When asked to work with students at an alternative school for academically and behaviorally challenged students, Elaine Shuck was determined to find a way to give those disadvantaged children hope for a brighter future. Out of that desire was born a virtual field trip program that introduced the students to new experiences. Not only did these field trips—to places like the Cincinnati Zoo and the New York Institute of Culinary Arts—rekindle a desire in the students to learn, but it also ignited Elaine's passion for teaching others about the opportunities that technology can offer to the world of education. Read this Q&A to learn more about Polycom's K-20 education expert, and the path that led her to Polycom.
What was your career path to Polycom?
I grew up on a ranch in the mountains of eastern Arizona. Though I learned many real-life lessons from living on a ranch, I had an interest in understanding human behavior – why people act the way they do. After graduating from Arizona State University with a degree in sociology, I married my college sweetheart and moved to South Dakota. For the next six years I worked as a court investigator writing pre-sentencing reports. I have loads of stories about the situations and people I encountered in this role. (If we ever meet in person, ask, and we can go on for a long time!) Once my husband and I started our family, though, dealing with dysfunctional situations lost its appeal.
While our kids were young I taught in the local school district. Later on in my career, I served as the Director of the South Dakota Interactive Videoconferencing Smart Centers. I also served as the Educational Advocate/Instructional designer and distance learning coordinator for South Dakota Public Schools. In this position I consulted on distance learning programs, medical education, and corporate training to more than 300 sites, urban and rural, across the state. Because of my success at effecting change in South Dakota, I subsequently became an educational advocate for Polycom. I obtained my M.S. in Education with an emphasis on Curriculum, Instruction, and Technology from Nova Southeastern University while working at Polycom.
Can you give us some interesting examples of your teaching experiences?
The following story will give you a window into why I’m passionate about the opportunities technology offers to education.
Some years ago, pre-Polycom, I was asked to work with students at an alternative school for academically and behaviorally challenged students. About half of the students who attended this school had been removed from their homes and were residing in group homes. Most of the students had substance abuse records. My job was to kindle an excitement for learning in these kids, which was an altogether alien concept to them. One of the ways I did this was by introducing them to virtual field trips that transported them outside their otherwise small, dreary worlds. This, in turn, jump-started a desire to learn. Prior to this, it was a challenge for students to pay attention in class and they did not engage in our reflections on learning.
When I expressed to the administrator that the students wanted more virtual trips, I was told there was no budget. The students mentioned that during the summers they worked to clear trails in the forest, pick-up trash, and collect wood to sell -- and might we use that money for our virtual field trips? So we did. The students chose the three content providers they felt would be best for them: the Cincinnati Zoo (since most of the students had never been to one), The New York Institute of Culinary Arts (as one senior student was deciding whether he wanted to go into the culinary arts field), and The Cleveland Institute of Music (several of the students had an interest in playing the guitar). Their reflection papers were full of appreciation for having had this experience. I remember one student commenting that the chef never made them feel like they were poorly equipped or inexperienced in cooking a fine meal. Several years later I learned that this student enlisted in the military and, from there, went into the culinary arts. We can never gauge how the proceeds from a few odd jobs in the summertime can -- through technology! – take flight and transport an at-risk student into a brighter, safer world.
What are some major trends in education today? How do you see Polycom playing a role to help facilitate change?
We market a technology that was once a niche item– videoconferencing – but has since become a commodity product. Video collaboration is nearly ubiquitous. This reality plays into certain trends we are seeing in K-20 education.
Perhaps the most visible trend is the perception of fiscal austerity. Budgets are tight and I understand that “getting by” with an okay, seemingly low-cost video technology can be mesmerizing, but what I’ve learned over the years is that the lower cost video technology can prohibit access to educational content, does not offer the best quality and does not guarantee a secure connection.
Another trend is accountability: How do the results in your classroom stack up against others? There are many components to classroom success but a key element is stimulating student interest and involvement. My own classroom experience tells me that nothing stimulates this kind of response better than the thoughtful use of video technology. Through video conferencing, we are able to not only transport students into a world they’ve never known, but also provide them a conduit for collaborations that defy distance.
