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High mileage for The Truck

It's an outside broadcast van that schools can use for media studies, but its creators say the learning possibilities are endless - for teachers as well as pupils. Su Clark reports.

Media teacher Peter Simpson came up with a mad idea 17 years ago: how about creating an outside broadcast truck that could travel to different schools to allow pupils to produce television reports about anything they want?

Not just so that they could develop television and radio skills as a step towards a career in media, but more to develop overall skills of teamwork, leadership and communication.

Mr Simpson, from Magherafelt High in Northern Ireland, explained to delegates at the International Professional Development Association's annual conference in Belfast, that his idea remained just a blue skies dream, because such a truck came with a price tag of around pound;2 million. But in recent years, advances in technology and a little ingenuity on Mr Simpson's part have brought the price right down to pound;146,000.

The turning point was when Mr Simpson linked up with Jim McGee, regional ICT adviser at the Monaghan Education Centre in the Republic of Ireland.

"With the peace process came new opportunities for cross-border working and so Jim and I were able to get an EU grant from Interreg, which helps regions work together on common projects," explains Mr Simpson, who began in education as a PE teacher before embracing media and then, more recently, ICT. He is now assistant adviser ICT at the North Eastern Education and Library Board, with responsibility for The Truck, an outside broadcast vehicle which is shared between his board and the Monaghan Education Centre.

Interreg supplied the initial seed money, NEELB provided the chassis, cameras and some of the video equipment, while Screen NI paid for Shay Sweetnam, a moving image technician.

Phase one of the project, which began in 2005-06, followed the path Mr Simpson had envisaged 15 years previously. A total of 180 pupils from 18 schools worked with The Truck to produce a series of television programmes, from travel shows to news programmes to history programmes. One school even filmed a group of students performing, so they could compete in Battle of the Bands remotely.

But then one day last year over a cup of tea, Mr Simpson and Mr McGee came up with another innovative way to use their truck. Why should the pupils have all the fun? Why not use it to provide continuing professional development for teachers?

And so another blue skies scheme was hatched - televised model lessons, broadcast by satellite into every teacher's home. Again, with a little ingenuity and some cash from their respective departments of education, it became a reality.

Over the next few months, Mr Simpson and Mr McGee will select schools to take part in the filming.

"It won't be a perfect lesson," says Mr McGee. "It will show all the ups and downs that happen in a classroom, so teachers won't watch it and think, `Well, I could never do that'. We want to show teachers what to do when things go wrong, as much as how to do it right."

The lessons will then be edited into half-hour slots that will be transmitted next October. Mr Simpson and Mr McGee are negotiating fees with Information TV, but they are also considering other avenues, such as Teachers TV.

Other routes of dissemination and support will also be explored and the team are developing online resource materials that will be available to back up the broadcasts.

"We want to provide a blended approach to CPD that will be available to teachers 247," says Mr McGee. "We are only touching the tip of the iceberg with this pilot, as it is only focused at primary level just now. But there are so many different areas that require this level of support and so many ways to deliver it. The potential is endless."

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