A seven-year business initiative has given all Moray schools state-of-the-art computer technology, reports Judy Mackie.
Imagine a local authority where all the primary and secondary schools are equipped with the latest information and communications technology, it is upgraded regularly and supported by a dedicated technical troubleshooting service. Imagine the potential for new ways of learning and teaching, via electonic-learning software, the Internet and e-mail. Imagine, too, the implications for improving learning and teaching if all schools were linked by an electronic network.
In Moray, this ideal has been realised for the past two years. Imaginative thinking in the educational services department led to the partnership with ICL, the UK computer company, which has given more than 13,000 children and staff in the council's 54 schools access to state-of-the-art ICT, with their own e-mail address, controlled and secure access to the Internet and video-conferencing.
Funded by the Private Finance Initiative, the pound;12.5 million seven-year agreement - which includes refreshing the hardware in the fourth year - has had a significant impact on schools.
Alistair Farquhar, head of educational development services, explains:
"Through the PFI, we've been able to provide our schools with high quality, up-to-date equipment in one fell swoop, as opposed to trying to patch together an infrastructure piecemeal.
"By far the major benefit is what the hardware can deliver in terms of enhancing the learning and teaching environment. There are many creative teachers in Moray and new equipment is making it easier for them to develop their ideas and put them into practice."
Scott McGlinchey, director of ICL Scotland, says: "We're very pleased to be working with Moray, the teachers and pupils in providing an ICT-enabled environment for learning. It's exciting to be involved in this, the first PFI education project of its kind in the UK. Our goal is to make IT simple so that schools can concentrate on delivering their core services, knowing they have our long-term technical and strategic support."
Moray is using its status as a New Opportunities Fund approved trainer to train teachers, auxiliaries and librarians in using ICT as a learning and teaching tool. The ICT development manager and four seconded teachers delivered the training.
"The training is not about getting clever at using Word or Excel. Its main purpose is to enable teachers to choose when, when not and how to use ICT in the delivery of teaching," Mr Farquhar says.
Moray's devolved budget strategy has enabled individual schools to select additional hardware and software. At Forres Academy, according to pro-rata allocation, senior management has been able to expand the school's computer facilities from two suites to four, with an additional 80ICL-networked computers with modems. Work on the video-conferencing facility has allowed the development of remote learning in two new subjects, psychology and philosophy.
The school's depute rector and ICT co-ordinator, Ian Allanach, is impressed by the performance of the ICL contract. "The managed technical support service is fantastic. If anything goes wrong, we log the problem with the ICL help desk and they are committed to responding within a certain time.
"Any longer term issues can be aired at our monthly forum, when all the schools' ICT co-ordinators meet with ICL representatives."
Embarking on subjects entirely new to the curriculum is an exciting prospect for both pupils and teachers. So picture the stir when word gets out that they are to be delivered remotely via video-conferencing.
When Forres Academy announced two years ago that psychology and philosophy would be available first at Intermediate, and then at Higher level, Marj Adams, the co-instigator and head of religious, moral and philosophical studies, was nearly trampled in the rush of students.
"We were fairly confident there was a demand and we've found out the market is huge. Next session we'll have nearly 90 S5 and S6 students studying a mix of both at Higher level. That, I think, is a mark of the success."
Key to the delivery of the new courses has been the school's links with Aberdeen College, whose lecturers and electronic-learning packages provide the necessary psychology and philosophy expertise and information. A one-hour a week video-conferencing session adds a new dimension to the learning experience.
This is not without its challenges, as Mrs Adams explains: "It's new and it's different and it's very stimulating for the pupils, but there are times when they feel they are under the microscope, with the lecturer on screen asking them a question and me swinging a camera on to them. The general feedback, though, is that this sort of pressure provides an incentive to prepare for the class, which can't be a bad thing."
At Aberdeen College, psychology lecturer Zainab Abadi sits at the control panel of a video-conferencing suite, using the same teaching approaches as she would in any mainstream classroom. Her students may be 80-odd miles away but, with the facility to scan the entire class and zoom in on individuals and the latest technology delivering excellent sound and visual quality, there are no barriers to what she can achieve.
At Forres Academy, her large-screen presence is impressive and engaging, but Mrs Adams insists Zainab's pre-course visit to meet the class in person was an important factor in the development of the successful teacher-student relationship.
Details of Aberdeen College's remote access courses are available from Bill Foreman, schools liaison co-ordinator, tel 01224 612020