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Meeting of minds over the mountains

Primary schools in remote areas of Scotland are using desktop conferencing and the information superhighway to work on projects together. Jacquetta Megarry reports.

At Ardchattan Primary, a 22-pupil feeder school for Oban High School, in Argyll and Bute, I watched Ewan and James working together using the KidPix program to draw an imaginary figure, part of their regular project work. They are debating the size and shape of the man's ears, taking turns with the mouse and paint tools, sometimes erasing and improving each other's work, and chatting about the character as they work.

Nothing remarkable about this, you might think. Except that James and his PC are in Strath of Appin, separated from Ewan and his PC by miles of single-track roads. He might as easily be on the offshore island of Lismore, seven miles as the crow flies, but in practice a long journey by ferry and narrow roads, weather permitting. Argyll and Bute covers half of Strathclyde Region but only has 3 per cent of the population.

Yet James and Ewan communicate fluently, their give-and-take helped by effortless two-way sound and vision. The shared KidPix image on both their screens is supported by a window in which they see each other's facial expressions (fed by a tiny video camera mounted above the screen) and they talk through the telephone handset, not intruding on the surrounding children's work.

Headteacher Margaret Kilcullen is occupied with the rest of her class, 11 children aged eight to 12 years. When Ewan wants to regain control of his mouse, he simply hits any key on his keyboard. James can do likewise, but despite parity of access and control, disputes were absent and supervision unnecessary. Nobody seems troubled by the desktop-conference machine being a PC, whenApple Macs are used for everything else, perhaps because files from KidPix and ClarisWorks 3 are interchangeable between the two.

The video image is high resolution, and responds quickly to changes; it is incomparably better than BT's Relate videophone. Children's work can be transmitted by holding it near the camera, letting others respond.

The scope for in-service training at a distance is tremendous. The system also encourages cost-effective use of specialist teaching resources - in art, Gaelic and science, for example. Hours are not wasted in driving, while money is saved on overnight stays and teacher cover.

The quality and speed reflect the power of ISDN2, British Telecom's new high-speed, high-capacity all-digital network. Installing the ISDN (integrated services digital network) land-lines in such remote sites was not easy, sometimes taking many months and requiring changes to the local telephone exchange. However, BT has promised to make ISDN2 available throughout Argyll and Bute by October.

The project is supported by Olivetti and BT on a matched-funding basis. By the end of June, 19 schools (mainly with one or two teachers) will be linked up, with a further 28 by September. BT is also providing considerable initial support through installing the units and providing free connection time.

The project could be seen as addressing problems for which ISDN technology provides a solution. However, the problems turn out to be surprisingly universal - and more pressing for us all as we evolve towards 21st-century patterns of schooling and working.

While James and Ewan are doing their interactive drawing, Helen sends a ClarisWorks file by electronic mail to Nicola at Barcaldine Primary. I happen to be at Barcaldine when Nicola, aged 12, downloads it later. Nicola is in a school whose other eight pupils range from five to nine years.

Headteacher Rhona Dunn stresses the value of this technology in helping young people to socialise and overcome isolation. She believes passionately in small schools, but points out that without advanced telecommunications, Nicola would miss out on social contact with her age-group.

Likewise, Sara could not have got enough data for her bar graph without doing body measurements of nine-year-olds in the other four schools. Questions could, in theory, have been asked by post, but being in sound and vision contact while measurements were made made it a sociable activity.

Desktop conferencing has the greatest novelty value here, but it works in a context of schools with a range of software, hardware and telecommunications used selectively and with commonsense by primary teachers who are in no sense computing specialists. This reflects a long-term strategy of mutual support.

Gordon Jeyes, assistant director of education in Strathclyde, sees desktop conferencing as providing "the next exciting step in enhancing the school co-operatives set up over the past five years". The two I visited, together with Lismore and Strath of Appin and the central hub school, Lochnell, make up the north Lorn co-operative. All five gather at Lochnell every Wednesday for collaborative project work.

Over the past 18 months, 400 teachers have attended a basic computing course and 363 advanced courses. All schools have Macintoshes with CD-Rom drives, modems and access to Argyll Online for electronic mail, a library of shared resources and online curriculum activities. The system was set up by Martin Mulholland, educational development officer with Strathclyde.

Watching these children's calm competence with leading-edge technology, it is obvious that the 21st century has arrived where urban readers might least expect it.

* PC Videophone (VC 8000 camera, interface, PC card and phone handset with a 486 PC controlled by Olivetti PCC software, around Pounds 4,000. BT's ISDN2 network, connection normally costs Pounds 400 with annual line charge of around Pounds 336.

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