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Breaking through the classroom walls – how video conferencing engages learners

Video conferencing enables students to explore new places and meet new people without leaving the school premises.

A teacher stands in front of a class of students either listening attentively or getting down to the work they’ve been set. Swap exercise books for slates and it’s a virtually identical scenario to one you’d have seen 150 years ago. But with the advent of video conferencing, some educationalists are hoping to break through those classroom walls and introduce students to new worlds – and all without having to take a step off school premises.

“It gives students the opportunity to access different communities, resources and experts from around the world, which otherwise would simply be impossible to reach,” says Robert Crowther, middle school principal at ACS Cobham International School in Surrey. An example Crowther gives is of an extension activity created for his school’s careers day that included a session with a lawyer who had cerebral palsy – something that was only made possible through video conferencing technology.

An experience shared across the whole school

Video conferencing also offers a perfect solution to the impracticality of transporting children to places that would be difficult or unsafe for them to access in person. At Our Lady and St John Catholic College in Blackburn, Lancashire, every student from year 7-11 has recently been able to learn about railway safety thanks to a live, interactive video conference session hosted on the Learn Live platform. Traditionally, explains Andrew Larkin, the school’s business manager, Network Rail or the British Transport Police would send a safety manager to run a PowerPoint presentation in a single classroom for a single class. Using the video conferencing facility, hundreds of students were able to interact live with a range of railway professionals and see directly into their place of work. “The broadcast fired up students…who have shared an experience across the whole school that they can talk about in break and on the bus home,” Larkin says.

Countering the concern that video conferencing is second best to having a real live person in front of a class, Larkin says: “What we observed early on in the live broadcast was how engaged the young people were with this type of online meeting technology. They appeared more relaxed and less intimidated than having someone stand at the front of the class… and they really liked the interaction they had between the live speaker and the content.” Pupils, he says, were soon using the chat facility embedded into the Learn Live channel to ask questions – and also to answer questions set by the presenter in real time.

At Mark Rutherford School in Bedford, assistant headteacher Jackie Samosa says she “really wanted the school to be able to have the opportunity to liaise with organisations that perhaps we may never have had the chance to do.” Video conferencing has allowed 35 year 12 and 13 business studies students the chance to take part in a specially-designed session for schools run by academics at Henley Business School about how Brexit could impact the UK economy.

With cuts to budgets every trip needs to be justifiable

Samosa says she would have struggled to make the argument for taking part if students had needed to travel to the university itself. “The conferences last an hour, so to go out of school for a day could be considered an ineffective use of time,” she says. “Trips out of school cost money and with cuts to budgets every trip needs to be justifiable.”

Making the most of staff expertise

In Cornwall, where the Aspire Academy Trust is made up of 20 rural schools at some distance from each other, video conferencing is allowing pupils at one end of the county to benefit from teaching expertise at the other. “People are really keen to work together, but until now it’s been quite expensive to do it well,” says Pete Bradburn, the trust’s director of IT and communications. As well as an upcoming Inset day that will be run by video conference across all 20 schools, Bradburn says the Trust is planning to run after-school clubs using video conferencing. For a coding club that children are enthusiastic to start, he says: “The problem is we have the expertise in some of the schools but those teachers can’t be everywhere at once.”

The idea now is to run the club via videoconference, with a qualified member of staff running IT activities for children across all the schools. Without the technology, only a small proportion of the trust’s students would be able to access a coding club: with it, everyone can.

However, some preparation is needed to make video conferencing a success, warns Bradburn. “You rely on your internet connection and if it’s flaky or the infrastructure isn’t set up right then you’re going to have problems,” he says. “And you need to make sure that the microphone and camera are good because if the children can’t see and can’t hear what’s going on then it dies a death.”

Sharing student work with parents

At ACS Cobham, Crowther firmly believes the potential of video conferencing reaches beyond the classroom. “This technology is used daily in the business world and its application will only become more widespread across the education sector,” he says. “Traditionally parents book an appointment for our parent-teacher meetings. For those unable to make the sessions, we now offer video conferencing. One parent can speak to his or her child’s teaching team in one session and unlike on a simple telephone call, a student’s work can be visually shown and discussed – offering a whole new level of engagement.”

Crowther says in future teachers may run video conferencing sessions ahead of classes to cover background context or a particular scientific theory, freeing up lesson time for students to engage in hands-on experiments or learning activities.

“Video conferencing is certainly here to stay,” he says. “As our younger teachers start their careers, they are digital natives, using this technology is just second nature. Their enthusiasm will, in turn, affect more veteran teachers or ‘digital immigrants’ to embrace all technological teaching tools.”

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