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20th July 2007 at 01:00
Reading about Henry VIII's codpiece isn't nearly as interesting as quizzing an expert from the National Portrait Gallery about it, live. Chris Higgins reveals how video-conferencing livens up his lessons

Do you want to discuss Hitler's leadership skills with other schools around the country, link up with the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, or hear an expert from the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich talk about the transatlantic slave trade?

Conducting a lesson via a live video-conference link can add extra challenge and excitement to the classroom, but it's not just about the novelty of new technology. The best sessions have a serious teaching and learning objective, and can stretch the boundaries of what used to be possible by beaming the world into your classroom.

Our school, Invicta Grammar in Maidstone, Kent, has a remote-controlled camera and digital hardware worth about pound;1,500 which connects up to Kent local authority's grid.

Some local authorities also provide "lease-lend" schemes, allowing you to borrow equipment at next to no cost. Contact your local authority or educational adviser to see if such opportunities exist near you.

But who can you video-conference with? You could organise your own link-ups with schools in your local cluster, similar establishments elsewhere in the country, or even ones you are twinned with overseas.

Last summer, a dozen of our Year 13 pupils held a debate on Hitler's leadership skills with A-level students at Highworth Grammar in Ashford, debating whether he was an all-powerful dictator, or simply the figurehead leader of a radical and chaotic state.

GCSE pupils held a virtual balloon debate, in which they imagine they are on a slowly sinking hot air balloon. The weakest members of the group are evicted on the basis of the arguments they put forward and the evidence they muster. The debate was about Britain's key achievement during the Second World War, with groups of Invicta pupils defending different ones from Dunkirk to D-Day to try and stay in the "virtual balloon". Although we held the debate with Highworth once again, the technology allows you to hold a video-conference debate with any number of participating schools simultaneously.

Another option is to look to one of the increasing number of the specialist "gateway providers". They host events linking schools to museums or academic institutions. We use Global Leap, a not-for-profit company funded by schools' subscriptions, who manage video-conference links with, for example, the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam and the Imperial War Museum in south London.

Once registered, you receive regular updates on forthcoming events, such as links with partner schools abroad, or live chats with sitting MPs. The timetable is published online and can be searched by date, year group, topic or provider. It is worth checking the site regularly, because popular events are quickly taken up.

As a secondary teacher who only sees a particular class at a specific time in the week, I have found matching a class to an event more taxing than if I were teaching in a primary school, where I could juggle lessons around more easily.

By contacting some of the larger institutional providers directly, you can negotiate a mutually agreed time slot.

The best video-conferences have been ones in which the presenter really engages with the audience, listens to their observations and sends challenging and useful questions back their way. It can provide things that many teachers might be unwilling or ill-equipped to perform within the classroom, such as role-play or historical re-enactment.

Flora Gordon, one of a team of educational officers at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, talked to us about the transatlantic slave trade, illustrated with artefacts such as iron manacles, a model of a slave ship and, most tellingly of all, a silver-plated whip inscribed with the initials of the daughter of a slave plantation owner for her own use on her father's workers. The ability to "ask an expert" makes museums more accessible and attractive for a younger audience.

When Year 7s held a video-conference with the National Portrait Gallery about Tudor portraiture, they were able to bombard the curator with questions on everything from Henry VIII's codpiece to how do you get to work in a museum anyway *

Chris Higgins is a history teacher and deputy director of e-learning at Invicta Grammar School, Maidstone, Kent www.global-leap.com

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