Another country, another lesson
Lerwick's Anderson High has taken video-conferencing to new heights - and some senior students are willingly taxied into school at the crack of dawn to take full advantage.
The pioneering school has already earned itself a place as a pacemaker with its "global classroom" project under the charismatic leadership of Stewart Hay, the depute head. Begun in 1996, this was a partnership involving Anderson High and schools in the Czech Republic, Germany, Japan, South Africa and Sweden.
These interchanges between schools across the globe have a sophistication unusual in such links. They feature an annual student conference (it was Shetland's turn to play host last year), pupil exchanges and a collaborative project on a set topic on which the students act as researchers.
The next step on Shetland's global journey (which now includes Brae High on the north mainland) could perhaps have been predicted. Known as "learning face 2 face", this allows the partner schools to use video-conferencing for actual shared teaching.
It was established in the 2003-04 session using funding from the Scottish Executive's FLaT (Future Learning and Teaching) programme, which encourages innovation in schools.
"The principles of video-conferencing are far from new," Guy Smith, ICT specialist with Shetland Islands Council, says. "What was a first for us was the use of video-conferencing in an international arena to enhance learning."
This latest project is probably the most ambitious yet and links with other countries using Scottish Higher and Advanced Higher syllabi. The subjects covered so far are maths, studied along with Japanese students, German, with students in Anderson's partner school in Germany, and history, with students in South Africa.
Mr Hay takes the history class and a video recording at the conference showed his class talking to South African students in Cape Town. The five Shetland students were all listening to the experiences of an activist from the apartheid era who had been a prisoner on Robben Island for 18 years.
The impact on the young people, and on Mr Hay himself, was clearly visible.
The shared maths lessons between Anderson High and Nara Women's University Secondary in Japan are probably the most ambitious of all. Mr Hay says it has enriched mathematical practice at Anderson High and extended achievement.
The link also requires the seven students to be taxied into school at 7am to connect with the end of the Japanese school day, which is nine hours ahead. The local authority provides the transport and lays on breakfast.
Mr Hay comments: "It is just remarkable that, on a cold, wet Shetland morning, young people are prepared to come here to do maths at that time.
That says more to me about real achievement than all the grade As and Bs."
The impact is not always comfortable, as Mr Hay acknowledges. "It's fascinating to see a playback of your lesson. It's there on the website so the students can return to it and they will sometimes be prepared to come back and challenge you with the odd comment of, 'see what you said yesterday'."
Mr Hay said the experience of watching himself teaching had taught him lessons of his own. "I learnt that I need to shut up and not to be so directional with the class," he says.
Now in his 31st year of teaching, he says: "This initiative is turning the notion of school on its head: it is driven by student initiative and that is what really advances learning. The project will grow with student initiative and student interaction."
The virtual classrooms in the learning face 2 face project are designed to be like the students' own classrooms where they interact with each other and make friends. So the website (www. learningface2face.org) has a student forum to which teachers do not have access, although there is a general forum as well.
The global classroom, inevitably, is heavily reliant on ICT. "There is no doubt that technology has opened up for students a whole body of knowledge which they can access via the net from anywhere in the world," Mr Hay says.
"That has been very empowering for students. But the moral vacuum in which that process operates is what makes us (teachers) necessary."
The project does not intend to stop here. There are plans for additional subjects, shared exams, an increased number of video-conferencing sessions and extended use of ICT. Already, special needs youngsters have begun working with fellow students in Sweden.
Mr Hay defends the restriction of the project to 16-plus students. "The reason is really the circumstances of some of our partner schools which live in particularly poverty-stricken circumstances, especially in the South African townships.
"Where our students stay with host families on exchanges and during the annual conferences, they must have the maturity to be able to make responsible judgments when they are in difficult circumstances." (One Shetland teenager found himself having to take a bath in front of members of his host family.) "We plan and negotiate carefully so that students and their parents are comfortable with what they are likely to find when they go to our partner schools," Mr Hay states. "We would never place students in a position where they are at risk."