Watching me, watching you

28th February 1997 at 00:00
A camera, a TV monitor and a phone line were all it took to set up a transatlantic classroom, reports Roger Frost

The day you pick up the phone and can see someone while you are speaking to them is fast approaching.

For students at Woodside Park School, in north London, however, this vision is already a reality. When they were setting up an International Baccalaureate (IT)course, they were able to talk, see and almost group-hug pupils at a New York school. What made this possible was "videoconferencing" - a big word for adding a camera and television monitor to a high-capacity phone line.

For the past 10 or so years, such technology has only been available to multinational companies, for the equipment and phone line can cost tens of thousands of pounds. For companies such as Ford Motors, with the money and the need for, say, international collaboration on car design, this cutting-edge stuff is no frippery.

At Woodside Park, the teachers have experimented with more modest technology. When the privately run school came under American ownership more than a year ago, it was encouraged to drop A-levels and design an IB diploma course.

The new owner also equipped the school with a BT desktop videoconferencing system - an add-on to a regular computer which uses a digital (or ISDN) phoneline. Soon staff were discussing courses with Dwight School in New York, which is part of the same group.

Deputy head, Chris Platford says that when he was getting his course submission together, the videoconferencing link enabled him to go over the paper details with his American counterparts.

"When you could see each other and then point to something in the document, things became much clearer," he said. What is more, the teachers could make notes on a notepad on the screen. If one party then misunderstood a point and noted it down, the error was immediately obvious to the other.

As Woodside Park's IB students discussed the IB's Creativity Action Service programme with a group at Dwight School, the US students described the projects they were doing in hospitals and medical research. The British students could then ask them to explain points they would normally pass over if the accounts had just been given in print.

Their teacher, Dr Peter Reynolds, said: "With a group this small, it's hard to get a good group dynamic, but combined with those in the States, the class has reached a critical mass."

Mr Platford feels this system will come into its own across a range of subjects, particularly where there needs to be an exchange of views. For example, students might examine how newspapers handle the same story on each side of the Atlantic and compare each other's view of events.

Compared with the few thousand pounds it takes to equip a personal computer for this sort of dialogue (and never mind the international calls here), using the Net for electronic mail discussions looks very cheap. An on-line connection would cost perhaps Pounds 200, and would be charged at local rates on ordinary phone lines.

For now, however, the technology is still so unreliable that industry experts have warned suppliers to get their act together. The jerky moving image and the delayed response in body language, for example, can take some getting used to.

While we wait for the manufacturers to overcome these minor technical hitches, we have a little more time to tidy our offices and classrooms before someone phones.

* Woodside Park School Tel: 0181 368 3777

* BT Education Services Education Show stand IT10

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