besides distance learning.

For instance, they're looking at how they can use the infrastructure to bring new programs to visitors via their handhelds or cell phones.

Searles says she sees more possibilities in the future. She envisions a time when students will have control over the cameras at the zoo so they can zoom in or pan around to see the action that interests them the most.

"What we'd like to do," she says, "is be able to have access from every part of the zoo."

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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