Filmed lessons offer enormous teaching potential, especially if the topic is tricky to demonstrate, says Douglas Blane
The trouble with information and communications technology is that users are at the mercy of manufacturers. So when David Orr, of St Andrew's High in Kirkcaldy, Fife, took his versatile idea for lessons on CDs to the Scottish Software Federation, they listened but then explained the business realities.
"They said the market they address is the largest one they can, namely English schools. They claim there is enough overlap in the curriculums for their software to be useful in Scotland too.
"To some extent that's true. But there can be big differences, especially in terminology. So a Scottish teacher can spend a lot of time researching a product, only to discover after buying it that it won't do what is wanted."
This led Mr Orr, co-ordinator of the school's teacher development centre, to produce the lessons himself with the aid of enthusiastic subject teachers. Besides getting exactly what the teachers wanted, Mr Orr is now able to share his expertise with other teachers.
"My original idea was to use digital video to film and record on a CD science experiments that were dangerous, expensive or needed a lot of preparation in the lab. We soon realised it had much more potential than that and could be used in many different ways and any subject at all."
The first filmed lessons Mr Orr produced and directed starred the physics and chemistry teachers giving 10-minute practical demonstrations of electromagnetic induction, the perfect gas laws and the rapid progress of a chemical reaction. The next production followed geography students on a field trip to a rocky shore.
"Health and safety is a big issue if you take pupils out of school. So a virtual field trip - showing what the youngsters should be looking for, how they should use the instruments - is invaluable for groups who are not able to get out. It is also very useful for those who are: if you show children what you want them to do, a lot more of them will get it than if you just tell them."
Future lesson projects could include topics in art, music, biology and physical education, focusing all the time on what he calls "little niches" in the curriculum. Time-lapse photography can be very instructive and the visual aspect of filmed lessons lends itself well to topics in art and design. You can show, for example, how a sculpture or painting was created from the very first step to the finished product. For biology, you can time-lapse the growth of plants from germination to flowering.
"There are almost no limits to the types of things you can do or the subjects you can do them in," says Mr Orr.
The learning and teaching benefits have turned out to be much broader than first envisaged too.
Lessons on disk can help pupils who have missed a class through absence or need extra tuition to catch up. "Children often come along for assistance when you're busy with another class. So you can give them the CD and headphones and tell them to do the tutorial on the computer. Then later you can spend a bit of time with them and check how they're getting on."
A key aspect of the CD lessons as developed at St Andrew's High is that they are versatile and powerful but not demanding of either ICT expertise or equipment, says Mr Orr. "It does take time. You need a digital video camera and editing software and you need to be able to compress the images to fit on to a CD. Our next stage will be to use digital video disks, which will give bigger, better images.
"We are going to continue working on this at St Andrew's, and we are happy to share good practice with other schools.
"We will have a number of CDs and DVDs available at SETT to give away. But I want teachers to know this is something they can easily do themselves."
David Orr will talk on E-lessons - Using ICT to Provide a Multipurpose Learning Evironment on Wednesday at noon