In recent decades, video communication has evolved quickly from the stuff of science-fiction to an everyday reality. Faster internet speeds, cheaper technology in terms of processing power and image and audio capture, along with the rise of the mobile phone mean that Skype, Google’s Hangouts and Apple’s Facetime are now commonplace communication platforms that allow us not only to hear but also to see friends, family and loved-ones at any time from virtually anywhere on the planet.
Many cultural venues are already using videoconferences as a way of delivering some of their formal learning content into schools, allowing them to overcome barriers of geography, budget and staff time – on both sides. There are some obvious restrictions as to what can be achieved through this medium, but the sessions can still be very interactive. In addition, museums can offer downloadable resources such as background information for use by school teaching staff, or resources such as picture packs or simple paper-based activities to be used directly by the students – either during the the live videoconference or as part of the preparation or follow-up work. It might also be possible to offer loans boxes, so that students can handle real objects again either during the conference or in the support work.
Schools are also using videoconferences to add variety to classroom lessons. For a school and the content provider it is often less expensive than either the cost of a visit or the cost of bringing outside providers in to school. It also allows them to connect with providers that would otherwise be located too far away to engage with. Potential content providers for schools might include creative practitioners such as poets or musicians, formal education providers such as university departments or educational publishers as well as cultural venues.
Cultural content for videoconferences can take any format, as long as it pays heed to the limitations of the medium. Lecture style presentations can work well to older students or adult groups. Alternatively storytelling and some living-history type role play can serve a similar function. ‘Meet the expert’ type sessions are very easily done, whereby a curator, educator or other specialist presents to the group, and then takes questions. It is also possible to organise sessions whereby a group that has visited your venue can present some of their work back, including stories and pictures. More adventurous sessions can include investigations or mock trials.
To see a selection of the videoconference content providers listed on Janet (an educational network), to find out what sort of sessions they already deliver click here.
Specialist equipment for running videoconferences from your museum is available; with everything from high resolution cameras to chroma-key ‘green-screen’ technology available to make your sessions come to life. However these can require a great deal of up front investment, and if the content is good might not be necessary.
What is necessary is a good broadband connection, a computer, a webcam and a microphone. It is worth saying that cheaper or older pieces of equipment might give lower quality results, but it probably isn’t worth investing in expensive high-spec equipment right at the outset. It might be possible to get some help from your local Grid for Learning who might loan equipment and provide advocacy about what can be achieved within a certain budget, and with the broadband available in your area.
In addition to the potential for using the commercial video-call suppliers, there is also a dedicated network providing digital expertise to the education sector, and they have a dedicated videoconferencing service for use in business as well as education; Vscene (formerly called JVCS).
In addition to providing a platform, their community pages also provide a great deal of information about the various uses of videoconferencing.
This short film was made by the Yorkshire and Humber Grid for Learning a few years ago whilst I worked at the National Coal Mining Museum for England, and explains some of the benefits of using videoconferences for learning.
Anybody that has ever tried to use video-calls as a communication method will tell you that they are not without their share of potential technical problems, and my experience of using them to deliver museum learning to schools has taught me a few tricks.
Get the content right. Videoconferences are interactive, but the fluidity of those interactions isn’t quite the same as being in the same room. It is important to pilot activities and for delivery staff to get used to using the medium. There can sometimes be a slight delay between questions and answers so quickfire interactions don’t tend to work as well as they might in a face-to-face situations. I also found that sessions broken down into 15-20 minute segments work well, with videoconferences lasting a total of about 40-45 minutes being ideal.
Always do a test-call. You might have done the session successfully dozens of times before and the school might assure they have dozens of videoconferences with other providers, but if you do a quick five-minute test call with the teacher a few days (or even a week) before, you can iron out any technical glitches well in advance of having a group of expectant and restless students putting extra pressure of you and the teacher at the other end. For many schools, it may be their first time, and there are likely to be a range of additional issues to overcome, these can include audio and visual inputs, using the software, or more commonly the over-zealous firewalls in place at some local authority schools. These test-calls might be more than a formality, and might require several attempts.
Wave and shout. Starting a videoconference with an enthusiastic wave and a chirpy ‘hello’ will encourage the class staring back at you to wave back their ‘hello’. This interaction will immediately tell you a few key things; that the connection is working, that they can see you and hear you, and that you can see their video and hear their audio. It also signifies to the teacher that you are here and that you are taking the lead.
Get the teacher to help. When in a conference, you will never remember all the pupils’ names, and it can be hard to specify an individual to whom you are talking. So when doing questions and answer sessions, ask the teacher to pick the students to speak – this is something I usually go through during the test-call, along with a few of the other practicalities.
Videoconferences aren’t going to be the answer to everything in museum learning, and whilst the technology is still establishing itself there are likely to be some technical glitches along the way. However, I think that there is still plenty of room in every museum education team’s arsenal for this quite straightforward way of beaming some of your museum content straight into the classroom.