Video-conference links have enabled students in Shetland to talk to young people in South Africa about what they think of their own history. John Galloway reports
Historians value first-hand evidence that students can analyse and draw their own conclusions from. So if you are studying South Africa and the apartheid system, how prized a resource is a conversation with a man who spent 12 years on Robben Island, whose jaw is irreparably damaged by beating, but who spent his time gaining a maths degree which led to a doctorate?
For the students in Stewart Hay's Advanced Scottish Highers history class it was invaluable, deepening their understanding of the subject and probably raising their grades. Student Rachel Cleminson says: "Listening to Dr Isaacs talk about 12 years in Robben Island and his time in solitary confinement, brutally treated with his jaw still damaged, was so powerful."
The fact that Dr Isaacs was in South Africa and Stewart Hay's class in Lerwick, Shetland, made this even more remarkable. However, for this group of students it's a common event.
Since September they have been using video-conferencing every couple of weeks to link Anderson High School in Lerwick, with Langa High School and South Peninsula High School in Cape Town. "It is, in fact, just one classroom with live argument and disagreement. Fairly strong views are exchanged between the group here and the group there," says Stewart Hay.
He cites the occasion when one of his students, talking about the early 20th-century, was interrupted by a young woman thousands of miles away in southern Africa who said: "We are living the mess you created".
It is this type of exchange that shows the immediacy of the medium. As one student, Blair Grant, says: "It brings the reality of the past very directly to you. It makes more sense seeing and hearing from students in South Africa about what they think of their own history."
The lessons are planned jointly with teachers from the South African schools. An agenda, sources and texts are agreed, and maybe additional work in preparation. While this means work for the students, the video-conferences increase motivation. Marie Goodlad, for example, says:
"We have to study hard for each of the video sessions. We can only hope it pays off."
As part of their preparation, the Scottish students prepared PowerPoint presentations about their dissertations, outlining their research to date and their planned study to show their African counterparts.
They are also thinking about how they can make best use of the medium.
Bobby Gear, for instance, wants "to use it to interview and discuss ideas of Afrikanerdom for my dissertation".
The lessons to date have been chaired by Stewart Hay, who is very at ease with the medium. Like a seasoned news anchor he raises questions, summarises points, knows when to move the conversation along and makes sure every voice is heard, which he doesn't find difficult. He believes that the medium makes talking easier: "I think it blunts people's sensitivities.
They are more likely to be direct. And that's the curious thing about this medium, it is much easier for me to be direct at a distance of 1,000 miles to you than it is if I was sitting in that room. With students they are used to watching telly. What is new to them is themselves on that medium.
It is a huge motivational boost when suddenly you're the living image; you're the person on the other side of that screen."
The numbing of sensitivities has lead to some lively discussions about power and government and totalitarian regimes, with at least one Scottish student asking: "Why didn't you do more?"
It is partly this openness that makes Stewart Hay such an advocate of video-conferencing, which the school began through the Scottish Executive Education Department Future Learning and Teaching Project. It is also partly because the school is so remote: the nearest railway station is in Bergen, Norway, and some of the 800 pupils board, travelling home only once a month to their families on the 15 inhabited islands of the Shetlands.
Stewart Hay says he has learned a lot from his students: "It is humbling. I have become a learner. I have to think differently. They say, 'you don't do it this way'. I am not always able to understand what is going on."
He understands enough, however, to know that what is happening on the screen needs to be reinforced by other means. As well as preparing presentations, the group also uses email and a website is under construction. But the video-conferencing, run through the University of Cape Town, is the key part, because the South Africans are not always able to find a reliable email connection or working fax or phone, so it is the most reliable means of communication.
Stewart Hay does not see teachers disappearing as a result of video-conferencing. He says: "They see the potential as a means of replacing teachers. Here's the lecture, here's the information - which is one way of doing it. But I think the more ownership learners have of it the more exciting it becomes and the more you pre-empt - when the learner is at the centre of the thing as part of an international classroom. That means many teachers involved, rather than fewer teachers. That's where I think it's at it's best, where the world is directly inside our classrooms and learners and teachers are dynamically engaging in that."
* For more about the Anderson High School project visit the Future Learning and Teaching (FLaT) Global Classroom website: www.flatprojects.org.ukglobalclassroom.asp
* For ideas and links visit DfES Videoconferencing in the Classroom Project www.globalleap.co.uk
ICT advice site
During video-conferences the sound and picture are affected by several things. One is the connection - whether it is by phone line (ISDN or a dial-up modem) or through the internet (IP). The latter is cheaper, but the quality isn't usually as good. The camera is also important. It is possible to link up with cheap webcams over a dial-up internet connection for under pound;100, but it is far better to use a professional system with a four-figure price tag. A microphone helps, especially a specialist one that picks up ambient, rather than direct voices. You will also need software, such as NetMeeting. Some programs have features, such as "picture in picture", so you can see yourselves as well as your contact, and shared whiteboards to aid discussion.
Tips to improve the experience
* Prepare the group. Focus on what the video-conference is about and what questions could be asked.
* Decide who will ask the questions and where they will sit or stand. But be flexible for when a better question arises or the conversation moves to an interesting point.
* Keep the background plain. One that is too busy can reduce picture quality.
* Remind the group they are on camera and even if they can't see themselves, the other end can.