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Want to unlock the potential of learning at a distance? Here’s what to look for from a video conferencing platform

Andy Ostler, Brother UK

Learning at a distance could revolutionise the way pupils in schools gain new knowledge and skills. It opens the door to unprecedented access to experts in subjects they’re learning about and people doing jobs they’re aiming for in the future.

No longer constrained by geography, an A-level student in a rural school could have a session with a native French speaker in the morning, somebody studying for a PhD in physics at a prestigious university at lunchtime and a recruiter from a scientific research company in the afternoon. This is all possible with video conferencing in further education and industry.

It’s commonplace for students on learn-at-home courses to join seminars through video conferencing where not only is the presenter in a different location from them, but all of the other attendees as well.

In industry, where distance learning has arguably been adopted most quickly, there are hundreds of examples of learning at a distance through video conferencing saving time and improving outcomes. Offshore workers receiving briefings from centrally-based experts, for example, or office employees receiving training on a new piece of software without they or their trainer needing to leave their desks are both happening every day.

Where further education and industry have led, I believe education is set to follow.

However, before this can become a reality, the right technology needs to be in place. So what are the essential ingredients of an effective learning at a distance platform for school use?

It just works

I believe reliability and user friendliness are the two biggest barriers to video conferencing technology being introduced not just in schools but in many walks of life.

Consumer platforms like Apple’s Facetime, Skype and Google Hangouts have gained a lot of ground because they integrate well into mobile devices and are simple and relatively reliable to use – even though performance can vary on slower connections or hardware.

Where it’s harder to find the same level of reliability and user friendliness is in more feature-rich video conferencing platforms that lend themselves to the demands of learning at a distance. A presenter needs to be able to interact with numerous pupils using different devices and operating systems, display media content and allow participants to collaborate in editing documents in real-time.

One area in which platforms with more features frequently fall down is in the loads they place on connection speeds and participant’s systems. For it to work reliably – especially in a school environment where the challenge of keeping connection speeds and hardware up-to-date are well known – a platform needs to be able to adapt automatically to the speeds available, thereby offering a consistent experience.

Interactive and social

Replicating the dynamics of a classroom in a way that works well is complex, and technology needs to be able to adapt to the differing requirements of different situations.

In small groups, it might be OK to have open two-way communication between teacher and pupils, so that questions can be raised quickly and easily for the benefit of the whole class – just as is the case in real life.

However, as group sizes grow, this can lead to an excessive frequency of interruptions. In this case it might be better to limit interactions by giving the presenter control, using either text-based interaction or a ‘raise hand’ function. This way, pupils can let the teacher know when they have a question and they can decide whether to address it there and then or wait until the end.

For sessions involving very large groups, using a web conferencing platform in conjunction with social media such as Twitter can allow pupils to share related information and follow other pupils’ comments, wherever they might be located, adding another layer of engagement with the material being covered.

Security and participant monitoring

For schools, this will always be one of the most important concerns. In a traditional classroom setting, teachers always know exactly who is in the room – so it’s essential that this is the case as we move into the virtual learning environment.

The security credentials of any platform, such as whether it offers end-to-end encryption, passwords and host controls are and should be some of the first questions anyone looking for a learning at a distance platform should ask.

To prevent multiple logins, participant links to join should be unique and single-use – that way, once a pupil logs in, anyone else they pass the details onto will not be able to get access.

The potential benefits of learning at a distance in schools are significant, not only for pupils but also for teachers and other organisations with a remit for outreach into schools.

We recently saw a compelling example of this involving Brother’s own video conferencing platform Omnijoin. Network Rail is currently converting much of its Great Western routes in South West England and South Wales, a project that has safety implications for children across the region.

Working with our partner Learn Live and using OmniJoin, Network Rail’s safety education schools is running a distance learning programme that will reach almost a million pupils across thousands of schools – something that just wouldn’t have been achievable or affordable using the traditional school visiting approach.

I believe we’re on the verge of an explosion of learning at a distance approaches such as this in schools. If you think it could bring benefits to your school, it’s well worth researching the capabilities of platforms such as OmniJoin, which have advanced in leaps and bounds in recent years.

Click here for more information on Brother’s OmniJoin Virtual Classroom solutions.

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