Schools often use videoconferencing to allow pupils to establish contact with their peers in distant locations. With a pilot project set up by the charity Ace (Aiding Communication in Education) at its centre in Oxford, it could find a new role as an assessment tool.
The centre uses videoconferencing for assessment and training in the use of communication aids with children with complex communication needs. Ace, which is part-funded through Becta, the Government's ICT in schools agency, has established links with schools in Hertfordshire and Dorset and a multi-disciplinary team in Cornwall to test the feasibility of remote assessment and support.
The aim "is to deliver better and more intensive support", explains Mick Donegan of Ace, who is evaluating the project, called Telenet, with Birmingham University's education department. "Through Telenet, we hope to make our support more time and cost-effective," says Mr Donegan.
In Dorset, the project is based at the Prince of Wales school in Dorchester, a mainstream first school with a special unit for children with physical disabilities, including an assessment nursery.
A typical pupil in need of communication aids might be Jane, a non-speaking child with cerebral palsy. Previously, Jane would have had to travel to Oxford with a parent and a team of professionals for an assessment. Now she stays in the familiar surroundings of the school, and local professionals work with her, supported via a computerised videoconferencing system by specialists at the Ace centre.
The professionals at the school can see the Ace team on their screen, and after a session the two teams and possibly the parent andor other carers can discuss what they have seen and reach a consensus on what equipment, software, seating, position adjustments or switches might help ane.
The only disadvantage is that she can't try out items from the large range of aids housed at the centre, but one answer may be to send the equipment out on loan.
In another arm of the project in Cornwall, a multidisciplinary team uses the videoconferencing link every fortnight to meet up with the Ace specialists to watch and discuss videos showing children from a range of situations in the authority and decide how best they can be helped.
Another effective means of support and training is provided by software called PCAnywhere (published by Symantec) which the Ace Telenet project is using to help train teams in schools or other LEA settings to use particular software andor to tailor programs to the needs of particular pupils.
It also enables technical troubleshooting and basic software maintenance to be carried out from the centre. Using PCAnywhere, a specialist at the centre can see exactly the same software on his or her screen as a person at a remote site, and help him or her through it.
Although Telenet doesn't finish until the end of the year, Mr Donegan is already optimistic about the project's usefulness. "All those involved feel that the project is helping them greatly, both in terms of supporting the children and in raising their own level of knowledge and expertise," he says.
"Technically, it has been much easier than we expected, and the vast majority of sessions are regarded as having succeeded in their aims. Professionals at the remote sites say it's like being part of a bigger team - it's like having the Ace team on the same premises."
For more information on the project, phone 01865 759800. For more information on the work of the Ace centre in Oxford and its sister centre in Oldham, visit the website at www.ace-centre.org.uk