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Space-age vision

Three Yorkshire schools are showing how 21st-century technology could help primary schools by-pass shortages of staff with languages expertise. Kevin Berry reports. Sally Maynard uses video conferencing facilities to teach French to two distant village schools from a room in her own school, West Cliff County Primary, in Whitby. The first question that sprang to mind was admittedly a little flippant: does she get three pay cheques? Well not exactly, but the other schools, at Sleights and Fylingdales, do contribute a proportion of her salary.

Her school began video conferencing in earnest earlier this year. The Whitby area would seem an ideal place to make use of VC facilities, quite isolated with a scattering of small village schools. Janet Bell, the headteacher at West Cliff, seized on the idea when she saw a VC demo on the BT stand at last year's North of England Education Conference and she couldn't wait to get started.

She duly approached BT and North Yorkshire local education authority and a project was set up using significant funding and expertise from both bodies and the National Council for Educational Technology. With the VC systems in place the schools pay a line rental charge of Pounds 84 per quarter and call charges average out at Pounds 36 per quarter, but competition from cable could cut those figures. There were fundamental technical hiccups at first but now the only frustrations seem to be when equipment is upgraded and a technician has to be called in for fine tuning.

Liz Cannings, who has responsibility for IT at West Cliff, could see some value in video conferencing but had to be convinced that it would make a fundamental contribution in the primary classroom. Would it need an adult in close attendance? Would there be a fear factor among teachers?

"No, no. It is a viable tool, listening skills have improved, a terrific impetus to conversation. I was surprised how easily usable it is."

The three schools all have the Intel ProShare Video Conferencing System 200 package, courtesy of the NCET, with a camera the size of a decent sandwich Velcroed above the monitor. BT installed three ISDN2 lines, free of charge, for two-way communication and even upgraded local telephone exchanges to accept the new technology.

So what exactly does Sally Maynard do when she's sitting in front of her screen?

The VC facilities are in a curtained and carpeted room and she has contact with each of the link schools for one or two sessions per week. She is either alone or with four of her own children and she makes use of an on-screen notebook.

"We have tried teaching without a teacher at the other end, but from a discipline point of view the children can get over excited," she admits. "We still need a hovering adult."

At Fylingdales Church of England School four children learn at their screen and then cascade the work through their class after their VC session; at Sleights C of E, Sally teaches the whole class with groups of four taking turns at the work station. Ros Young, deputy head at Sleights, talks enthusiastically about how her own French has improved: "I'm revising and learning along with the children. It's certainly helping me and don't forget we wouldn't be teaching French here if we didn't have access to Sally."

A deal of preparation is involved, and of course it does not involve Sally driving around the lanes of rural North Yorkshire. She merely trots over to her screen and talks to the link teachers. They have detailed lesson plans prior to transmission and they reinforce learning during the week.

The viewing space can be enlarged to the size of an exercise book but the images rather give the impression of a "slow-mo" shampoo ad. Sound quality is variable and often the users have to resort to an ear piece "slug" but I was assured that a newly purchased Callport will sort out any problems. The major drawback to further links is finding a school that uses compatible software. Vision is apparently never a problem but lack of on-screen notebook facilities and other shared tools can be frustrating. Standardisation is essential - as anyone who still has a Betamax VCR will surely agree!

The children have all the joy and wonder of a piece of new technology and they can certainly use it. Teacher panic almost set in at a BT conference in Sheffield in June when the system was being demonstrated by Sally Maynard and Janet Bell. They wanted to make contact with Sleights School but, dear oh dear, Ros Jackson was off sick. No problem - the children knew just what to do.

So what has the VC system done for French in the three schools?

"Very early indications admittedly but it has been successful . . . I introduced the written word using the on-screen notebook and was hesitant about it as before VC my French teaching had been purely conversational," says Sally. "But when reinforcement time comes the children have remembered the written word. Coping with new IT skills and oral and written French, I thought, would be difficult but it seems to be having a positive effect. It seems to accelerate that learning."

Janet Bell is adamant that West Cliff's trip to Normandy in June this year, with children from Sleights, simply would not have happened but for the success of video conferencing.

"It has given the children confidence in communicating," says Sally Maynard. "Learning the etiquette of conversation, waiting for the other person to finish. Then there are the drama skills, they have to learn to use the camera, they can't look down at the keyboard. No one was used to doing that. We had to think about what to do when we were on-line so as to get the most out of our communication time. You must have a different teaching strategy, becoming more focused."

All concerned with the VC project fully realise that they are in on something at the very beginning. They can see and appreciate the potential. Local business and doctors have shown interest, Mrs Bell would like to involve special needs teachers and a link with a school in Paris is planned.

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