As Italy confirms it will shut all schools for 10 days to contain the coronavirus, we’ve been thinking ahead to the possibility that schools in England might also have to shut.
The government is still deciding what measures will be taken in the event of a more serious outbreak, but has previously said they could include closing schools and encouraging people to work from home.
Here at GovernorHub we’ve been pondering the need for virtual board meetings. GovernorHub Director and all-round techie Neil Collins has been investigating and we asked him a few questions about how such meetings might work in practice.
So Neil do you think it would be possible for the average school in England to host a virtual board meeting where everyone ‘logs in’ from home?
Yes it’s definitely possible but there would need to be a fair bit of preparation and some consideration about the technology to use.
….(here comes the techie bit)
Over recent years there have been many advances in web-based video conferencing. Web-based is important because it means people don’t need to install specialist software on their computers – all they really need is a web cam, microphone and speakers. Most laptops, and certainly smartphones and iPads, are capable of doing this now.
The challenge though is making it work as a conference i.e. where you’ve got multiple people connected in to the call. This is where modern software has really improved things and a good video web conferencing solution now includes things like echo cancellation on the audio (your voice isn’t played back to you), active speaker recognition (the video switches to the speaker) and firewall traversal (so it will work in corporate or school networks).
Who do you foresee would host the call?
Good question. Someone would need to set up the call and tell everyone how to join, for example by posting a link on the GovernorHub noticeboard (other governing board software solutions are available!).
So this could be, for example, the Business Manager or Clerk setting it up and sharing a link with everyone else. Governors would then sign in through the link at the given time.
We know from experience that tech can be an issue for governors – this would apply here too surely?
Yep video conferencing is notoriously tricky to get right. Modern systems do come with ways to test your equipment ahead of the actual call itself which saves the first 10 minutes of a meeting being spent on ‘Can you hear me?’ questions.
Everyone needs to be on a decent broadband connection too but most domestic broadband will be more than suitable.
So are there any systems that you’d recommend?
There are quite a few solutions now on the market for example Skype for Business, Google Hangouts and Webex. However the one we’ve had most experience with at GovernorHub is Zoom. This has all the key features you need to use in web conferencing for a governor meeting; a simple web link for people to click on to join, a test conference (https://zoom.us/test) which members can use to test their equipment and application sharing so that it’s possible to share documents or slides into the meeting too (in addition to the video).
Sounds great – but what’s the cost?
There are normally free versions of web video conferencing options, some of which are actually very good. The trouble is you do normally need to pay for a system if you need it to work well for a two hour meeting with multiple parties. The cost of a suitable Zoom conference for example is around £10-15 per month.
Are there any legal constraints to this?
(…enter GovernorHub Data Protection Officer Alex Robinson for this one…)
Governing boards should agree to allow video or audio conferencing to take place in accordance with Part 4 Section 14(8) of The School Governance (Roles, Procedures and Allowances) (England) Regulations 2013 which states:
“The governing body may approve alternative arrangements for governors to participate or vote at meetings of the governing body including but not limited to by telephone or video conference.”
It’s also in the ‘departmental advice’ document issued by the DfE here (in Key Points on page 4).
Academy Trusts should approve video or audio conferencing for their Trust Board and Local Boards in accordance with their Articles of Association.
OK thanks Neil. Now this is important, what’s the etiquette for a web meeting. Any tips?
Yes, tip one is don’t forget your camera is on and start picking your nose (that’s one for Headteachers). More seriously, it really does change how meetings work and if possible try to make the meeting shorter. For some reason, anything over an hour on a web conference is even more draining than a normal meeting.
Another tip is avoid, if you possibly can, people calling in without video. It’s almost like having someone in the room with a box over their head – it tends not to work.
Make sure you limit the number of people at each laptop or device. This is primarily because the range on a laptop or tablet microphone isn’t good enough for picking up someone sitting at any sort of distance. Also remember that you’ll need to tell people to mute their microphones if they’ve got a lot of background noise (because of echo cancellation they won’t hear their background noise and therefore won’t realise it’s an issue).
It’s well worth doing a test run of the meeting technology first with a few participants, just in case something’s not going to work. That’s a bit obvious but still useful.
Finally, can you see this sort of thing actually happening in the case of school closures?
In a word, yes. Video meetings are never going to be as good as a face-to-face meetings, even with the best technology out there. However if schools are closed then this does become a practical and viable option for governing boards.