An internet video-conferencing system is enabling schools across the world to link up. Stephen Manning investigates
A seven-year-old girl sits expectantly in front of a computer, excited at the prospect of meeting her e-pal for the first time. She is a pupil at Cefn Fforest Primary, Cefn Fforest, near Blackwood, Wales. Her new cyber friend is in New Zealand at Appleby School in Nelson, on the South Island.
At 7.15pm on a dark December evening 20 pupils from Cefn Fforest were gathering in their classroom just as the first New Zealand pupils arrived at school.
They were linking up using Skype - free downloadable software which provides an advanced form of video-conferencing over the internet - for possibly the first Skypecast between primary pupils. Each class sat in a circle around a microphone and chatted about their own environments and experiences.
"What's life like in a New Zealand school?" the Welsh children asked. "What sort of pets do you have?"
Paul Harrington, the technology co-ordinator at Cefn Fforest, says:"It was a clear connection - you could hear the birds in the background and we even heard their 9am bell go off."
The session lasted an hour and the New Zealand pupils are now going to "Skype" the Welsh class from a camping trip via a wireless laptop.
Skype was invented by Kazaa, the peer-to-peer file sharing service. It is owned by eBay and is one of a number of Voice Over Internet Protocol services. You can talk on it live or via instant messaging, see each other on video and share files.
Cefn Fforest Primary had been podcasting with other schools nationally and abroad, and Paul was introduced to the possibilities of Skype in the classroom by Allanah King, his New Zealand contact.
Skype is not yet being used widely in the classroom because of concerns about security and technical capacity. It requires a large bandwidth and there are difficulties in screening out unwanted users.
But Paul believes the technical concerns are surmountable. "We only accept calls from people we know, people on my contact list," he says.
Meanwhile Joe Dale, head of languages at Nodehill Middle School, Newport, Isle of Wight, believes Skype would be ideal for language lessons, as a way of getting native speakers into schools
To access Skype visit www.skype.com