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Having trouble getting out of school for long enough to attend meetings and courses? North Lanarkshire is testing a solution, Katrina Tweedie reports

The potential for video conferencing technology to develop staff training and reduce travel budgets is being investigated by one of Scotland's largest education departments.

North Lanarkshire is looking at online technology to connect staff and pupils in different locations for virtual meetings. Unlike conventional video conferencing systems, which simply use webcams and computers, the Marratech conferencing software, bought by the local authority, also allows up to 20 users to access a shared on-screen whiteboard. This enables them to participate in a collaborative conference.

The authority says it will benefit from improved communications, as specialists attend meetings and create discussion forums on the web, using their existing laptops and PCs. The online auditorium function will enable group training to take place in and out of school hours from home or office.

By having access to conferencing online, staff at North Lanarkshire's 175 secondary, primary and special educational needs schools hope to reduce the need to travel to attend centralised meetings.

Bill Connolly, North Lanarkshire's information technology training adviser, says: "Traditional training methods, based on staff attending meetings and courses, disrupts learning and teaching in the classroom. We looked at video conferencing but wanted a solution that more effectively supports training while significantly reducing the need for staff to attend formal conference sessions. The Marratech web-based solution was appropriate, as our staff generally have dial-up facilities at home plus their existing office systems."

Virtual conferences are not intended to limit the potential to attend meetings in person, but Mr McConnell says the opportunity for teachers, librarians or IT staff to attend follow-up meetings is often limited.

Opportunities for follow-up professional development support were often not taken because of the practical necessity of teachers having to teach.

"It is harder to bring people out of classrooms over an extended period.

This provides an opportunity to support teachers who are having difficulty continuing their CPD support," he explains.

"Once they are back at school or home, they still can access an environment where they can exchange ideas or information or look for support, and the potential to actually support their CPD will not be lost."

Initial two-month trials have involved groups of up to 10, who meet over the education department's wide intranet and from home on the Internet, to test the technology. "It came together like a dream with no technical issues," says Mr Connolly.

The second phase of the pilot will identify staff who might take advantage of this type of collaboration within their CPD training and look at practical testing of the techniques.

There are also plans to introduce it to pupils later in the year.

"We will target specific groups, such as specialists, librarians and technical support staff, and bring together staff who might otherwise feel isolated. We ultimately want to use Marratech to establish an online community environment with other schools to exchange ideas.

"Staff who have seen it are very enthusiastic at the potential," adds Mr Connolly.

Calum Maxwell, depute headteacher at Ladywell Primary, in Motherwell, has been testing the technology before introducing it to pupils this month.

"We want to look at the community aspect, linking our associated primaries.

We want it to be pupil driven, working through school councils, sharing ideas and discussions, via the webcam," he says.

P6 pupils will be taught basic training skills and train the next year group, in keeping with the school's buddy system.

The school also sees the potential for teachers to attend virtual management meetings.

"We would like to develop our cluster high school meetings, which are sometimes difficult to attend. This pilot will give the opportunity to see how it works," adds Mr Maxwell.

Russell Brown, head of the education resource service, is enthusiastic about the initial results.

"We're using it primarily as a contact tool for the staff in libraries, who are normally quite disparate and isolated," he says.

"The big difference with this software program is the interactive whiteboard, which enables it to be an interactive learning tool.

"For us, as well as teachers, that is hugely significant because you can interact more effectively."

Mr Brown would like to see the technology available to all libraries, including those in the 26 secondary schools in the area, whose role is to support learning and teaching.

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