NSW virtual classrooms boost student access

Small schools across remote New South Wales areas are being electronically merged, via video conferencing technology, to improve students' access to teachers.The NSW Department of Education and Training (DET) previously could not provide wide curriculum choices in Years 11 and 12 in all the state's isolated schools.

Small schools across remote New South Wales areas are being electronically merged, via video conferencing technology, to improve students' access to teachers.

The NSW Department of Education and Training (DET) previously could not provide wide curriculum choices in Years 11 and 12 in all the state's isolated schools. DET tapped Polycom and Vantage-GVT's technology for integrated video, audio, and Web conferencing to reach students from schools hundreds of miles apart. These schools are now joined together in a "virtual classroom."

Up to 7 schools can be linked through the technology, expanding the contact between students and different teachers with different skills.

For instance, School A has a teacher qualified to teach Year 11 & 12 English and hundreds of kilometres away at School B there's a teacher who can teach maths. Video conferencing allows both teachers to interact with students at Schools C and D and E.

The technology includes a total video conferencing solution incorporating video as well as integrated voice, data and Web functions.

Steve Neville, Polycom territory manager government and education, said class turnout has increased since the rollout of the technology December last year.

"The reason we decided to move ahead with this project is so schools can have shared resources. The benefits increased since the rollout last year. For instance, schools which had a high dropout rate now has a very high class turnout. Students are becoming better educated and more interactive," Neville said.

"The schools' kids and teachers have taken to video conferencing much quicker then anticipated. The students love using the technology and are much quicker than some adults who can sometimes be inhibited or 'camera shy' to get right in front of the camera," he added.

According to Neville, DET has continued to purchase more equipment to expand into the delivery of administrative tasks between schools and teachers, and is now even contemplating into taking it further.

"Part of the expansion plans is to allow the students to take part in 'virtual tours' like zoos, museums, Barrier Reef with divers, NASA etc. They are also talking about connecting up to non-Australian schools like the US or UK and take part in 'cultural exchanges'," he said.

Since the project is part of the Networking the Nation effort of the Australian government, Neville said there is virtually no operating cost for the virtual classrooms.

"Some classes even leave it on for 24 hours a day and it has now become more than just virtual classrooms. Students are now talking to students from other schools and bringing things from their homes to have a virtual show and tell," Neville said.

Neville expects the rest of the education departments around Australia to soon establish virtual classrooms of their own. NSW schools are currently delivering hundreds of hours of classroom time through video conferencing every week.