Graeme Paton on an innovative scheme for colleges short of school placements for their trainee teachers
Finding enough schools to take on trainee teachers can be a headache for universities. Almost all higher education institutions, who responded to a survey earlier this year, said they had experienced problems finding placements for trainees.
Three-quarters said shortages had become more acute in the past 12 months, as the number of students in training hits record levels and overworked schools grow reluctant to take them.
But now academics have devised a system which could overcome the shortage - instead of sending the students to the classroom, they are bringing the classroom to the students.
Nottingham university has linked up with Promethean, a technology firm, and is using computer-aided video cameras, mounted inside schools, to let students monitor classrooms without leaving the campus.
The system was first devised to give Nottingham students easier access to Hockerill Anglo-European college, a state boarding school in Hertfordshire, which offers pupils lessons in humanities and science that are, unusually, taught in foreign languages.
Dr Do Coyle, from Nottingham's school of education, said: "Hockerill is a unique school and, because we have teacher-training courses in these subject areas, we have a good relationship with it.
"However, it was not possible for us to keep driving up and down the A1 so we came up with a way of linking the two geographically distant sites."
Cameras mounted around the classroom allow a student, using a computer monitor in Nottingham, to observe a lesson and zoom in on pupils' work.
The system, which costs up to pound;25,000 per school, also allows trainee teachers to lead a lesson from hundreds of miles away, as their image is beamed on to a video screen and they control the class's interactive whiteboard remotely.
The system - the Teaching and Learning Observatory - is now linked to six schools in England, one in Belgium and three in Romania to allow students to see classrooms outside the UK .
It is also being adapted by the Department for Education and Skills'
innovation unit for possible use by other universities and schools.
Critics claim that students cannot appreciate all facets of teaching in a classroom via a video link.
But Dr Coyle said the university was not attempting to substitute virtual classrooms for the real thing - students had to train in both. She also rejected "big brother" accusations (that the system could be used to spy on classrooms).
She said the system could not be manipulated remotely as it had to be switched on by a teacher in the classroom.
Mike Ullmann, assistant principal of Hockerill college, said: "Trainee teachers find the system invaluable. And the pupils, after the initial excitement, do not realise the camera is there."
But Professor Alan Smithers, from Buckingham university, said it would not be a substitute for the feel, smells and sounds of a real classroom.