Argyll and Bute has long been a pioneer of new technology for rural communities. Now it is piloting a range of applications for video-conferencing to deliver the national priorities in education with a view to charting a course for the rest of Scotland. Douglas Blane reports on work with pupils, teachers and parents
When the 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson visited Coll during his travels around Scotland, he found the isle so rocky that nothing of any size could grow there. The weather was tempestuous, with a wind louder than anywhere he had ever been: "Mr Boswell observed that its noise was all its own for there were no trees to increase it."
There are still no trees on Coll. So if primary schoolboy Shaun Anderson wanted to find an oak or an acorn he would have to cross to the isle of Mull.
A further ferry trip would take him to Oban. There speech and language therapist Julia Hannah is sitting in an office preparing for a video-conferencing call, wondering briefly if she should show Shaun a picture card of an acorn.
"He may already know what it is," says Argyll and Bute's video-conferencing adviser, Lesley Allan. "Anyway, the purpose of education is to expand horizons."
It is a purpose that the authority's video-conferencing project is quite literally achieving for pupils and teachers across the region. Forty-two rural primary schools - out of 82 - and all 10 secondaries, plus the education department, have been equipped with the technology. The project has been set up with pound;200,000 from the Scottish Executive and the work being piloted over the next 18 months will serve as a model for the development of national priorities in education across the country.
"We are limited only by our imagination," says Ms Allan.
No such limitation is apparent, with the equipment being used for:l teaching music, art and languages (national priority 1: achievement and attainment);l continuing professional development, primary-secondary liaison, principal teacher meetings, masterclass sessions and meetings with senior management members and the directorate (priority 2: framework for learning);l meetings with island parents of mainland schoolchildren and Gaelic conferences (priority 3: inclusion and equality);l international links with other schools (priority 4: values and citizenship);l information evenings for parents of S4 and S5 pupils on subject choices and career options, with speakers from The Learning Game and Careers Scotland (priority 5: learning for life); and, of course l speech and language therapy.
"Good morning, Shaun," says Ms Hannah. "What's the weather like on Coll this morning?"
"Sunny," replies the eight-year-old lad, who she can see is perched on a chair in Arinagour Primary.
"We are going to try something new today, Shaun. Ms Allan has prepared some pictures on my computer and I'm going to put them on your screen. I'd like you to say the words for me, please."
Shaun has a habit of sounding "k" as "t" and "g" as "d" - a not uncommon difficulty - so the therapist is working with him on words containing these problematic consonants. "Bucket," he says as a coloured picture and the word appear together on the computer screens. "Chicken," he responds to the next image. "Ghost I Rocket I Raincoat."
"That's wonderful, Shaun," says Ms Hannah and she sees the youngster on the monitor smiling widely, exposing a small gap in his front teeth.
"Good heavens, Shaun. What happened to your tooth?"
"It fell out last night and I got pound;1 for it."
"Would you like another picture?" The lad nods in agreement.
The lesson lasts half an hour. Shaun is unsupervised at Arinagour Primary, yet his attention remains riveted on the therapist in Oban.
This would be most unusual in a face-to-face session, says Ms Hannah. "It is hard work for the children and we would often find it difficult to keep them focused. The technology seems to make it more interesting for them.
"It also means I get much more done. The ferry to Coll takes four hours and in winter is so infrequent that the round trip lasts three days."
Standing alone by the side of the road, half an hour's drive north from Oban, is Barcaldine Primary. The white house with blue shutters has pink geraniums on the window sills and yellow daffodils are blooming in the grass. On the playing fields a group of older children chase each other while the younger ones get a lesson from the language specialist, taking turns to step on chosen numbered cards: "Dix. Mais non, ca c'est douze!"
"Welcome to our school," one of the older children calls out. "I hope you have a nice time here."
Inside the schoolroom, a music lesson is in progress. Four children clutching recorders are gathered around a computer screen, watching attentively the animated image of their music teacher, Freda MacGregor. She is located in Lismore Primary, on a low-lying splinter of land in Loch Linnhe, where she is headteacher.
First she asks the group to play "Old Macdonald had a Farm" and not only do they manage to start and end together, they also tunefully negotiate the bit in the middle. Then it's time for something different.
"We are going to try a new note; this one here," says Mrs MacGregor, pointing to the whiteboard behind her. "It's the note C and it sits on the second space, like this. It's dead easy to play. Just like A, but you lift off that top finger. Watch and listen. Now try it all together: one, two three."
The sound the youngsters make is a little discordant.
"Somebody is blowing a bit hard," says the image of Mrs MacGregor. "Very, very softly like this. And make sure you have your finger firmly on that hole at the back. Try again softly and give me three notes please."
This time the sound is clean and sharp.
"Absolutely perfect, couldn't be better.
"Now, on the strength of that, we're going to try another wee tune and I'm going to show you it two different ways, on the whiteboard and on Sibelius."
Sibelius is a computer program for writing and teaching music, and this portion of Mrs MacGregor's lesson uses a feature of the video-conferencing system that Argyll and Bute teachers and school managers value highly, the capacity for remote participants to share files and work on them together.
"Now I'm going to bring the music and words for the next tune up on your screen. Here it comes. Watch the music while I move the cursor along the notes. Can you see it? This time as you watch I want you to play along with me.
"Ten little tadpoles playing in a pool. 'Come,' said the water rat, 'come along to school. Come and see your tables sitting in a row.' And all the little tadpoles said: 'No! No! No!'
"That was absolutely super," enthuses Mrs MacGregor as the last notes of the recorders fade in the air.
After the children have trooped out at the end of the lesson, she uses the video link to explain the background to her music lessons. "I love sharing music with kids. It's a passion," she says. "So I now do three video-conferencing lessons a week with other schools.
"The next thing we'll try is teaching groups in two schools at the same time. Then I want to get my kids at Lismore Primary playing with those at other schools, working together to sing, make music, play in a band together.
"If you are in a remote school and have no specialists in expressive arts but want lessons to be alive and interactive, this is the way. It also takes away the isolation and it gives me the delight of getting to know other kids.
"I'm hoping someone at another school who is good at art will offer to do my art lessons. It's a co-operative way of teaching and sharing that I think we are very good at in Argyll."
Before the call
*Prepare and circulate the agenda.
*Ensure all participants know your identity.
*Arrange for no physical or telephone interruptions.
*Prepare all materials to be used.
*Arrive in good time to set up equipment: allow 15 minutes for multi-link calls.
During the call
*Specify a visual method of attracting attention.
*Stick closely to the agenda.
*Invite everyone to speak in turn.
*Change the speaking order for each meeting.
*Stick closely to the agenda.
*Sit reasonably still.
*Wait until the speaker has finished: do not interrupt.