Virtual encounters with a minister

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
I'VE JUST been to a three-way meeting between Aberdeen College, the Scottish Parliament and Forres Academy and no one had to journey more than a few minutes. Peter Peacock, Deputy Minister for Children and Education, was formally blessing the new video-conferencing equipment which is now providing the cross-pollination between school and the further education college. But don't switch off just yet if you have a phobia about technology. Let me pre-empt your angst by sharing my own.

My colleagues will testify as to how the very sight of their electronic diaries would send me into gales of sarcastic laughter. Part of the problem was not lack of brain cells to get to grips with it all but an unwillingness to try. Maybe you're there at the moment, doing that, as they say, but people will insist on inviting you to the party because there's no escape from multimedia.

Quite how I was cured of my affliction is another topic but the fact that I can now run a video-conference is a matter of wonder to more than just myself. It is simpler than the computer I am using for this article. There are technical terms but the Idiot's Guide To Video-conferencing can be written up on one side of A4. Anyway, a serious question is begging. What does video-conferencing mean for my school?

It allows us to respond to pupil demand for new subjects. Our partnership with Aberdeen College means that more than 40 of our pupils will be taking Intermediate 2 psychology. The school is also able to offer philosophy at Higher level. The college provides qualified lecturers who work with me to produce first-class teaching and learning approaches.

The FE lecturer is responsible for the professional expertise in the subject and I, as a classroom teacher, am responsible for the development of appropriate teaching strategies to ensure that the materials are ably communicated.

Video-confrencing is sometimes mistakenly viewed as an easy option. Flick the switch and let the guy at the other end do the business with the class. Critics also claim that it will destroy the need for flesh and blood entities in the classroom. Our experiences suggest the contrary. The lecturers and I have spent a great deal of time talking and developing familiarity with each another so that we are able to be honest about what works and what doesn't.

As for cutting down on teaching time, Forres is about to appoint another teacher mainly because of the interest generated by the new courses.

The will to make it happen by the practitioners on the ground is not enough to guarantee success. It is vital that the managers of the establishments concerned are 100 per cent behind the project. Lip-service is not enough. In our case the managers in the school and the college were prepared to take a risk.

Sometimes schools have to acknowledge that what they offer in the shape of a curriculum in the senior school is all too meagre. New school subjects such as psychology and philosophy can mount a serious challenge to the traditional mathematics, history and three sciences. Yes, I know that's heresy - send in the letters if you want to let off steam.

Two final observations. On a light note, video-conferencing is good for the diet because seeing yourself on the screen can be a salutary exercise. And I wouldn't want you to go away with the idea that this whole exercise is stress free.

In a recent nightmare I was piloting a huge jumbo jet and was frantically searching for somewhere to land when I woke with a start and realised that I had landed already.

Sometimes I feel a bit like that when I am sitting with a remote control in my hand zooming in and out.

But then I remember that we are "working together apart" and, as the kids would say, it's cool.

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