Watch with mentor
To earn extra cash when he was an undergraduate, PGCE student Tony Merrick used to work as a bouncer in nightclubs. But today when he walks into a classroom with an earpiece and a walkie-talkie he isn't there to quell trouble - he's just kitted out for a lesson observation.
During his teaching placements at Estover Community College, near Plymouth, he took part in a webcam mentoring scheme that allowed his school and college mentors to watch him in action and provide support without them being present in the classroom.
Rather than cramping his style, Tony says the headset, walkie-talkie and webcam have allowed him to be himself.
"With the old style of mentoring, I adopted the styles of two of the mentors. It's not as if they told me, 'You teach like me and this is how it's done.' But you do find yourself mimicking them.
"When I go in with the webcam, it's me, and it's my style of teaching, and it's how I want to do it - and it's a completely different relationship with the students in the room."
Estover is part of the Plymouth Training Schools' Consortium, which includes four other local schools and the College of St Mark and St John (Marjon), a teacher-training institution. Part of Estover's role is to find ways to use new technologies to improve teacher training. Staff in the school's science department have been running the project since January this year.
Estover's vice-principal Wendy Roderick says they hit upon the idea of webcams while they were thinking of ways to make the mentoring process less intrusive.
"I know that if I'm in a lesson, the dynamics are going to be very different from when the student-teacher is in there without my presence," she says.
"We really wanted to find a way around the age-old issue - how do you get the student-teachers to develop their relationships with pupils and their own individual styles of teaching without you being there?"
Microsoft's NetManager, which enables audio and video-conferencing via the internet, is used in the scheme. The school has a wireless network, so a webcam is attached to a laptop in the classroom and in some other location in the school the mentor can watch and listen to the lesson on screen.
The student-teacher being observed can take instructions through the earpiece, although staff have also been experimenting with walkie-talkies which allow student-teachers to move around but remain in touch with the mentor.
Setting up the experiment has not involved great expense.
"Webcams have been around for a while and you can pick one up for between pound;16 and pound;20," says Wendy. "It's quite a simple idea and I can't believe we haven't used it already."
So, how do teachers who are still honing their classroom craft cope when they hear voices in their heads? Tony says the set-up is all very discreet.
"It seems like a difficult idea at first if you're listening to someone and talking, but within the first lesson you can pick it up quite well. You can still be chatting with the student, reading through their work or be at the front of the class directing the lesson while taking in the instructions."
Although "distance-mentoring" has been a success, the scheme has not led to the extinction of the traditional arrangements, says Barbara Allmark, senior lecturer in science at Marjon.
"It would be counter-productive to do this too early," she says. "It is best used quite a long way into the student's first practice or shortly after the beginning of their second practice when they feel more confident.
"But when we feel that the trainee teacher is ready to walk on the tightrope without the safety net, it is a perfect way for them to be observed by us."
One drawback has been the difficult business of gauging the atmosphere in the classroom - even with two cameras in situ. But everyone involved feels that the benefits outweigh that problem.
Another issue was the disruption the webcam could cause in the classroom.
But Tony says the novelty wore off pretty quickly.
"Initially pupils were interested in the earpieces because they are quite similar to the ones the police use, but now they've lost interest."
As well as using webcams for one-to-one mentoring, other groups of students from Marjon have observed sessions remotely.
Now the school is also planning to use webcams to spread good practice by allowing trainees and newly qualified teachers to watch experienced teachers at work.
The science department has declared the pilot a success. And after some initial wariness, other departments have witnessed the satisfaction of their colleagues and are now keen to set up their own webcams.
Co-operation and an agreed protocol are vital for such a scheme to work well, says Wendy. All of those involved in the scheme were willing participants. The initiative was fully explained to other departments, pupils and governors, and nothing was ever recorded. These principles, she says, helped to ensure that the scheme did not take on the feel of some shadowy security operation.
"This is not Big Brother," she says. "It's not a tool to manage behaviour - this is about using technology to train teachers, and using the new technology smartly."
Estover Community College is a specialist visual arts college. For more information on NetMeeting see www.microsoft.comwindowsnetmeeting