Virtual presence

Jack Kenny

Video-conferencing facilities are expanding from one-to-one to multiple links, so that classes can link up with other UK schools and speakers anywhere in the world, reports Jack Kenny.

The days when schoolchildren will routinely link up with experts far from their school came a little nearer when Learning and Teaching Scotland launched its video-conferencing hub facility in June.

The hub goes beyond traditional one-to-one video conferencing, enabling up to 12 sites to join together so that speakers anywhere in the world with access to a webcam can interact with schools across the UK which have video conferencing capablity. The staff at LT Scotland are responsible for making the facility work technically, so teachers can concentrate on the experience and the learning. Schools call LT Scotland, which bridges them with other schools and speakers taking part in the conference. Each school can to talk to the speakers, pose and answer questions and communicate with the other participating schools.

Learning and Teaching Scotland believes this facility could convince many that video conferencing technology, which has been around for some time, has relevance for schools. Introducing the new facility, Professor Tom Wilson, the chairman of LT Scotland, said: "We want young people in a high value economy to communicate confidently across the desk, the road, the world."

The audience at the launch conference, organised jointly with BECTA, the British equivalent of LT Scotland, saw its power and flexibility during a mock election held at primary schools in Orkney, Dundee, Argyll and Bute, Lincoln and Birmingham. Each school was asked to make up a political party and then argue a case. Issues raised by the five parties included pensions, more park keepers, the environment, the return of the birch and hiring McDonalds to provide school meals.

After the presentations the audience at LT Scotland's base in Glasgow was invited to question the young politicians. Eventually the audience voted and the Mak' A Body Happy Party from Brackens Primary in Dundee was elected.

Jackie Story, headteacher of Sanday Community School in Orkney, whose pupils took part, already makes extensive use of video conferencing and was recognised last year in the BECTA awards for good practice.

Setting up the hub was not difficult, she says. "A trained monkey could use it. Over time you develop expertise and pick up hints from those with whom you conference. However, when there is a problem, such as sound issues or feedback, you do need technical support. We rarely have problems now."

The hub can cope with a variety of video-conferencing standards and schools will need to have access to an ISDN line. An inexpensive webcam can be used, although the better the equipment is, the better the picture and the sound will be.

The advantages are many. A teacher in a specialist subject will be able to teach a course to pupils at different remote sites with a webcam. Children with rare difficulties can conference with others across the UK or the world. The saving in travel and time costs can be significant for managers and advisers. Schools will be able to share the fees of high profile speakers.

Pricing is in three bands: school teaching, education for teachers and commercial use. The set-up charge for teaching is pound;2.50 per school and pound;15 an hour. The rates are inclusive of ISDN call charges.

Learning and Teaching Scotland stand B10Video-conferencing details and bookings from LT Scotland, tel 0141 337 5000Seminar: Learning at a Distance, discover learning solutions involving e-mail, video-conferencing and the Internet, September 19 and 20 at 11.30am

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