If you think video-conferencing sounds as if it would be more at home in the boardroom than in the classroom, think again.
In its simplest form, video-conferencing allows users to see and hear the person they are communicating with. Calls usually revolve around a direct link created with another user, and they can be made locally, nationally or internationally.
In fact, the only limit is that each participant has to have a video-conferencing set-up and a suitable link (ISDN* or broadband**). Your choice of video-conferencing system can range from an add-on to an existing computer - costing about pound;50 - to a dedicated set-up worth up to Pounds 15,000. However, any choice of system should depend on its intended usage, ie whether it is for simple person-to-person sessions (cheap) or for group usage (not so cheap). Whatever your choice, each system will have the following common features: a camera; a microphone; speakers; a monitor; and a method of establishing a connection to remote users.
There is plenty of information available to help you get started (see Resources, below), and a video-conferencing project run by technology agency Becta showed that the systems could be run by any teacher with the minimum of technical expertise.
What does it bring to the classroom?
The key element is that it is truly interactive. Pupils are meeting and talking directly with other pupils in "real time", but in a different location. This can be an extremely rewarding and involving process for all involved. Safraz Chaudry, e-Learning consultant at Tameside LEA, Greater Manchester, explains the benefits: "Our schools have found video-conferencing extremely useful in enhancing the curriculum, by allowing them to set projects and share ideas easily with others outside their direct environment. We have one school that is predominantly white, linking to another in the area that is predominantly Muslim and they're doing joint projects on ethnicity. There is also a poetry project running between schools where classes are presenting anything from a rap to a short story to other schools."
If you want to increase motivation, improve speaking and listening skills, increase confidence and self-esteem, aid cultural awareness or even benefit foreign languages skills, then look no further.
*ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) - digital dial-up "telephone line" allowing faster data transfer rates than existing analogue lines.
Allows simultaneous transfer of voice, data and video information.
**Broadband - the capacity of a communications circuit or link. The Department for Education and Skills defines broadband as a speed greater than 2Mbps (Mega bits per second).