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In a virtual class all of its own

Video conferencing makes time for specialist tuition. Arnold Evans reports.

Sue Jones brings her lesson to an end with a few last reminders, but 10-year-old Marko Cosic, worried he is going to be late for Orchestra is already fussing with his bag, scooping up papers and bidding her a rushed adieu. Nothing unusual in that - except that Marko and Mrs Jones are 35 miles apart.

Their lessons - "a cross between reality and virtual reality," according to Marko - are conducted via an ISDN telephone line and the Intel ProShare Video Conferencing System. Relatively cheap and easy to use, it gives today's users a tantalising foretaste of what tomorrow's schools could be like when the much-heralded information superhighway arrives.

It's already a godsend for Marko. In Year 6 at Milford Haven Junior School, "he's a very, very bright boy with a particular flair for anything scientific, " says his class teacher, Peggy James. There are probably one or two Markos in most junior schools and teachers wish they had more to offer them.

Encyclopedias, CD-Roms and the Internet can help - but what children, especially of Marko's age, need is the stimulation of being with people who know their stuff. Sue Jones does. Based at the headquarters of the Wales Satellite Project in Newcastle Emlyn, she spends most of her working day interpreting meteorological data and teaching teachers how to get the most from the satellite dishes that grace the roofs of every secondary school in the principality.

Because of its remote location, the Wales Satellite Project and 16 of the local secondary schools increasingly rely on ProShare to deliver this in-service training. It enables Sue Jones or Annette Temple, who heads the project, to "visit" any of the schools at any time without leaving their desks. It cuts costs and saves them hours of travel. As a result, they have time for a special pupil like Marko, providing, that is, he can find a ProShare terminal.

There's one in the local comprehensive, so once a week he misses ordinary lessons to attend an extraordinary one on meteorology, dons a lapel microphone and sits in front a Multimedia PC on which is perched a video camera.

He clicks on the Newcastle Emlyn ISDN number and within seconds he can hear Sue Jones through the computer speakers, and see her on screen in a scaleable window. This could fill up half the screen, but Marko prefers to keep Miss in place - tucked away in a corner, leaving the screen free for the resources they'll need to consult during the lesson.

It must be said, she has some disconcerting traits: occasionally she freezes for a moment, and sometimes her lips aren't quite in synch with the voice. But, then, as pupils know, teachers tend to have their little idiosyncrasies and Marko doesn't seem to mind. Quiz him and he will insist that he thinks of Mrs Jones as just "another one of my teachers". He's at ease with her, and relishes the intensity of an hour of her undivided attention.

The work is challenging - the sort of thing you'd expect a bright class in Year 9 or 10 to be tackling. Although the topic of weather is standard junior school fodder, Sue Jones uses it as a means of introducing Marko to some of the sophisticated scientific concepts underlying the process of cloud formation and such like. He is also expected to interpret satellite images, handle spreadsheets and interpret a range of data he'd never normally encounter in primary school.

The phrase "distance learning" seems inappropriate for a lesson characterised by the sheer closeness of pupil and teacher. She watches his every movement; she can see when he's struggling, when he's eager to hurry on; she can read his words as he keys them in; when he succumbs to a touch of hay fever, he watches as she reels from the impact of his amplified sneeze.

The session is a continuous dialogue: if Marko isn't answering questions, he's asking them. In this artificial environment, they behave "naturally", uninhibited by the hardware. When she dishes out the homework, he ignores the high-tech and, as schoolboys have done down the ages, scribbles a note on his hand. But during the lesson he had used a word processor. Remarkably, Sue Jones was also able to input to the same file. Indeed, they could share all the resources they used: for instance, both could manipulate the on-screen pointer to indicate areas on a photograph and could save any of the material at the end of the lesson.

It's this capacity to share and to transfer data during a desktop conference which makes ProShare such a powerful tool. Annette Temple, for example, provides geography students not only with tuition on meteorological aspects of the A-level syllabus, but also with the satellite images they need to study. What's more, during a desktop conference, she can access and operate any piece of authorised software on the school's server. This revolutionises the concept of a "help line" - one phone call and an expert cannot only soothe furrowed brows but get her hands on the program that is causing the problem.

The 16 schools in Pembrokeshire and Carmarthen with ProShare can contact one another as easily as making a telephone call. The potential this offers for informal in-service training, and for sharing specialist staff in minority subjects is enormous.

A-level students of Spanish use it to practise their oral skills with remote partners. Children with Downs syndrome at Whitland and at Cardigan use it to keep in touch.

At just over Pounds 1,549, ProShare is a cheaper option than its main rivals. But it needs a 486 or Pentium Multimedia PC with at least 24 megabytes of Ram and will run up a hefty ISDN bill. It would be far more cost-effective if several sites could be connected simultaneously. The Wales Satellite Project is now experimenting its own video server which will make this possible. It means Sue Jones will be able to teach a virtual class of Markos, although every pupil will be at a different place. A tall order, especially during the hay fever season.

Wales Satellite Project. Tel: 01239 710662

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