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Distance Learning

 

It is a long established tradition among many schools to work together to offer greater subject options to students in a locality. Three Kerry schools have taken the idea of collaboration a step further by establishing virtual classrooms where students can join classes in neighbouring schools without ever having to leave the school gate.

The schools make innovative use of distance learning technology to allow students to study agricultural science, history and physics interactively with a class in St Joesph’s, Ballybunnion and chemistry with a class in Mercy Mounthawk, Tralee.

The solution is one many schools could benefit from, says John O’Donovan, principal of St Joseph’s: “A lot of smaller schools find it difficult to provide subject options for all students. In my school, for example, we could have two to five students opting for a subject like chemistry. We could not afford to provide a teacher for that number of students. In contrast, larger schools like Mercy Mounthawk could have 30 students applying for chemistry and, with the restriction on class size, which would mean six students would not get their choice. A project like this one solves both problems.”

Mr. O Donovan discussed setting up a link with St. Michael’s College, Listowel and Mercy Mounthawk, Tralee. After a great deal of planning, involving collaboration with a number of IT companies, the schools are now linked to each other through a computer server in St Joseph’s and students from one school can sit in on classes from another in virtual classrooms. The ‘visiting’ students are projected onto the back wall of the classroom, as if sitting behind the last row of students. Meanwhile, those students can interact from their own classroom and view the class and classwork on an interactive whiteboard in front of them.

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The one question always asked is about discipline, says Mr. O Donovan, but that isn’t any more of an issue than it would be in a normal classroom: “The students are being supervised; the teacher can see and hear them so they apply the same measures as in any other class classes. Discipline doesn’t tend to be an issue, however, because the students really want to do the subjects and they’re very motivated.”

Once set up, the virtual classrooms offer great benefits for learning, says Michelle Costello, who teaches some of the distance classes in St Joseph’s: “Obviously, I had to get used to using all the smart technology initially, but once I was familiar with it and got down to teaching my classes, it was as if I was always using it. The students are hands on, they’re very active throughout the lesson and the detail that’s available with this technology means it’s great to use in class.”

Of course such quality comes at a price. Each of the schools invested €4,000 in equipment including a server, an auto focus camera, a projector, a laptop and an interactive white board. But, says John, the outlay is worth it: “I think this is the beginning of bigger and better subject sharing in the future. As well as giving students greater subject choice, the extended classroom helps to prepare them for the real world and the smart economy. The students get to embrace digital technology and to become comfortable interacting online. That will really stand to them in the future. I think this is something that could be used in schools across the country. It’s a very simple and very effective solution.”

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Advantages of Distance Learning:

  • Three or Four students have now the option of taking up a subject with another school.
  • Greater choice of subjects for students.
  • More subjects can be offered to students.
  • Schools will be in a position to hold onto students and they wont be forced to leave.
  • School will be in a position to offer the same subject choice as larger schools.
  • Schools can work in partnership with each other and share resourses, and teachers.
  • Can be used for Career Guidance and visitor speaker, example M.D. Kerry Group, Garret Fitzgerald, etc may not have the time to travel to the 2 schools to talk to business studies class but can link up with video and can use it as a virtual classroom. Students can ask questions like any classroom and the 2 classrooms can see each other just like being in front of the class.
  • There would normally be eight teachers employed to teach these four subjects in the two different schools, and with this project there are four teachers employed.
  • Everyone involved are very impressed and saw this as the way forward.
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