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Co-operative way of teaching and sharing

Argyll and Bute has been using information and communications technology, and video-conferencing in particular, for seven years, so it has been able to apply valuable lessons to equipping and setting up this project.

Previously identified weaknesses - of hardware, computer systems and organisation - have been addressed and remedied.

"The equipment we installed this time is better and faster," explains Carol Walker, the authority's head of service with responsibility for ICT. "The sound is sharper, the images clearer and the hardware more reliable.

"We have also provided for training teachers and managers by appointing an adviser for video-conferencing, Lesley Allan, a former headteacher with an enthusiasm for the technology and years of experience of remote rural schools.

"The third vital component is technical support. We've appointed a full-time technician who travels around Argyll and Bute and is always available on his mobile phone to help teachers and managers with the sort of problems that can arise when you start using sophisticated new equipment."

Some of these problems are aired when Ms Allan chairs a video-conference at Oban High for principal teachers from four of the authority's secondary schools one afternoon. The aim is to demonstrate the protocols they will need to run multi-site conferences and to canvass their thoughts on the technology. These range from complaints about the location of the equipment - in one school it is in a room that is "too small and about 90oF" - to some very positive statements.

A teacher at Campbeltown Grammar who has participated in many audio-conferences is keenly anticipating the growth of video-conferencing, saying: "As long as you have a clear agenda and follow it closely, everybody gets a chance to contribute and it works very well."

Fiona Campbell, the principal teacher of mathematics at Islay High, says she appreciates the technology's potential, particularly for small group tutorials and links with other schools. "We have a very lively Gaelic department and they would love to able to talk to their colleagues at Oban High and other schools.

"But," she warns, "the protocols will have to be observed very closely or people will become frustrated and the more annoyed teachers are with something, the less likely they are to use it."

She also believes it is important to keep a balance between face-to-face and remote meetings. "Often the greatest benefit of meetings is the networking and informal chats over coffee or lunch. We don't want to lose that. One of our concerns is that video-conferencing might become a replacement for face-to-face meetings and in the end might even increase rather than decrease professional isolation."

Linda Kirkwood, headteacher at Oban High, supports this point.

"Video-conferencing is not a complete substitute for face-to-face meetings - which I think you still need occasionally, for the nuances of body language, the kind of bonding that happens in a team that works well together - but the quality is now almost as good as actually being there," she says. In some ways maybe it's even better, because in a video-conference everybody gets a turn to speak and the meetings are much more structured and tightly focused."

Her staff have been using video-conferencing for meetings with parents on the islands, Gaelic teaching conferences, primary-secondary liaison and curriculum projects in technology, languages and home economics.

"This new equipment is so improved that we can see lots more opportunities for linking with the curriculum," she says. "There is huge potential, too, for staff development."

Ms Allan concludes: "You often find people with less experience have more doubts about the technology. Most problems can be solved or won't even arise if you have good technical support, with someone at the end of a telephone to help out, and everyone in a video-conference sticking closely to the protocols, the most important of which is don't interrupt when somebody else is speaking."

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