Published in the TES on 16th September 2005
Online communities based around Blogging, Wikis and MSN are growing faster than any other use of the internet. Ten years ago, a young person’s community did not extend very far from their school, today they are linked with people all over the world who have similar interests or views. These new global communities have incredible potential for collaborative learning but don’t fit easily within current schools.
The problem is that learning within a community is most effective when everyone is equal and has something to offer. The structures within schools tend to dictate that we the teachers hold the answers and so many of the ‘in school’ online communities tend to be moderated by teachers who get very nervous if pupils seem to be straying too far off task. Conversely when the child gets home and goes to MSN for example, they can freely chat to children all around the world who are there by choice, each getting as much from the community. If we want to unlock the considerable opportunity for collaborative learning offered by the internet then we must train children how to operate effectively and safely in such communities and empower them with the authority to feed their informal learning back into their school.
In order for children to negotiate ‘virtual’ communities they need to know how ‘real’ ones work first. Nowhere is this achieved more impressively than at the Grange School in Long Eaton (http://www.grangeton.com/ ). The school has set up a complete town entirely managed by the children. This problem based approach encourages students to understand the skills that exist in their community and how to employ them collaboratively to solve problems. The children accept that they are modelling the outside world and so their internal use of ICT as a mini internet used to share radio, generated knowledge and news is excellent training for the real thing. As Headteacher Richard Gerver says, ‘Grangeton is where they get to try out the skills they are learning in context, to see how they will be useful when they go into the real world,'
At the Five Islands School on the Isles of Scilly, the primary school community is split between four schools servicing five separate islands. Online collaboration is being achieved through setting common extended problems for the children to solve for which they alone will come up with solutions. If they hit a problem, the children can send instant messages to share the problem, use VOIP (telephone calls to multiple people through the computer for free), they can set up a blog so that suggestions and ideas can be stored, shared and built upon or they can Wiki to organically build up a handbook. As with the Grange school, children very quickly determine the network of skills within the community and feel genuinely empowered to contribute to a growing body of knowledge around shared problems. This knowledge is partly generated by the experiences of the students, partly harvested by research and partly evaluated from contrasting sources. Blogs, Wikis, Conferences and MSN communities then serve as the vehicles for sharing this knowledge bank.
Successful international online collaborative communities also tend to be based around a shared problem and use the internet to harvest and share the knowledge created whilst trying to solve it. The British council has set up a number of such excellent examples including the Dreams and Teams scheme in which children in Thai schools and children in UK schools both have to set up and run sporting events. Ivybridge Community College in Devon has then used the leadership skills gained by its students through such schemes to further the scope of its student voice.
The sidebar explains how you can get started but why not begin by commenting on what you have just read. I have posted the question “does blogging have any educational value?” at http://www.danbuckleyblog.blogspot.com/. If you visit the blog and click on ‘comments’, you can add your opinion or read the comments which may (or may not) be posted there. I promise not to moderate your responses however cutting they are.
Advice for getting started
Get blogging! Take a look for blogs that interest you using the search engine at http://websearch.about.com/od/internetresearch/a/newsblog.htm. Write your own blog by going to http://www.blogger.com/. Don’t worry about making your first attempt gripping, if you haven’t commented on anyone else’s blog then yours will be quite hard for others to find at first. Comment on this article at http://www.danbuckleyblog.blogspot.com/
Get a Wiki! Wiki sites can be written to by all the participants equally with anyone able to change any page and no official editor. The Wiki encyclopaedia is going strong at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collaborative_writing and is very informative. Like open source software it is a global collaborative problem solving exercise and somehow it works. Take a look at some existing Wikis to get the idea. I liked http://www.wiktionary.org/ and http://www.kayakforum.com/cgi-sys/cgiwrap/guille/wiki.pl. Now you know how they work set up your own by downloading the free version at using any of these http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wiki_farms.
Get instant messaging! If you are not already into instant messaging you can download MSN for free at http://www.msn.com/ or http://www.skype.com/ then you need to convince someone else you know to do the same or seek out a random new friend.
Get ideas! Go to some of the following sites and shamelessly steal ideas to use in your classroom. I really like the potato project at http://www.britishcouncil.org/montageworld.htm, http://vinccil253.blogspot.com/or http://buckman.pps.k12.or.us/classrooms/leake/
Get serious! In the article I have suggested that our current approach to online learning is failing our children’s future needs. Online conferences are like managed collections of blogs which allow you to get involved in the debate http://www.thefutureofwork.net/blog/archives/2005_07.html, http://www.sst-inet.net/olc/default.aspx or http://www.learningtimes.org/
Get technical! Your network managers can host wiki and blogger sites for free. Lots of open source tools exist. The best is probably http://www.moodle.com/ but http://www.druval.com/ is also extremely popular.