SOUTH AFRICA'S FIRST VIRTUAL CLASSROOM IS A HIT WITH STUDENTS

Computing

Two schools have engaged in a resource-sharing project in a way that places their students in a classroom of the future. Unlike other schools in a similar situation, which bus pupils between venues, this pioneering pair have used technology.Using two standard Microsoft PCs, two simple webcams, two headsets, a few cheap speakers and two Smart whiteboards, St Alban's College and Gatang High School in Gauteng may have revolutionised the African classroom.

The schools are two of five involved in the Ulwazi E-Learning Project, a pilot broadband wireless schools network project being conducted in the Pretoria area.With the help of Motorola and the Department of Communications, these schools have deployed a broadband wireless technology that has allowed a teacher at St Alban's to teach science to a class at Gatang, 20km east of the capital in Mamelodi.

"The most amazing thing about this project," says an excited Ron Beyers, who teaches the class, "is that there are virtually no running costs.After an initial set-up cost, there are no fees for connecting the schools and staying online to teach the lesson. There are no data or call costs." Beyers and another technology enthusiast, Richard Gerber, from the Department of Communications, came up with the concept about five years ago when they met at a conference in Morocco. This meeting sparked the birth of what is thought to be the first virtual classroom in Africa.

Using Smart boards, which were supplied by Omega Digital Technologies, Beyers is able to teach from many kilometres away in real-time, while seeing, hearing and interacting with the remote pupils. The boards are powered by two PCs that use Microsoft's NetMeeting technology.The core of the project is Motorola's Canopy technology, which enables a private broadband wireless network that links the schools without the need for a satellite or any other communication channel.

All five schools involved in the pilot project have already been equipped with the Canopy technology, but three schools are waiting for funding for computers and Smart boards. Pupils at Gatang can view Beyers on a video win-dow that is projected onto the interactive whiteboard, which is identical to the whiteboard in Beyers's science laboratory.

"Being able to be a part of Mr Beyers's lessons is helping us with our school work because we cannot do all the experiments he can do in his lab," said Francis Mashaba, a Grade 10 learner who attends the fortnightly voluntary classes. "It has been good for revising what we've been learning because it's with another teacher. We can't afford all the chemicals that St Alban's College has," he added.

With bright flashes of chemical explosions, Gatang pupils are shown what happens when sodium is set alight, and when potassium is dipped in water. Beyers adds to the realism of the experience by coughing as he chokes on the fumes of his experiment."You should be using a fume cupboard," comments Leslie Hlengani, Gatang's science teacher, speaking to Beyers across the Canopy network.

At a more than safe distance from Beyers's mad science explosions, Mashaba and his classmates are able to see the colours of the chemical flames and the brightness of the explosions.The only thing the pupils miss out on is the smell and the heat.The pupils are later asked to approach the interactive whiteboard and to explain various chemistry theories to Beyers.

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