Del Valle ISD is a public school district in Texas that serves over 11,000 students on 15 campuses in Southeast Travis County near Austin. The school district is committed to providing innovative educational programs that cultivate critical thinking skills among its students, including mock trial leagues and debate teams. Unlike typical programs, these students do not just compete within their school district, within their state, or even within their own country. These students are able to compete internationally with students like themselves from all over the world through the power of HD video collaboration.
From the outside, Del Valle ISD may look like a typical school system, but on the inside, students are traveling the world and gaining a cultural education that very few people ever have a chance to experience. By partnering with world-class schools in countries such as South Africa, Australia, Nigeria, Iran, Korea, India, Taiwan, and many others, students from Del Valle ISD are able to flex their debate skills and perform mock trial hearings via LifeSize video conferencing solutions.
The idea was born in 2003. Del Valle ISD had distance learning video equipment that was given to them from Region 13, but it was severely underutilized. Programs such as mock trial and debate required students to travel for competitions. In fact, students from as far as Alaska would journey in for these tournaments, resulting in a week’s worth of travel. Since acquiring the video conferencing equipment from Region 13, the school district has continually built upon its distance learning programs and now participates in international educational programs with 225 schools across 75 countries.
Students now have the opportunity to debate about current events and even historical events, as they take opposing sides on topics such as Armenian genocide, the evolution of the Catholic Church, or even Truman’s role in the bombing of Hiroshima. They collaborate with local colleges and even leaders in the judicial system, such as a judge in Australia for debates and mock trial events. Whether they are working on a topic from the YMCA, ICC or National Forensics League, or choosing a topic of their own, these young people compete against their peers across the globe in crystal-clear HD, all from the comfort of their classroom in their hometown.
“I really see this program as a living book,” said Michael Cunningham, project director of World Class Schools and educator for Del Valle ISD. “These students are learning something incredible every day, and expanding their global knowledge in ways that we never thought were possible a decade ago. This is something that a standardized, multiple choice test could never teach. This is where true critical thinking skills are born.”
The program has even extended beyond mock trials and debate competitions; the students also interact with their international peers to learn more about their culture, food and music. Del Valle ISD students have sung Norwegian Christmas carols, learned how to cook exotic foods like antelope and porcupine, and spoken to Dr. Scott Kofmehl, chief of staff to the United States ambassador to Islamabad to learn about having a career in foreign affairs.
“When we first tried using video conferencing in 2003, the quality of the image just wasn’t good enough to use on a daily basis, but the technology has really evolved since then,” said Cunningham. “LifeSize ClearSea provides exceptional HD quality and it’s so easy to use that we share it with schools all over the world.”
“I want schools to realize that you can do this for next to nothing: bring a world-class school to your school for only a little money,” said Cunningham. “With this program, we are enabling our students to open their mind and see what is really going on in their world. Other districts may prefer to spend the money to bring their students on field trips in their local community, but we have chosen to invest in video conferencing to bring the world to our students.”