It's not often you hear an ICT project described as "a life-changing experience" - at least, not in a good way. But that's exactly how teachers in Bolton feel about a collaboration with schools in Hong Kong and Beijing that has broadened the horizons of everyone involved.
The Bolton primaries - St Gregory's, Bishop Bridgeman, and Markland Hill - have co-operated using Knowledge Community, a web-based discussion and collaboration tool.
Knowledge Community is used by 5,000 students and 200 teachers worldwide.
It allows teachers, pupils and parents to share information, communicate and apply skills, such as problem-solving, modelling and decision-making, to learning projects. It was created by Dr Christopher Tan, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the University of South Australia.
Teachers from the Bolton schools visited Hong Kong with the help of funding from the British Council to see Knowledge Community in action before putting it into their own classrooms.
Dr Tan is currently organising a return visit this year. He says: "Schools came out and saw how it worked and talked to schools that were already using it. We have since been working together to get them started."
Collaboration is the key to the project. "Originally, the schools came for help and to see how IT could be integrated into the classroom. This is how we began - helping them to try out software. After we had done some projects, I saw an opportunity in this area and devised some software. It now helps schools meet standards in many countries and aids children's development."
Children in Bolton can now collaborate with their peers in Asia, and Dr Tan is working on similar projects in China, Singapore and New York. He also speaks at ICT conferences around the world to introduce his work to new audiences.
"Part of my job is to get schools to do this in two stages: collaboration at school level and then inter-school collaboration," he says. Subjects explored by pupils using Knowledge Community in Hong Kong include how to protect endangered species, air pollution in the region and twins.
Bolton pupils are currently collaborating with five schools in Hong Kong and Singapore on a six-month project to explore festivals and celebrations of the major world religions. The aim is to develop pupils' knowledge and understanding of the world's major faiths, but also - and this is a crucial aspect of the Knowledge Community - their thinking and questioning skills, as well as their basic skills.
Dr Tan, who has been researching learning communities since 2000, and working with the Bolton schools since February 2004, says that the development of active learning is a crucial component.
"The project is about communities, collaboration and sharing. The idea is for students to explore and to find out how to do so, while maintaining their freedom and interest. We have invested a lot of time in this."
The key aim is student-centred learning. Dr Tan believes that current practice, where a teacher prepares a project, initiates work in the classroom and asks students to collect and analyse information, is flawed.
He sees learning communities - which offer a range of ways to learn and for teachers to engage students - as the way forward.
But he admits there can be difficulties. These include the likelihood that learning objectives are hard to design and measure, a lack of structure and the risk of evaluating the product, not the process.
Knowledge Community aims to overcome these by getting teachers to design learning scaffolds - a concept that Dr Tan says seems to have disappeared from contemporary learning.
Scaffolds are collections of simple words, images, and symbols in the Knowledge Community environment that help students learn and think in a structured way. They can also be used to assist teachers with setting up and evaluating a learning project, as well as directing students'
Other useful tools include discussion forums, hyperlinks, multimedia, a keyword glossary, charts, maps, presentation tools and a timeline. And teachers can view and analyse students' notes, as well as seeing what scaffolds and other features they employ.
"Unlike many education applications, which belong to the domains of information seeking and communication, Knowledge Community is designed for knowledge-building," says Dr Tan. "The learning process - in terms of the individual student's performance and the collective knowledge gained - is then analysed to provide information for facilitation and assessment."
Examples of Knowledge Community at work can be seen on the 3i Project website. "Inter-disciplinary", "inter-school" and "international" provide the three Is of the project title. www.3iproject.net
Also see www.globalkc.net
Graham Burrows is headteacher at Bishop Bridgeman CE primary school.
Chris Tan came to Bolton to talk about his work and wanted to visit schools. We were fascinated by what he said.
We had an issue with pupils' thinking and research skills, so he suggested making contact with schools in Hong Kong to collaborate on projects. And that' how we came to go out there.
It was an amazing experience; it certainly was life-changing. My office is full of Hong Kong memorabilia and it has had a huge impact on our school.
We saw how Knowledge Community was being used in a Hong Kong way; there is a strong emphasis on attainment and a culture of learning among pupils that we're keen to develop.
When we came back, we set up a project between three Bolton schools that is ongoing. At Christmas the festivals and celebrations project started. Our kids were overjoyed at being able to communicate with people in Hong Kong and Singapore.
It's not just about getting online to find out whether people have replied; the learning and sharing of information have been amazing motivators.
We plan to go back out there. We are working on another project, due to launch in September, and hope to increase the number of schools that are taking part.
For us, Knowledge Community is a cross-curricular ICT strand, but it has an impact right across the curriculum - on reading, writing and research skills.
Pupils are sufficiently enthused to take work home and to access the community with their parents. Eighteen months ago I wouldn't have believed that was possible.
I suggest that schools jump at the opportunity to join, but they must have staff on board who appreciate the incredible potential.
Approach it with an open mind - it is so much more than merely an ICT project. My two staff who head the project are invaluable with their vision of how we can take this forward.
John Bidder is ICT officer for Bolton local education authority.
I met Chris Tan at a conference in Manchester. I invited him to Bolton - and we took it from there.
We worked out ways to collaborate - the prime areas were active learning, reading, writing and web skills.
The Knowledge Community allows children and teachers to produce their own learning methods and objectives. It focuses on thinking types and enables the teacher and children to pick up on this.
He really promotes a blended learning approach, and if used to its full potential it's a very powerful tool.
The collaboration has been life-changing for those who took part in the Hong Kong visit. They can develop and revisit what they've done and see various approaches to learning. It was also interesting to see how the social status of teachers is different in another part of the world.
When Chris first presented at our conference he was with us for a couple of days. He asked if he could visit some schools and we asked for volunteers.
Of the three schools chosen, one is in quite a leafy area, another in a deprived area and the other has a diverse ethnic mix, adding another dimension to the collaboration.
Building a community
* Dr Chris Tan estimates the cost of implementing a community with Knowledge Community at pound;150 per class per year.
* Key features include a flexible learning community that can incorporate pupils, teachers and parents from different classes, schools and countries; flexible forums for sharing ideas and information; multimedia input; and learning portfolios for each participant.
* Learning scaffolds are used to guide learners. Teachers have access to analysis that allows them to judge the extent of collaboration, the learning process and the knowledge-building achieved by their pupils.
* Anyone wanting to know more can contact Dr Tan direct at email@example.com or visit www.learningexpert.net