THE GUARDIAN - 20TH JUNE 2006
By combining videoconferencing with the power of whiteboards, Nottingham University is building a learning community that crosses borders
"Don't you think this is something magical?" asks Mary Chopey-Paquet, a teacher in Liège, Belgium. Sitting in a Nottingham classroom, I'm too stunned to reply. We've just met across a video link that stretches hundreds of miles between our respective schools and the image, displayed on an interactive whiteboard, is crystal-clear.
One of Chopey-Paquet's teenage students once described the video link as being like a window on to the world - a term she has used ever since. "More and more learners are being touched by this experience as we travel with them through this window of interactivity," she says. "But we're just scratching the surface of what's possible - there are no social or cultural limits to this technology." Videoconferencing has grown up since the 1980s when poor sound and image quality undermined its potential. But interactive whiteboard maker Promethean has now developed a system called the Teaching and Learning Observatory that combines modern videoconferencing capability with the power of the whiteboard.
Each classroom has two whiteboards - one designed to handle the video feed and one for teaching. Partners can instantly share digital resources and even write synchronously on each other's whiteboards. Ceiling-mounted cameras can zoom in from whole-class views to focus on a piece of work, and microphones can be switched on and off to listen to specific conversations. Nottingham University's education faculty has been using this evolving technology for the last six years, with financial backing from the DfES and the Teacher Development Agency (TDA) as part of a strategy to support innovation in teacher training. The faculty's development of the observatory sprung out of pragmatic necessity. Nottingham specialises in bilingual education (teaching geography, history and science through the mediums of German and French) and didn't have enough schools nearby to place their many trainees for observations of classroom practice. They now use observatory technology with a network of partner schools in the region, as well as Sainte Véronique in Belgium and a school in Romania.
"At the beginning we didn't realise the potential of what we were developing," says Nottingham professor Do Coyle, who has worked with a team of colleagues to explore many applications for the observatory - anything from quick meetings before school to high-level research. "It's not only a timesaver but it has changed the way we spend our time. It enriches the time we have and our ability to collaborate with other sites, making for a very powerful working space."
The TDA has invested more than £9m in e-learning projects over the last four years, and videoconferencing projects are particularly popular. "What I like about the observatory is that it works," says the TDA's Tim Tarrant. "Observations can be made in a very non-threatening way. Trainees can observe other teachers and record themselves, and these are incredibly powerful ways of improving performance and reflecting on progress."
Teacher tutors use the observatory to "bring alive the theory of teaching and learning" in the period before trainees enter school. They organise observations of experienced teachers for their trainees and can turn off the microphone to discuss a lesson in progress. "I've seen styles, strategies and techniques that I might not have normally seen," says trainee Anthea Wawryka. "I learned what to do and what not to do," says Zara Rosborough.
Once on school placement, trainees can watch and edit recordings of their own lessons and give video presentations to their peers. Tutors may observe their students from their faculty or have a quick chat before school. "I used to be continually driving up and down the A1," jokes Coyle.
Coyle has seen trainees and young students in the classrooms adapt quickly to the technology and move to exploit its creative potential: children in South Africa have treated inner-city kids in Nottingham to a live display of Zulu dancing while exploring the theme of identity. Classes in different schools have collaborated on a soap opera, with each class writing the next episode and using the observatory to discuss ideas. A-level students have worked on a project linking Holocaust survivors in Nottingham with genocide survivors in Rwanda. "This is real interactivity," says Chopey-Paquet after her lesson in Liège. "We're connecting and making education meaningful." Today her inquisitive Belgian teenagers have been asking us questions, comparing Liège with Nottingham and using their English in a meaningful context. It has been a communal and spontaneous learning experience.
"The observatory breaks down barriers and brings together people who traditionally have been kept quite separate," says Coyle, who stresses that her team does meet face-to-face with partners whenever possible. She adds that tutors, researchers, experienced teachers, trainees and children all learn from the observatory process and become more aware of the process of learning. "This is about classrooms without walls, where there's genuine communication. Everyone becomes teachers and learners."
Word has spread about the magical potential of this technology, and other faculties at the university have got on board. Using a mobile observatory, the school of nursing will link up with a community practice. The engineering department will put the observatory into industrial plants for virtual visits, and Nottingham plans to add its overseas campuses in Malaysia and China to the growing network.
"I want the observatory to be as ubiquitous as possible," says Coyle, who believes the technology allows us to rethink classrooms as physical spaces. "The future of borderless learning is about breaking down national barriers - students working in different countries and contexts but working on similar themes. We want to communicate and collaborate with people and build a learning community of students across many different countries."
Networked learning communities, federations of schools and a more global curriculum are becoming realities. "But what they all come down to is the ability to develop, manage and sustain relationships with multiple audiences," says Geoff Southworth from the National College of School Leadership.
Videoconferencing technology will play a crucial role. But it is, of course, just a tool. Its real magic lies in the human dimension of the experiences it offers, connecting up people in a way that was simply not possible before.