Video-conferencing is a great way of bringing experts into the classroom - and it's an exciting way to learn, says Juliette Heppell
Entering Lent Rise Combined School near Burnham, Buckinghamshire, the air of excitement is palpable and everywhere. There should be a health warning here - the children's enthusiasm is infectious.
The traditional corridors and classrooms contain murals of forests and animals painted by the teachers and also display class work. A guest could quite easily miss the modern technology which is so well integrated into these areas; a whiteboard in every classroom, webcams, scanners, digital microscopes, a computer suite - a technology-rich environment, but unobtrusively so.
The classroom of engaged, boisterous children is a hive of activity. The lesson in progress is history for Year 4. A web cam is set up and the children watch their interactive whiteboard which frames a man holding a dinosaur skull and talking about it. Headteacher Brenda Bigland explains:
"Video-conferencing is an appropriate way to bring experts into the classroom."
The questions come thick and fast. "How did it die?" "Have you got any more bones?" "When was it alive?" Those are the popular ones but others show the preparation these children have put in. "How long ago was this one alive?"
and "That's the longest dinosaur," could be heard over the hubbub.
Teacher Sam Greasley looks almost as excited as the children as he directs the lesson. "It's interesting for me too," he says. "I can't be an expert on every historical period. This way the children learn from an experienced teacher in the area, in a visual way." Brenda Bigland concurs: "We are bringing history alive for the children."
As the lesson continues it is obvious that this is not a new experience for these children. Video-conferencing is used in their lessons on a regular basis and they are comfortable with the social cues needed to work in this way.
The dinosaurs proved to be a hit with the children - one of the favourites of the year. "The dinosaurs were the best," said one child, while another, still in awe, proclaimed, "We got to see all the bones!"
During video-conferencing lessons, Sam Greasley's role changes. He moves from children's expert and facilitator to being facilitator and learner himself. Sam directs the lesson, ensuring it builds on the foundations he put in place during previous lessons and moving it in an appropriate direction. The expert (in this case Phil from the Natural History Museum) becomes the person on the other end of the web camera both for the children and for Sam.
This change is important for the children. Not only do they understand that their teacher is not a source of all knowledge but they begin to see that learning is something that continues throughout life, not something that stops after school.
Lent Rise is in a challenged socio-economic area and parents cannot afford to pay for school trips. In addition, the DfES has classified more than 35 per cent of the 411 children who attend the school as having special needs.
Brenda Bigland says this is a good reason to use video-conferencing to its full; "School trips can be expensive and complicated to organise, but this is no reason for our children to miss out on learning and, of course, multiple media can reach out to a broad diversity of learning styles."
When asked what they would do if they did not have video-conferencing, the children expressed incredulity. "I'd be really disappointed," said one.
"It's easy to see and listen." Another child jumps in: "It's easier to understand when you see it. Besides, what would we do then? Email Phil?"
After a visit to Lent Rise Combined School anyone with a passion for learning would feel invigorated. Its not just the technology of course, but the way it is used - fully integrated into the curriculum, invigorating learning and enthusing children with all the elements combining to create a compelling learning environment. As one child reflected "its more fun here than it is at home!"
* You are always the professional. It's how you use the tools that enhances your professionalism.
* Not all software is immediately appropriate. It's how you adapt and improve it that matters to ensure pace and challenge in the classroom.
* Get to know your resources.
* Don't be afraid to let children take the lead.