Thanks to tele-schooling, children living in remote parts of Scotland no longer learn in isolation, says Paul Gosling
Imagine you lived on a remote island. If that sounds pleasant, ask yourself what you would do about your child's schooling if he or she were one of only two islanders of school age there.

This does happen on some Scottish islands: children in remote areas can spend years at school out of contact with others of their own ages. But Strathclyde Regional Council, which oversees an area in the west of Scotland covering not only Glasgow but also some islands with as few as two children, has overcome this by creating the virtual classroom.

"The children have their own bulletin boards and establish peer groups," says Gordon Jeyes, assistant director of education for Strathclyde. Introducing video conference facilities into remote schools, to teach children alongside others their own age, brings social as well as educational benefits, he adds.

Teachers in remote areas have long struggled with classes with wide disparities in age and intelligence. Tele-schooling helps with this and also where local teachers are unable to meet specialist demand. Children can also work together by video conference on special assignments, such as environmental studies, while the technology is popular for art and design.

For the present, video conference lessons are used only in primary schools. By starting with younger children, the practice will spread up into secondary schools as the children grow older, when their IT skills will be developed further.

And primary school teachers are more likely to use IT as a tool rather than an end in itself, says Mr Jeyes. "These are not computer junkies. Secondary school teachers tend to turn everything into a subject."

There are no disciplinary problems, not just because teachers are nearby. The children are absorbed, and their very isolation has meant that they take a more responsible approach. "There are 11 children in Lismore [on Loch Linnhe], and they wouldn't dream of being ill disciplined because they are responsible for their own learning," says Mr Jeyes.

Strathclyde Regional Council undertook five years of investigation and pilot projects into this new approach, in which school co-operatives were established and PCs, modem links and CD-roms introduced, before lessons began to be conducted through video conferencing. Teachers and parents had to be persuaded that it was in their own interests, with no hidden agenda of cuts.

"It had to be introduced gradually from the grassroots, otherwise there would be a suspicion that it would lead to school closures," says Mr Jeyes. "We don't see it as replacing teachers." While the technology could be used to enable children to learn from home, this would be entirely wrong, Strathclyde council believes.

The schools are using Olivetti PCs, with Olivetti communications software ,and videophones from BT, each costing pounds 3,600. Pictures, voice and data are communicated through BT's Integrated Services Digital Network 2, which provides high-speed data and picture transfer, ensuring much higher quality communication than is usually available with video conferencing.

For Strathclyde council, which is due to be abolished in a year's time, there is a political as well as an educational agenda. The council wants to reassure parents that the new, smaller, unitary authorities will be committed to the most modern IT facilities. And it hopes that with better schools, fewer parents will move away, reducing the economic decline of remote islands.

It also intends to use the equipment to improve democracy in isolated areas. "It is not a resource for individuals but a community resource," explains Mr Jeyes. "We hope eventually that it will have a community use. Small islands can then be involved when we have island meetings."

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