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Look the expert in the eye

Heather McLean shows how video-conferencing can hook pupils into history

Video-conferencing is the new aid to history teaching that makes the World Wide Web seems passe. Not only does it connect pupils live with real experts, stunning artefacts and other children throughout the world, it also gives teachers access to a giant virtual staffroom.

Tim Arnold, English adviser at the digital media education centre for Devon LEA, says: "In the hands of the right teacher, video-conferencing is a powerful tool. It adds an extra dimension to the curriculum if it's used creatively."

Mike Griffith runs Global Leap, a networking and information website for teachers, and is also manager of the Department for Education and Skills'

video-conferencing in the classroom project. He says: "video-conferencing adds value and motivates children. We shouldn't be surprised that kids have more knowledge when they speak to an expert at a museum who can show them the artefact they've seen in books."

Part of the DfES video-conferencing in the classroom project is to put equipment into places such as the National Portrait Gallery, Leeds Armouries and the Tower of London so they can be used as extended classrooms or encyclopedias.

Jamie Byron, history adviser for Devon LEA, says: "It's hard to imagine any large museum or gallery that won't in three to five years time be doing video-conferencing with schools. It really does create enthusiasm for being there and asking questions."

He points to the curricular emphasis on exploring interpretations of history and says video-conferencing can give children fresh perspectives on a familiar historical event.

Jay Tarbath, English teacher at Coombeshead College in Newton Abbot, Devon, has used video-conferencing to speak to Jane Redmond, an expert at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam to give his Year 7 a new perspective on the Second World War. Jay and his class had read Anne Frank's diaries and the conference gave the students an idea of what it was like to be a child at that time.

Tim Arnold says that while the greatest feature of video-conferencing is the person at the other end of the line, they do not have to be an academic historian. People at the Robben Island Museum, South Africa, who have either been prisoners there or lived through the apartheid era, can be vivid sources of knowledge for children and teachers.

Tim became Devon's video-conferencing evangelist after he realised its classroom potential three years ago. After reading a newspaper report that claimed Devon was the third most dangerous place for ethnic minorities in the UK, he also saw it as a means of overcoming racism. While the average ethnic minority population in UK schools is 12 per cent, in Devon the figure is 1 per cent.

A video conference on anti-racism strategies through the study of history was held on Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27). Teachers and historians from the UK, France, Germany, the US, Holland and South Africa took part.

Among them was Ahmed Kathrada who was imprisoned for 18 years on Robben Island in South Africa and is now chair of the trustees of the museum. He said: "To us, Robben Island was a microcosm of apartheid society. On Robben Island we had Asian and coloured prisoners. They were given long trousers: black prisoners were given short trousers and no socks, plus less sugar, meat and fish."

Ahmed said the white prison officers and the black and coloured prisoners developed an understanding of each other: "Robben Island, with all the suffering and hardship we underwent, was an example of the victory of forces of good over forces of evil."

Mike Griffith says pupils can be experts themselves. London children can explain multiculturalism in their area, while a Lancashire farming child can describe the family history of passing land from one generation to the next.

Mike asks: "If you're doing a history project on Romans, why not link up with a school in Northumberland whose pupils can take digital pictures of Roman ruins?"

Yet it is still early days for video-conferencing in the classroom.

Preparation is important, Jamie Byron says: "You have to be careful about what work the kids will have done before going into a video conference. If the kids either know too much or too little, it won't go anywhere. The skill is to bring them to just that point to make them engage with the expert at the other end."

It is also easy for a conference to become a TV lecture from a dingy room.

Jay Tarbath says of the conference with the Anne Frank Museum: "Jane used a remote control facility to move the camera around the room, but it wasn't the most evocative scene. There wasn't a sense of being in the museum itself. Beyond the first exciting moment, you need something to sustain interest."

Video-conferencing may just be the latest ICT fad, yet used innovatively, it has the potential to blow the dust off dull history classes.

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