Reach Homebound Students Through Technology

by Rick Hillman
Technology Manager • Mercer County Special Services School District • Trenton, NJ

MultiMedia Schools • March/April 2000
In this “IDEA Works” column I’ll share a project we have underway to provide services and experiences to homebound pupils. Like all school districts, we have students that are home because of accidents, extended illnesses, or as a result of medical conditions. In addition we serve some students who only receive instruction at home due the severity of their medical conditions.

Under the IDEA legislation these students are entitled to the same services/experiences that other students receive. The challenge for school districts is how to provide these services to students who remain outside the school building.

The district I work for is a countywide district for students with special needs. In our district we take on the role of advocate for these children. We are presently working with students who receive their entire educational program in the home due to a medical condition that makes it impossible for them to attend a traditional or special school. We have looked to technology to help us deliver services and program to these students.

One experience that the parents of these students wanted their children to have was classmates. This is an experience we take for granted: Doesn’t every child have classmates? So the problem presented was, “How do we have children who are educated in their homes interact and have classmate peers?”
IDEA Works links to check out:

Camera Equipment:
Logitech (right, bottom)
ATI (right, top)

QuickTime/QuickTime Streaming Server:
QT Streaming Server

CU-SeeMe (right, center)
FinalCut Pro

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We looked to our technology infrastructure to see what kind of services we had the capability to offer. If you have read any of my other articles, you know I am always looking for unusual and unique ways of using the district’s investment in technology to deliver more services to students and staff. (For past articles, visit the MMS Web site at The more services I can deliver and leverage against the original investment in my district’s technology infrastructure, the better I can show the administration and the board of education that they made the right investment of funds into our infrastructure. As a technology director or building level coordinator, the last thing you want to do is repeatedly ask the board and administration for more and more funds to keep your network working. Build it right once, and use the infrastructure over and over again to deliver all kinds of services to your district!

I was able to leverage my technology investment to deliver services to students who are not even in our school buildings. As part of our original network design we built in the capability to support dialup connections to staff. Luckily I have a supportive board of education and superintendent when it comes to providing access to staff. The dialup service is generally only used in the evenings and weekends, so the equipment basically sits unused during the day. We were able to use this service to provide each remote homebound pupil with a dialup connection at no cost! We use the connection for the remote teachers and therapists to gain access to district resources and also to provide the voice/video connection with the classroom.

Since my network was finished in the fall of 1999, this is the fourth service we have been able to provide to our school community that was not part of the original plan, and at only a small cost to the district. The cost to provide this service was for the personal computer in the remote locations and the video camera and microphones for each location.

After determining that we had the infrastructure to support this project, the next task was to choose the operating system platform and the software to deliver the services.

Our school district is primarily Macintosh, with over 435 Macintosh computers deployed in the classrooms. We also looked at Windows as a platform because several software titles exist for the Windows platform. In the end we chose a combination.

For the end-user machine in each location we purchased and installed a Dell Optiplex Pentium III with 128 MB of memory running Windows 98. With the addition of Logitech Quickcam and CU-SeeMe software we had workstations capable of delivering reasonable voice and video.

For the computer that was being used in the classroom location we added a video card capable of supporting a second video camera and placed the entire setup on a cart with a 100-megabit network connection. This allows us to move this system from room to room or into a large space such as the library or multipurpose room.

In the remote site we set up the computer on a cart with a high-speed modem connection. In certain locations, where the parents’ cable company offered cable modems, we used them. In other locations we have used an ISDN modem. What is great is that because of our dialup pool, we are able to receive all connections directly into our network, which improves the quality of the voice and video. In addition to the classroom and remote machines we have a computer in the technology office that allows us to connect and monitor the connections and troubleshoot any related problems.

While it is certainly not a complete distance-learning setup, this use of troubleshooting allows the district to meet the needs of the remote homebound students. The bandwidth at the remote sites ranges from a 56 K modem up to a cable modem. With voice and video, the bigger the bandwidth pipe you have, the better the connection, but even at 56 K it is acceptable.

The second half of our project is currently only in the testing stages. Besides enabling students to interact with classroom peers, we are working on a system to provide them with the ability to receive field trips and assembly content via the remote computer in their homes. To deliver this content we turned to the platform of choice: Macintosh. We have a Mac OS X server running the QuickTime Streaming Server. This server allows us to deliver pre-recorded and live content not only to our homebound students but also to all in-school students.

As a class takes class trips, or as assemblies are held in schools, the events are recorded with a digital camcorder. This digital content is then formatted using iMovie or Final Cut, saved as a QuickTime file, and placed on the streaming server. This allows us to allow staff and students both locally and remotely to access this information. The QuickTime Streaming Server delivers the content directly to the user machine via QuickTime player and broadcasts it at the user bandwidth. The QuickTime Streaming Server is capable of supporting up to 1,000 QuickTime 4 users. The server acts as a reflector for live broadcasts, so it is possible for us to broadcast events in one school to multiple schools and to remote users.

The QuickTime Streaming Server streams video in two formats: “http streaming,” in which the entire video is downloaded prior to playing; and “RTP” (real-time protocol), which is a “just-in-time” streaming system that keeps your computer in constant touch with the server running the movie. Data is transferred, displayed, and discarded once it has been viewed. It stores a 3- to 10-second cache to compensate for occasional network “burps” that may compromise quality.

The QuickTime Streaming Server minimum requirements are a G3 processor, 256 MB of memory, and 1 GB of disk space. More memory and more disk space allow you to serve up more content. We are looking at this technology as a way to deliver more and more information to students and staff. As we leverage our investment in our network infrastructure, we are also leveraging our investment in this type of server to multiple purposes.

Communications to the author can be addressed to Rick Hillman, Technology Manager, Mercer County Special Services School District, 1050 Old Trenton Road, Trenton, NJ 08690; 609/689-1852; fax 609/689-1854;

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