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The Australian Museum in Sydney — Australia’s first museum — houses the nation’s most important animal, mineral, fossil and anthropological collections.
With its aim to inspire the exploration of nature and cultures, the museum has a strong educational and outreach program and a mission to connect to audiences that can’t visit the collections in person.
18 years after the museum first began offering video conferencing programs to remote students, over 10% of all schools that visit now do so by videoconference.
Karen Player, Manager, Outreach and Discovery, says that up to 10,000 students a year take part in a videoconference program.
“Schools that connect to us by videoconference are typically in regional New South Wales or interstate and are too far away to travel to Sydney.
“Often the schools are very small; there may be 10 students in total. We also connect to hospital schools, whose children can’t travel.”
Up to 60 scheduled videoconferences a year focus on bringing the museum’s collections to life as well as helping students engage with the Museum’s experts.
Ongoing programs include Minibeast Magnified, Geology Rocks, Fascinating Fossils and a range of cultural programs.
Karen explains that all programs aim to help teachers introduce new topics to a class, or to supplement and summarise previous learnings.
“All our programs are linked to specific skills and activities, and sessions are often based on careers in science or in a museum.
“We encourage schools to carry out related experiments back in the classroom, and to use modern day techniques to uncover the past.”
As well as programs linked to the museum’s collections, some videoconferences are also tied to specific projects or current affairs.
“We have a new citizen science program called FrogID, which encourages students to explore their own environment by using an app to record frog sounds and help count Australia’s frogs,” Karen said.
“This program is linked to a videoconference, Why Frogs Count?, which helps explain the link between frogs and the environment and encourages schools to use FrogID in the classroom.”
Other one-off sessions are scheduled around current events such as Harmony Day, World Environment Day and NAIDOC week.
Each videoconference session is around 40 minutes long, with up to six schools attending at any one time.
For schools that can’t attend at the scheduled time, the museum can also run sessions on demand to help fit in with class timetables.
Karen explains that interactivity is important for a successful session, particularly for younger children.
“Schools have their microphones turned on and students can ask the expert questions. We also get the younger kids to yell things out to help keep their attention or do actions like a volcano eruption.”
Thee videoconferences work best, says Karen, when teachers become friends with their equipment.
“There are often technical challenges when videoconferencing, but the Australian Museum is here to help.
“Running test calls or talking to us about any issues in advance of the session is always a good idea.”
The sessions are highly rated and many schools return to do either the same or a different session.
“DART Connections, who make our videoconferences available via their portal, carry out post-session evaluations with schools.
“Teachers overwhelmingly report that the students learnt so much, and that the session was a really great consolidation of the things they’ve learned in the classroom.”
Successful sessions rely on good quality broadband connections, as well as the right videoconferencing tools.
“Bandwidth is still an issue for some schools, which can really affect the quality of the session. It’s important to us that we provide flexibility to connect schools in different ways such as H323.”
For AARNet schools, connection to the AARNet network and directly on to the Australian Museum, which has a dedicated 1G connection to AARNet, means low-latency and fast videoconferencing sessions.
The Australian Museum has also recently implemented Zoom, a videoconferencing service provided by AARNet in Australia, and is finding it a useful way to connect to schools.
“We’ve recently starting using Zoom and carried out a number of calls using it. We expect use of Zoom will only continue to grow for us as it’s a much easier way to connect and isn’t impacted by things like firewalls.”
Australian Museum videoconferencing sessions can be arranged via Dart Connections, the Independent Schools Digital Collaboration Network (ISDCN), or by contacting the Australian Museum directly.
Image: Videoconferencing at the Australian Museum.