The other big trend is relevance. Yes, this fall season we watched students trudge off to school with #2 pencils in their backpacks but, unlike our generation, many smartphones went along too. Educators who do not acknowledge this reality risk being, well, irrelevant … or at least irrelevant in their students’ eyes. In fact, the Wall Street Journal estimates that worldwide, 750-million educational apps will be downloaded to mobile devices this year. Fortunately, we at Polycom are well-positioned for this. The Polycom RealPresence CloudAXIS Suite and RealPresence Mobile solutions along with ground breaking real-world experience, such as what we have done with the Kenai, Alaska school district (click here to read the case study), gives us the product and hands-on knowledge to develop this area.
Back in the “old” days (ten or twenty years ago!) our company sold technology – bits and bytes, LCDs and CCDs, and all of their associated gizmos. Make no mistake, having the right software, hardware and firmware are still critically important. However, increasingly, we’re not so much selling technology as we are selling good, solid pedagogical principles. And we are using Polycom’s RealPresence technology to power those principles. That is our future: using technology to drive educational attainment.
For me, helping to be an agent of change in classrooms everywhere is immensely satisfying. I firmly believe that we at Polycom stand on the cusp of a bright and rewarding future in the educational marketplace.
What’s the most unique situation where you had to use Polycom technology for the education sector?
A big motivation for me has always been to see “the light” come on in students’ eyes the moment they finally grasp a key concept. That can happen on a personal level. It also happens on a corporate level. Let me explain.
For many years, the dirty little secret in the closet of the videoconferencing industry was an unused box of VC gear gathering dust in a teacher’s closet. Somebody ordered the gear, it was delivered to the classroom, and the teacher not only didn’t see the point of it, but was also too intimidated to try to figure out how to use it. We needed an icebreaker – something to engage that teacher and that dusty box of equipment in the educational process. Thereafter she’d be more motivated to regularly incorporate the technology in her lessons.
That’s how Polycom’s Special Events – which has since won major awards for the company – was born. It is probably my favorite work project. We connect classrooms across the country to learn from noteworthy experts and highly accomplished people. Once the teachers see the light come on as their students engage, I see a light come in the teachers’ eyes too. Very cool.
So which one of these stands out to me? It’s hard for me to pick just one – hence, I asked my younger daughter Illianna (who has seen a number of these Special Events) which one stuck out in her mind. Without hesitation, Illianna spoke of the time we connected 150 students in several U.S. schools by satellite to an 83-year old lady, Muthoni wa Kirima, living in the hills of central Kenya. She had been a field marshal (yes, field marshal) for the Mau Mau rebellion seeking to end British colonial rule in Kenya. She was one of the notables we used that year to mark Black History Month.
There’s considerable distance between a young, white teenage girl on a winter morning in South Dakota and an 83-year old woman of the Kikuyu people in the tropical twilight of a Kenyan forest. Speaking through a translator, my Illianna was able to ask this heroic figure about some of the most difficult experiences that happened to her in the war. The ensuing story of pain, brutality, and degradation brought tears to my daughter’s eyes and I’m sure made a lifetime memory in other classrooms as well.
That day was powerful and unique. Muthoni wa Kirima had only rarely spoken of the war and never in a setting such as this. That day she was ready to talk. About 150 students and teachers were privileged to defy the distance, to listen to an oral history unfold, and then interact with this legendary freedom fighter. It was a once-in-a-lifetime privilege.
What do you like to do in your free time? I love to spend time with my family. My other love is the outdoors, which fortunately for me, my family feels the same way. My favorite sport at the moment is mountain biking with my husband, Mark. Each autumn Mark and I do a 109-mile trail ride with a group of friends. I also like rock climbing, hiking, running, and snowshoeing. I had a few firsts in 2014. I ran my first Half Marathon and participated in a mud run. I especially enjoy watching my younger daughter play high school sports. I enjoy traveling, reading, photography, scrapbooking and cooking with friends and family.