For the past 15 years, New Orleans CPA Tommie Vassel has always been one of the first, and one of the most dedicated, classroom volunteers to turn out for the annual Louisiana Society of CPAs-Junior Achievement Financial Literacy Days.
Every year "Mr. Tommie" brings his enthusiasm, his wealth of experience, and anything else that resonates with grade school children—play money, stickers, the chance to play "mini-tax collector"—to the table to make sure students remember the lesson long after he leaves the classroom.
But this year, Vassel truly outdid himself. He visited three classrooms of second-graders—one in New Orleans, one in Baton Rouge, and one in Lafayette—all in one day. And he didn't even have to leave the office to do it.
That's because this April, the Louisiana Society (LCPA) became the first CPA society in the country to pilot Junior Achievement's new Virtual JA financial literacy lesson. The Virtual JA Lesson uses Google Hangouts virtual technology to connect "virtual volunteers" with multiple classrooms to teach JA's financial literacy curriculum.
"The Virtual JA pilot program in Louisiana is the first time we have reached multiple schools in different parts of a state via a single 'e-volunteer.' It's a first for Junior Achievement USA and a first step in the use of today's technology to enhance the teaching of entrepreneurship, work readiness, and financial literacy in our schools," said Jack Brancewicz, president of Junior Achievement Greater New Orleans, Inc.
The LCPA and JA have partnered on the society's month-long Financial Literacy Days program since 2006. During the annual event, LCPA volunteers spend one school day participating in JA activities with students to help them understand the important connections between education, career, salary, and desired lifestyle.
But this year, when JA New Orleans offered the LCPA the opportunity to test drive the Virtual JA Lesson, the LCPA jumped at the chance.
"We think Virtual JA is exciting not only for the potential number of students we can reach in the future, but also the ability to connect students in different cities, or even different states, as they study financial literacy," said Ann Lupo, Communications and Public Relations Director for the LCPA.
Vassel, a former president of the LCPA, taught the inaugural Virtual JA Lesson April 30, using Google Hangouts to connect with second-graders at schools in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and New Orleans, LA.
The lesson plan itself is part of JA's traditional Elementary School program that is used in schools across the country every year. Vassel used all the familiar JA materials, and, as in past lessons, tried to put the role of government employees (mayors and schoolteachers), and government services, like hurricane disaster relief, into perspective for the children.
But the virtual technology used to deliver the lesson was groundbreaking.
As a "virtual volunteer," Vassel, taught remotely from JA offices in New Orleans, interacting via computer with students in all three classrooms at one time. Students asked and answered questions, teachers helped with stickers and handouts, and students could see the students at work in the other classes. As this program advances through additional pilot steps, other methods to engage the students in the program will be added as technology permits.
To adults who already grown jaded with virtual technologies like Skype and "Go to Meeting" that interaction might seem commonplace, but to a second-grader who just learned their new friend in Baton Rouge also has a city library, and his family was also impacted by Hurricane Isaac—it's world-opening.
"My students were fascinated that they could actually see other classes at work, and the classes could see them," said Karen Gavins-Taylor, second-grade teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School in New Orleans. "They were very attentive, and focused during the virtual lesson. It was an excellent teaching tool." Virtual volunteers are also able to reach multiple classrooms, meaning more students can take advantage of the JA curriculum from one trained, experienced volunteer.
Brancewicz is quick to emphasize however, that virtual technology is not meant to replace live volunteers, at least not at this time. It can complement and supplement the current JA approach of putting "live" volunteers in the classroom.
"While having a volunteer in each classroom will always be the most effective way of delivering Junior Achievement programs, as a region and as a society, we should strive to reach as many students as possible, each and every year. Realistically, we must embrace technology to accomplish this," Brancewicz said.
Vassel said despite the physical distance during his pilot lesson, he still felt a genuine connection with the students.
Vassel believes the virtual lessons could also open up some new possibilities: the chance for children to interact with each other which could build an enormous sense of excitement around financial literacy.
"I think it would be thrilling for these kids to broaden their horizons by interacting with other kids their own age from different cities," Vassel said. "It would be exciting for children to learn about financial literacy and the culture of their different regions at the same time. For example, if we connected kids in New York with kids in New Orleans and showing them a Mardi Gras Indian for the first time."
Vassel can even envision a day when the LCPA adapts virtual technology to spread its financial outreach to other areas of the community; places like centers for senior residents, company lunch rooms, and summer camps.
But until then, Vassel said, the LCPA society will be busy enough envisioning how they can adapt this new technology to make sure every child in their state has the chance to learn the valuable financial lessons so critical to their success—lessons like saving for the future, following a budget, and investing in their education.