Worlds apart together

3rd April 2009 at 01:00
Hi-tech masterclass proves a webwide hit

It looks more like Nasa mission control than a classroom. Everyone is focused on a big screen and the jerky live feed to a man in headphones. A technician makes last-minute tweaks to unwieldy hardware. Voices babble through the speakers. A man in a suit paces across the room. In the middle of it all, English teacher David Miller is preparing to direct operations.

Mr Miller, the UK teacher of the year in 2008, is at the helm for a landmark event: the first subject-specific masterclass using Glow Meet, the web-conferencing element of the Scottish schools' intranet. He will lead teachers through one of his most successful lessons - and they could be sitting anywhere in Scotland.

There's tension in the air as Mr Miller counts down the seconds to the 5pm start, flanked in his St Ninian's High classroom in Bishopbriggs by fidgety representatives of Glow and Learning and Teaching Scotland. "It feels strange, like an out-of-body experience," he says, as he hears his "pupils" chatting from as far away as Elgin.

The hour-long lesson deals with "Out, Out -", a poem by Robert Frost in which a young boy dies after an accident with a buzzsaw.

Mr Miller shares startling images of child labourers by Depression-era photographer Lewis Hine, which he uses to engage pupils less comfortable with text. He shows the scene from the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line, in which the young Cash's brother dies in a similar accident. There is a short delay and collective intake of breath before the clip plays successfully.

The screen, visible to all involved, has multiple purposes. Most of it is taken up with the successive images Mr Miller uses; an arrow controlled by his mouse whizzes around the screen highlighting details; the top right-hand corner is filled with live webcam footage of whatever Mr Miller is doing; below is scrolling text with reactions from around the country.

Text comments come thick and fast. There are practical queries ("Can we get the source of the photos?"; "Do we know the age of the girl?") and poignant observations ("That's a fantastically sad picture.") There is also some banter with a teacher who is teased for joining the throng late.

It takes a while for Mr Miller to get used to keeping up with the stream of text while also reacting to verbal comments, and he needs the odd reminder to respond. The desk-bound demands of the technology, meanwhile, rein in a little of the flamboyance so enjoyed by St Ninian's pupils.

But these are not major barriers to the lesson's flow. Ideas fly off at tangents from teacher and pupils: the striking perspective of a photo could lead a pupil to the paintings of Donatello; the history department could explain more about working conditions in Scottish cotton mills.

As everyone signs off, the feedback is universally enthusiastic. "I loved it," says Lee Dunn from Alva Academy. Someone signed in as "M Winton" believes the lesson will make pupils realise that "poetry can be a real thing". Another participant quips that the masterclass has allowed him to eat eggs on toast at the same time.

There have been 15 separate log-ins, with about 30 people taking part. News comes of a school that got a message saying it did not have the necessary "privileges" to log on; Glow staff look into it. That setback aside, they are delighted it all went off so well. More masterclasses will follow soon.

Mr Miller says he is satisfied that, despite the multi-tasking needed, he can teach a lesson in his usual way. "It was just like having 30 kids in a class and all the juggling that involves," he says.


Further sessions using Glow Meet web-conferencing:

- April 16 - Caroline Breyley from Shetland Islands Council describes how Glow enabled learning to continue when the school was closed in bad weather.

- April 23 - Avril Taylor from South Ayrshire Council talks about using Glow with a small rural school, for transition and virtual team teaching with other schools.

Glow Meet events will take place every Thursday from now on and will feature a range of experiences, practitioners, fields and interests.

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