Taking homework to a new level

24th October 2008 at 01:00
Imagine being able to switch off your teacher when you have had enough. Douglas Blane finds out how it can be done

Good ideas can take everybody by surprise - even their creators. "We've been on TV and in the national newspapers," says Stuart Clyde, depute head at Alva Academy, after delivering an evening talk to a packed hall of parents. "I thought it might make the local papers, if we were lucky."

The cause of all the excitement is a seemingly modest, school-funded project to help pupils with their homework. What distinguishes it from others is not the message, but the medium. "We've been creating videos of key points in lessons, so pupils can take their teacher home with them," says Mr Clyde.

It doesn't sound like a big plus for pupils. But virtual teachers improve on the real thing in two respects - they don't talk long and they have an off button. It's an idea whose time has come, say participants in the project.

Each video lasts around three minutes, says Mr Clyde, and five departments - maths, music, technical, home economics and religious and moral education - have volunteered to make and use them. "Before kids do their homework, they can get a refresher course," he says. "They might see how to work a Pythagoras problem, for instance, or how to play a piece of music."

Watching melodies or drum beats played is an obvious application, says music teacher David Clifford. "Music is a practical subject and homework is largely about practising. So this is an ideal way to give them a bit of revision, to let them see what they're supposed to be doing. We made and uploaded a dozen videos in the first few days."

But although music - Mr Clyde's own subject - provided the initial impetus, enthusiasm for the idea extends beyond that department. "In schools, we're often fighting with pupils about technology," he says. "There are rules, such as not using mobile phones, iPods or certain websites. I wanted to turn the tables - to have technology work for the school and with the children. The rector wanted it done in a structured way with evaluations, and rolled out to different departments."

Each subject brought its own ways of putting the idea into practice. In maths, for instance, built-in software reproduced equations and figures that the teacher - who also delivered a voiceover - drew on the interactive whiteboard.

"I thought at first it would just be for practical subjects. So besides music, technical and home economics, I could see science demonstrating experiments, PE showing kids how to serve. Maths never occurred to me. But it works well. The idea has potential in every subject."

A pleasant surprise has been how easy and inexpensive the project has been, says head John Meney. "We do podcasting with external consultants, which is quite expensive. But most schools have digital video equipment. We did give ourselves an extra expense, because we decided to buy identical cameras for every department. It meant teachers had just one set of instructions. The saving in time and stress made it worth it. Otherwise, there's virtually no cost and the benefits are huge."

The five pilot departments are steadily making more videos and uploading them to the web, where they are hosted by educational website TeacherTube. Senior pupils as well as teachers are making and editing videos, using Windows Movie Maker, which is free, and Adobe Premier Elements, which costs Pounds 45.

Alva Academy intends to offer its bank of resources to Glow, says Stuart Clyde. "This won't replace traditional teaching or written homework. But it's a great way for kids and parents to remind themselves of key teaching points.

"We want to make the videos widely available. In the spirit of sharing good practice, we'd like to see other schools making their own and helping build a resource that every teacher and pupil in the country can use."

www.alvaacademy.clacks.sch.uk; www.teachertube.comindex.php.

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