These children are working with a teacher 20 miles away via a video-link. Is this the future?

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
Jill Tunstall finds out how one teacher can reach pupils in 15 separate schools using new software.

It's Wednesday morning and Lyndsey Nickels is designing a clock. This is no ordinary clock. Lyndsey's design brief is to create a witty timepiece to brighten up a travel agent's office.

She draws the clock on screen and works on an eye-catching design with the help of Julian Molloy, a technology teacher. Together they create a design embellished with palm trees and sunglasses. Off the drawing board, Lyndsey sets up a cutting machine, watches as it spins into action and soon the plastic clock face takes shape.

It sounds simple enough and it is, despite the fact that Lyndsey is a 12-year-old pupil at Rhyl High School in the North Wales, whereas Julian Molloy is 20 miles away at Denbigh Technology and Vocational Education College - as is the computer they are working on and the milling machine.

Rhyl High is one of 15 North Wales schools involved in a desktop-conferencing project. State-of-the-art computers allow them access to the latest technology, and all from the convenience of their classrooms. Small video cameras enable pupils to work on screen with Julian Molloy and see their designs turned into reality as if they were in the same room. The project, a joint venture between Denbigh TVE, a resources centre, and Denford, a computer-aided manufacturing machine business in Yorkshire, started in September, following a pilot scheme involving pupils from Rhyl and a school in England. The two schools collaborated via the Internet on a washing machine promotion project, using Denbigh as the manufacturing base. It was successful but not without its logistical problems.

"We get a lot of pupils wanting to do CADCAM (computer-aided design, computer-aided manufacture) and we're trying to promote the national vocational qualification in manufacturing and engineering," says Julian Molloy, deputy head of Denbigh TVE. "Our problem is that we're limited on space, mainly because of the size of the machines we're using, "There's also quite a lot of work involved with something complex and it is so much better if the children can start their work in school and then come over to the centre at a later stage."

But the problems of space, time, communication, transport and unfamiliarity with software disappeared almost overnight, following a conversation with Denford.

Coincidentally, the firm had been looking at developing a system using Intel-Proshare video- conferencing systems which would allow pupils to be involved at every stage, from design to screen to machine, without leaving their classrooms.

Impressed, Denbigh TVE centre, supported by their local Training and Enterprise Council, put together a bid for funds, submitted it to the Welsh Office and heard within a week that they had been successful.

With Pounds 90,000 from the Welsh Office, plus Pounds 1,500 from each of the schools taking part and machinery and software from Denford, the college was able to get the project up and running almost straight away.

"Some schools have gone from using a BBC computer, or with no experience of IT technology, to a state-of-the-art Pentium computer overnight, so it's been a lot for them to learn. Overnight their IT curve has gone vertical," says Julian Molloy, who is now providing a blueprint for interested schools throughout Britain.

"It may seem like a bit of a gimmick at first, but the national curriculum requires CADCAM experience. Well, you can talk about it or watch a video, but there's nothing like actually doing it. The trouble is that the cost of the equipment - the milling machine alone costs Pounds 20,000 - would be prohibitive for most schools. Now 15 schools have access to industry-style CADCAM."

Back at Rhyl High School, Gary Noden, head of technology, is delighted with the project, as are his pupils.

"They love it," he says. "Our main difficulty is over-enthusiasm. There are very few places in school where you can see what happens in the real world; with this system they can.

"It also provides other benefits which we hadn't actually planned. It's a phenomenal pooling of resources. If I need to speak to a teacher at one of the other schools I can call them up on the computer. If I'm doing something intricate that somebody else wants to look at, instead of just sending them a picture, I can send them the actual file."

It is the versatility and the ability to work virtually in each other's classrooms which is creating most excitement among those taking part. An electronics A-level is planned for September, where individual pupils will be given personal tutorials by a tutor based at any of the schools involved. With the system's capability of linking 16 computers at any one time, pupils from all over Wales could be involved in joint "class" sessions with homework, assignments and reports being filed.


Denford stand 360

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