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Video Conferencing on a Shoestring

I have been keen to explore video conferencing for some time now but have always seen it as something that is expensive. I know of a few schools that have rooms set up for video conferencing. These are sometimes high tech set ups that have cost thousands. I have always worried about value for money and felt we may not get enough use to make it worth the out lay. However at Hampshire's ICT conference last year I was lucky enough to hear Heather Hadfield from the SEGFL talk about video conferencing. She drew my attention to a much cheaper alter native called JVCS desktop. JVCS desktop allows users within schools to video conference using the JANET facilities with nothing more than a webcam and a microphone. To use JVCS desktop you need to download and install a free application called ConferenceMe. Heather also drew our attention to the many video conferencing opportunities free to schools. Several museums run sessions. For example the National Archives run a number of free sessions aimed ay KS1-KS3.

I left Heather's session really enthusiastic and keen to have a try. I found information about a 'Great Fire of London' video conference that the National Archives runs. I rang up and booked it straight away. They had a waiting list of about 6 months but I managed to book in a session for an afternoon in January 2011.

In the Autumn term our technician managed to get the free ConferenceMe application installed and working around the school. As the date of the conference drew closer I had several test conferences but unfortunately I found that I couldn't broadcast. The Hampshire firewall was blocking us. However the team at Hampshire IT were very helpful in sorting this out. I am led to believe that since this issue was raised with them they have taken steps to make the necessary changes so that all schools will be able to use this free service in the future, without any additional costs. After the adjustments were made I had a successful test conference with the National Archives. They ran through what would be covered and we finalised arrangements for the session. At the time of the actual booked session I had to click on a link and the session was automatically started. Sadly, on the day we had a problem because the National Archives could not see the feed from our class. However they could hear us and we could see and hear them so this did not really impact upon the children's learning.

The focus of the sessions at the National Archives is on using primary sources to investigate events from History. Prior to the session we had been sent copies of several key documents including maps and the Hearth Tax Register for Pudding Lane at the time of the fire. I was able to copy these documents so children could see them up close as well as on screen. During the session the children learned more about primary sources and how they are used from Tammy an Education Officer at the National Archives. They were excited to find out more about what was at the National Archives and loved the opportunity to look for Guy Fawkes's signature on his confession. They were not able to locate it by themselves. When Tammy zoomed in and showed it to them on the document the children were interested. When she explained to them that it was feint because Guy Fawkes had been tortured using thumb screws, their interest and excitement grew!

We then started to focus on the Great Fire. The children used the sources shown on screen to work out whether historians had accurately reported the events. The children discovered that the fire blew from East to West. By locating the area destroyed on the maps and finding Pudding Lane they discovered that the fire was likely to have started in the area of Pudding Lane. They also found that according to the Hearth Tax register there was indeed a Baker called Thomas Farrinor in Pudding Lane at that time.

The children learned an incredible amount during the session. Tammy had real expert knowledge in this field so was able to support the children to achieve a much greater level of understanding than I could. That is the beauty of video conferencing. You can bring real expertise into the classroom. Whether it is a musician explaining about the instrument they play or a child from a different school explaining what it is like to grow up where they do. As primary teachers we are expected to know about so many different subjects. Using experts in this way can bring in a new dimension and take some of the pressure off. The year 2 children I teach were able to get the awe and wonder of a trip to the National Archives without even leaving the classroom. Obviously I would never like to see the day when school trips are not used to enrich children's learning. However when budgets are tight and parent's pockets are feeling the pinch this is a way to add extra enrichment without additional cost.

After the session the children's response was really positive. Here are some of their comments:

  • I was excited when I heard about it.
  • It was really good.
  • It was really fun.
  • It was so exciting to see the lady on the screen.
  • It was great, I really loved it! I can't believe it!
  • I thought it was actually quite fun the way we could answer the questions. Then she showed some images and stuff of the Great Fire of London.
  • It was clever that we could speak to her and she could speak to us.
  • It was really interesting the way we could connect all the way from London to Hedge End.
  • It helped us to learn more about the Great Fire of London.
  • It helped us get some more information from documents.
  • We also saw Guy Fawkes signature on his confession. You couldn't see it clearly because he didn't have strength in his hands because they put screws on his hand.
  • We learned lots in a fun way.

If you are keen to try video conferencing in this way you will need a microphone, a webcam, the free ConferenceMe application and a computer connected to the Internet via Janet (SWAN and HPSN2 used by Hampshire schools have this).

To find out more download the free 'Guide to Videoconferencing with JVCS Desktop' at http://www.ja.net/documents/services/video/jvcsdesktopguide.pdf

To find out more about video conferencing opportunities look on the SEGFL Spot pages. There are two Video Conferencing strands: http://www.segfl.org.uk/spot/author/42/  and http://www.segfl.org.uk/spot/author/26/

To learn more about the videoconferencing opportunities at the National Archives go to http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/videoconferences.htm

If you need further support contact Heather Hadfield at the SEGFL on heather.hadfield@segfl.org.uk

By Emma Goto - AST for Primary ICT - Kings Copse Primary School