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Watching you, watching me

Helena Flusfeder reports on a system which enables teachers to monitor and interact with their students' PC screens.

The Israeli student who was playing Patience on his computer screen in the middle of a class was not amused. The Classnet computer system had enabled his teacher to gain access to his computer screen and then reveal it to the rest of the class.

Gone are the days of chalk and blackboards, but also banks of students at computer terminals turned away from their teachers, each one locked in an isolated world.

The Classnet System, which was launched in the UK in October by Kyletec Ltd (minimum set-up for 10 computers about Pounds 3,500), is basically a small piece of hardware a plastic control box (which includes the teacher's control unit, the students' interface units and cables). The box connects the teacher's computer with up to 63 screens, allowing control of a whole classroom of computers. He or she can retrieve information from any station and transmit it to the rest of the class and send any information to an individual student's (or group's) screen, or send the teacher's screen to the whole class.

Similar, if less sophisticated and more expensive systems do exist elsewhere, but Classnet claims to be the only one with mouse control, audio functions, file-transfer and printer sharing, that can also run such a large student group.

In the late Eighties, the designers of Classnet, Eli Sasson and Avi Cohen, both of whom had taught computing in schools, felt there was an urgent need for this kind of system. Sasson explains: "It was difficult to communicate with the teacher, who was often facing the students' backs, or if she wanted to explain something to them, she would have to point it out on each individual screen. "

Previously, he says, the teacher would illustrate points by using the blackboard, or an overhead projector which focused on a wall. "Classnet comes to replace the blackboard. It gives a real working tool to the teacher in the computer classroom. Now the teacher can do anything on his screen and the students can see it on their screens."

Control of the screen can also be transferred to a second student, thereby changing the whole interactive process. "We brought back to school the level of interaction we had before the computerised classroom," Sasson says. The teacher can also divide the class into groups if they are on different levels and communicate with each group separately.

However, the traditional classroom has not been totally replaced. In one typical classroom, the teacher was still facing the students' backs while explaining the function of Microsoft Word, but each student saw an exact replica of the teacher's screen on his or her own one. So the same arrow she used to explain each function appeared on their screens. Simultaneously, the teacher could monitor what each student was doing and interact with each one to explain details.

There are now more than 500 installations worldwide (including Singapore, Thailand, the US, Europe and Russia, and 150 in Israel), and they range from junior high schools, colleges, training centres, universities, and industry to government offices such as the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the Prime Minister's office, and the army.

Miriam Aumann Baris, manager of the computer science lab for youth at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which serves 40 schools in the Jerusalem municipality, says she chose the Classnet system because she wanted something that works well with Windows. Her classes use Netscape (for Internet), Adobe Photoshop and Pascal.

Baris says she uses Classnet as a back-up if the projector (connected to the computer) doesn't work, as well as for setting up the class computers in advance. Through Classnet, the teachers can monitor every screen connected to the system, a facility they also find useful for monitoring the electronic mail (e-mail) messages the students send via Internet.

Apart from demonstrating on or monitoring the screens, Classnet has a wide range of other functions. It can darken all the screens to get the students' attention, send or receive files to or from students, and send messages using the internal e-mail system. It can allow a single video recorder to broadcast video or multimedia to all the screens simultaneously. The more recent versions of Classnet also have audio and intercom options.

With the file-transfer option the teacher can broadcast files to the students' hard discs or collect files. For example, he or she can set a test on paper, then collect the answers as a batch of files. Another feature is printer sharing, with a spooler to manage the queues from all the students' computers. Sasson says the designers of Classnet are now working on the next generation of Classnet Distance Classnet. This "will connect teachers in the classroom to experts elsewhere via telephone lines. It is due to be launched in a Telecon Conference in Anaheim, California in October."

Kyletec, Oxford Road, Sutton Scotney, Winchester SO21 3JG. Tel: 01962 761031.

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