Webcam keeps DMS student in touch with classroom

Published 8:34 pm Friday, March 4, 2011

Advances in technology have opened up a whole new world of possibilities for education and the modern classroom. But those advances hit Demopolis Middle School and the life of one family in a very tangible way Friday.

Aaron Beckum attended class for the first time all semester this week. The eighth-grade DMS student received a diagnosis of a malignant brain tumor Nov. 19. In the months since, keeping up with schoolwork has been a daunting prospect.

“Since then we have had brain surgery. We have had six weeks of radiation. He is due to start chemotherapy on March 9,” Allison Beckum, Aaron’s mother, said. “Since then, we have kind of worked back and forth with the school.”

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Aaron’s life as it pertains to Demopolis Middle School has been a string of phone calls and assignments over the last few months. But that changed this week when an idea that took its root nearly a month ago came to fruition.

Aaron was able to attend his core classes without ever leaving home this week thanks to the initiative of Demopolis Middle School Counselor Traci Pearson and Demopolis City Schools Technology Director Jeremiah Dial, as well as the generosity of the Demopolis Pilot Club.

“It is wonderful,” Allison said of the results of the project, which has Aaron attending classes via a Webcam, an Internet connection and the avenue provided by Skype. “They have set up a system in our house. They have provided all of the equipment. The wonderful Pilot Club picked up the cost of the modem and the internet connection for the rest of the year.”

The setup allows Aaron to interact with his teachers from the comfort of his own home. Friday afternoon’s session saw his math teacher go around the room to ask students whether specific equations were linear or non-linear. Question number three was directed at Aaron, who first informed the teacher that he was unable to see the problem. A quick adjustment was made to the positioning of the front-row computer bringing Aaron into the room and the 13-year-old was able to inform the class that the equation was non-linear. For the record, he was correct.

“It has been so exciting,” Pearson said. “He is so excited. He can virtually be in his class everyday. He’s getting not just the work, not just somebody coming out to tutor him, but he gets to almost be there.”

Implementing the system involved placing Webcams in the classrooms of each of Aaron’s four core subject teachers as well as providing him with a laptop equipped with a Webcam and microphone. Thanks to Skype, Aaron is able to interact with his teachers as if he were in the room. The concept is one that mirrors Skype’s self-description.

“Skype is for doing things together, whenever you’re apart,” reads. “Skype’s text, voice and video make it simple to share experiences with the people that matter to you, wherever they are.”

But as much as Skype has been able to provide a facilitation for Aaron’s education, none of it would have been possible without the Pilot Club’s willingness to assist in the endeavor.

Pearson contacted the club shortly after learning that the group focuses much of its efforts on assisting those with brain injuries and illnesses.

“One hundred percent,” Demopolis Pilot Club member Paula Parr said of their eagerness to help with the project. “Whenever I called, they said ‘Whatever you want to do Paula, we’re behind it.’”

The club’s response was swift and thorough, providing the biggest piece to the puzzle that connected Aaron back to the teachers and classmates he had for months been missing.

“A lot of the kids knew Aaron had cancer,” Wes Byler, Aaron’s history teacher, said. “Seeing him, I think lifted the spirits of everybody in class.”

Rejoined with his classmates in some form, Aaron was able to watch the video Byler assigned to his history class.

The setup allows for a number of possibilities for Aaron, who can see files such as Power Point or Whiteboard presentations through a desktop share feature that allows teachers to link their computers directly to that of the 13-year-old student with the digital presence.

“The program has been wonderful,” Allison said. “He can even take it with us if he has a doctor’s appointment.

“He can do it in his pajamas. He doesn’t even have to get out of the house. We’re hoping we can actually complete the eighth grade.”

The technology has long offered a treasure trove of educational benefits to classrooms seeking to utilize new methods. It allows for a seemingly infinite number of possibilities as students can take a virtual trip to other parts of the world without ever leaving the classroom.

“You can go out beyond our puny little borders that we have,” Dial said of the potential technology offers.

And while those benefits are indisputable, the technology helped in a much simpler way this time. Aaron Beckum was not looking to go to other parts of the world, just to school.

“I have been in education for 16 or 17 years and this is the most amazing thing I have ever been a part of,” Pearson said.

The doors that have been opened by the initiative are not yet known. But it stands to reason that the work done with Aaron may have longer-lasting effects for Demopolis City Schools, having potentially laid the groundwork to overcome future obstacles.

But for now, it has reunited a student with his school and renewed a mother’s faith in the world.

“Traci Pearson, for one, has been our guardian angel. She has been fantastic. The whole Demopolis Middle School system has,” Allison said. “It renews your faith in human beings.”