Crossing the divide

Dorothy Walker sees how video-conferencing has linked Sidmouth pupils with former inmates of Robben Island in South Africa

Monday morning at Sidmouth Community College, Devon. Extract from the day's timetable: 12.15pm - link with Robben Island, South Africa, to plan field trip; 12.30pm - chat with Education Minister; 12.45pm - bilingual conference with Devon primary pupils in Brittany.

It was a demanding schedule, but one that did not faze the Sidmouth students. Thanks to a remarkable project to explore the benefits of video-conferencing, they and fellow Devon pupils are well-versed in transcontinental conversations on TV screens. And the culmination of the conferences when I dropped in was the launch of a handbook which allows teachers to share in the good practice that has come out of the project.

The man behind it is Tim Arnold, adviser for digital media education at Devon Curriculum Services (DCS), a group of 40 subject specialists who advise Devon County Council on the curriculum. Catching sight of a videoconference at the BETT 2000 show, he realised technology had improved and could benefit schools, but he was concerned at the lack of practical advice on offer, so he set out to produce a teachers' guide. Video-conferencing in the Classroom (reviewed p37) is the result of more than 50 initiatives in schools over the past year.

The project took off with the help of Global VideoCom, seller of Polycom video-conferencing systems, and Global Leap, which helps schools make video-conferencing links. DCS was loaned eight Polycom ViewStation units, professional quality camera-and-sound systems that link to a TV and communications line. And Global Leap made available its communications "bridge", which allows up to four schools to take part in the same conference by dialling a special phone number.

Connecting rural Devon schools was an obvious option and a very successful one, with two small primaries demonstrating just how effectively teachers could team up to make the most of their skills and enrich children's experiences in the classroom.

But equally obvious was the opportunity to strengthen close ties with South Africa, developed through Crossings, a long-running DCS project to work with South African poets and artists. Arnold says: "We wanted to extend our range of multicultural resources, so together we are creating resources that are used in both countries. These include a book of poetry and videos of artists' work."

For five years DCS has worked with the education department on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and fellow anti-apartheid activists were imprisoned during the apartheid regime. A focus for co-operation has been The Island, a Seventies play set in the Robben Island prison. It has now been adapted for schools by Martin Phillips, DCS English adviser, and appears on GCSE and A-Level reading lists. In an accompanying video, one of The Island's authors, John Kani, talks about the origins of the play.

A year ago, Arnold supplied Robben Island with one of the eight video-conferencing units, enabling Devon schools to talk to former inmates. "In a recent conference, Sidmouth pupils talked to Lionel Davis, an artist and poet who for eight years was imprisoned with Mandela," says Arnold. "Having studied the play, they asked Davis what it was really like. That was incredibly powerful."

Arnold is now working on a four-week programme which schools can run to support the anti-racism thread of citizenship, and which will culminate in a video-conference link with Robben Island. "There is no point in making a link for the sake of it," he says. "It has to tie in with work going on."

The work in Devon has provided a wealth of anecdotal evidence that video-conferencing delivers benefits. The next step is to seek proof that it truly does help raise standards, and Arnold has been appointed to a new Video-conferencing Board set up by the Department for Education and Skills (DFES).

"In a few years," says Arnold, "when people will be video-conferencing as a matter of course, we need procedures and good practice teachers can use, rather than having all the kit and not knowing what to do with it."

Top tips

* Employ video-conferencing to support curriculum activities and objectives, rather than as a bolt-on extra

* Prepare: test out equipment, camera angles, acoustics and seating plans

* Get to know other schoolsorganisations beforehand, and brief one another

* Check international time differences and school holiday dates, and double-check you will be linking with the age-group you expected

* Etiquette: avoid supposedly off-camera remarks - participants can see and hear everything going on in the classroom

Equipment

Top-of-computer webcam (pound;50); standalone videophone (pound;1,000); video-conferencing unit (pound;2,500)

Communications

All conferences have taken place over ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) lines

Computing

Computers can be linked in, allowing video-conferencers to collaborate as if sitting side-by-side at the keyboard, an option which Arnold plans to explore

Teachers' help

Video-conferencing in the Classroom is available to teachers free of charge. Send a cheque (payable to Devon County Council) for pound;5 (pamp;p), with your name, address and telephone number, to: Devon Curriculum Services Publications, Great Moor House, Bittern Road, Sowton, Exeter, Devon EX2 7NL. The book was launched during a global video-conferencing day organised by Global Leap, in aid of the TESUNICEF appeal to support the rebuilding of Afghanistan's educational infrastructure

DCS: www.devon.gov.ukdcs Global Leap: www.global-leap.com Global VideoCom: www.globalvc.co.uk Polycom: www.polycom.com

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