Deborah Stokes brings virtual visitors to the  National Museum of  African Art with videoconferencing technology.

Nov 07 2018

Agencies Reach Outside the Beltway Through Video

Teleconferencing technology brings government information from the Smithsonian, NPS and more to citizens who live far from Washington.

The government houses a wealth of information valuable to the average citizen — historical documents at the National Archives, the research material at the Library of Congress, health advice from the Department of Health and Human Services. But until the internet took hold, there was no way to get that information on demand, from the comfort of home.

With the advent of the web, agencies began sharing data online. But now they’re taking the connection a step further by providing video links to the people responsible for creating the data.

So, for instance, children in U.S. schools and abroad can watch presentations from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. Local emergency responders can train with Federal Emergency Management Administration officials via virtual tabletop exercises. And nature lovers far from Wyoming can hear from Park Service rangers at Devils Tower National Monument.

“This is a live chat with somebody that they normally wouldn’t be able to visit,” says Joseph Bruce, education technician at Devils Tower.

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Smithsonian Uses Video to Connect with Children

In 2010, the group of U.S. agencies responding to Haiti’s devastating earthquake included an unusual participant: the Smithsonian Institution

More than a quarter of a million people died in the massive quake, and another 1.5 million were left homeless. Thousands of schools were damaged and destroyed; children lived as refugees in their own cities for months.

“Many of them were living in tent cities,” says Deborah Stokes, curator for education for the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) in Washington, D.C., one of 19 Smithsonian museums.

The Smithsonian created the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project in response, and NMAfA hosted an exhibit of artwork created by 95 children housed in temporary youth centers in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake.

Stokes set up an educational area within the exhibit, where visitors could respond to the children’s artwork with drawings and messages of hope. Some of the 5,000 responses came from the French club at J.O. Wilson Elementary School, a public school in Washington, D.C.

1,400 Miles

The distance between students in Haiti and Washington, D.C., who participated in a videoteleconferencing lesson with the National Museum of African Art


Inspired, Stokes arranged for a videoconference between the Haitian children and the American students. The children of both countries shared their creations in a video ceremony at the Education Department. 

“It was very rewarding,” says Stokes. The D.C. students prepared messages for their Haitian counterparts in French, and “the children in Haiti prepared a special song to sing to the group in D.C.”

After that, Stokes wanted to bring the VTC experience home. A former teacher, she piloted a distance arts education program in the spring semester of 2014 that reached more than 1,000 students across the country over three semesters. “It almost doubled our student reach,” she says.

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Videoconferencing Efforts Expand at the Smithsonian 

Stokes’s work was recognized with a Pinnacle Award from the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration, as well as the Pioneer Award from the Federal Government Distance Learning Association (FGDLA). These awards recognize organizations and individuals that pair exceptional content with skillful delivery.

Following the pilot’s success, Stokes campaigned for (and was given) dedicated space for a VTC room, complete with green screens that allow her to be virtually present in the remote classrooms. 

She relaunched the program this school year with new teaching modules that cover multidisciplinary themes based on the museum’s exhibits. The museum uses Polycom RealPresence VTC equipment; participating schools use their own equipment.

Stokes is also in talks with colleagues in South Africa, Ghana and Kenya to take the program global.

“We know that teachers are out there who want to do these types of programs,” she says. “As a provider making this content for educators, we hope to help them help their students to develop critical thinking, especially when it comes to Africa and all the stereotypes we’re working to challenge.”

NPS Brings Devil's Tower to Life for Distant Students 

Bruce is also a one-person educational force. Ranger Joe, as he’s known at Devils Tower National Monument, has used VTC to reach classrooms nationwide since September 2016.

“It provides people who would not normally have a chance to come to this site an opportunity to go on a virtual visit and interact with a site expert,” says Bruce. “Kids are really excited. They understand that there is a large distance there.”

Bruce has connected with classrooms in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin — in each case, 1,000 or more miles away. Devils Tower uses Polycom technology to connect; other parks, such as Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska, use Zoom systems.

Joe Bruce
This is a live chat with somebody that they normally wouldn’t be able to visit,”

Joe Bruce Education Technician, Devil's Tower National Monument

Bruce has reached 550 students in less than two years, as well as the 4,000 students he sees annually in person — local children on field trips or whose classrooms he visits.

“In the context of education, often they have a goal. They’ve been studying geology, so they want to hear about the geology of the site. Or they’re studying Native American culture; we have a lot of great cultural connections with this as a sacred or significant cultural site for many Plains Indians,” he says.

“There are those opportunities for them to tap into a resource they otherwise wouldn’t have available,” he adds. “I think that’s a really powerful thing.”

Agencies May Shift to Cloud-Based Videoconferencing

Despite its long history of development, VTC technology is only half a decade into widespread use. Russ Colbert, a member of FGDLA’s executive committee, expects VTC to become more intuitive to operate and secure, and thinks emerging features like closed captioning will help agencies make the technology accessible to those with disabilities.

“I think we’ll see more cloud-based operations, so the hardware of this technology won’t even be visible,” he says.

Stokes is interested in what citizens will be able to see through VTC and where it will lead them. “My motto is, The arts can take us places,” she says


Photography by Ryan Donnell

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