|A video-conferencing case study by Roger Frost (TES 1996)
| The day when you can phone someone and see them as they speak is approaching. The idea seems like a frippery but when Woodside Park School needed to set up an International Baccalaureate course, they could talk, see and almost meet with a New York school and learn from their experience.
What made this possible is ‘videoconferencing’ - a big word for adding a camera and TV monitor to a high capacity phone line. For the last ten or so years, this technology in need of a hyphen has only been a buy line for multinational corporates: the equipment can cost tens of thousands and needs an expensive phone line. For companies such as Ford Motors, with the money and the need for say, international collaboration on car design, this cutting edge stuff is no frippery.
At Woodside Park, they have trail blazed with more modest uses and modest desktop technology. When the privately run North London school gained an American owner just over a year ago, they were encouraged to drop A levels and design an IB diploma course. The new owners also equipped them with a BT desktop videoconferencing system - an add-on to a regular computer which uses a digital (or ‘ISDN’) phone line. Pretty soon the staff were discussing course matters with Dwight School in New York, which is part of the same group.
Deputy head, Mr Platford says that when he needed to get his course submission together, he could go over the paper details with his peer over there. "When you could see each other and then point to something in the document, things became much clearer". What is more they could both make notes on a notepad on the screen - so if the other party misunderstood a point and noted it down, the error was immediately obvious to the other.
While many elements of the IB, like English, Maths and sciences have much in common with A levels, there were differences - like the choice of resources - which subject teachers over here could discuss with experienced colleagues over there. But some differences were radical - like the IB’s ‘Creativity Action Service’ (CAS) programme which involves students in community work.
I watched their first group of just five IB students discussing the CAS programme with a parallel group in the States. The American students described the projects they were doing - in hospitals and medical research for example. The British students could ask them to explain points they would normally pass over if the stories were just on paper. There was little doubt this was helping. Their teacher Dr Reynolds pointed to an ephemeral benefit that smallish sixth forms everywhere could take note of, "With a group this small, it’s hard to get a good group dynamic but combined with those in the states, the class has reached a critical mass".
Mr Platford feels their system will also be useful in a ‘Theory of knowledge’ module where there is a lot of discussion of issues. For example, students might examine how newspapers handle the same story not just locally but on each side of the Atlantic. And while this material is easily obtained over the Internet, or from the newsagents, it will be interesting to see how two cultures perceive each others view of the day’s events.
Set beside the few thousand pounds it takes to equip a personal computer for this sort of dialogue, and never mind the international calls here, using the Internet for electronic mail discussions looks very cheap indeed. An Internet connection would cost maybe £200, and be charged at local rates on ordinary phone lines.
However, people are consistently saying that the immediate and visual contact makes all the difference. Most point to the jerky moving image and the delayed response in body language as something that "takes getting used to". Some add that it’s easier to cope with this if you’ve actually met the person you’re talking to - so you might wonder about using a videoconference to interview a job candidate from abroad.
It will not be too long before businesses and maybe a few schools have camera-wearing computers that allow people to converse from their desks and classrooms. And it’s a certainty that they and Woodside Park will discover even more bonus points. But it’s also true that the technology is very young, cumbersome, and so unreliable that a top industry expert has publicly warned suppliers to ‘get their act together’ as the business is getting a bad name. So while this, and a cumbersome unhyphenated name delays getting the technology onto the shop shelf we’ve got a bit of time to tidy up our rooms - just in case somebody phones.