Ireland's picturesque Lough Swilly is at the centre of a fierce debate about fish farming that has been raging for three years. But Eugene Leneghan's upper-sixth geography students had only 10 days to weigh the arguments and make up their minds on the Lough's future. Working with students from another Belfast school, their online exercise developed decision-making skills and bonds between the schools.
Mr Leneghan is head of geography and ICT at Aquinas Diocesan Grammar School, which for the past two years has taken part in the Online Decision Making Exercise (ODME). A pilot project running in Northern Ireland schools, ODME prepares students for the decision-making paper in A2 geography. In the exam, students are presented with facts and arguments about a controversial issue and asked to make a decision. Only on the day is the topic revealed - it could be anything from a new terminal at Heathrow to the siting of a golf course on the outskirts of a village.
Candidates are assessed on the quality of their analysis and argument.
In the ODME, students work online in teams. Schools work in pairs; in this case, Aquinas and Wellington College. Mr Leneghan says: "Both schools are grammars from different sectors of the community. Before the project we had already developed a relationship through Education for Mutual Understanding, a programme which has been running in Northern Ireland schools for more than 10 years."
The project begins with an afternoon briefing at Wellington, where the two geography classes meet for the first time. This year they were grouped into eight teams, each with three students from Wellington and two from Aquinas.
The briefing offers a chance for a chat. After that, the teams will not meet again until they gather at Aquinas to present their conclusions.
Stephen Roulston, the consultant who devised ODME, outlines the objectives and demonstrates the software. Students log on to the project website, where they will work in a virtual learning environment that provides everything needed for the exercise. There they consult the background material, discuss it as a team and put together their presentation.
The question they have to decide is whether to extend fish-farming in Lough Swilly, County Donegal. Critics say that extending it will pollute the water, threaten wild fish and ruin tourism, an important source of revenue.
Supporters say salmon and shellfish-farming do no damage to the environment and create much-needed jobs. The students must imagine that they are on a government planning board, and consider the economic, social and environmental arguments.
Mr Roulston created the background material. He visited Lough Swilly to do video interviews with key figures in the debate - three for and three against. He sought a balanced set of views to make decision-making as challenging as possible. Personalities range from an angry resident denouncing the salmon cages at the end of his garden as "pig farms in the water" to the chief executive of a fish-farming firm who champions his industry's role in keeping the water clean. There are maps, photographs and narrative material, and links to public websites. Students are discouraged from surfing the internet for their own sources. Mr Leneghan says: "There is a wealth of material on the website. As in the examination, the tenor is, 'Here are the resources - deduce your answer from these alone'. " At the briefing, teams allocate responsibilities - one student might be responsible for the introductory section of the presentation, another for marshalling the economic pros and cons. They use PowerPoint to create slides and publish these online for the rest of the team to review and amend. The presentation should evolve during the project as views are discussed and refined.
Mr Leneghan says: "We want to see a progression of six, 10, even 15 versions of the slides."
After the briefing, communication continues online via a team discussion board. Students are encouraged to use the board rather than email. Messages they publish can be shared by the whole team, and also serve as a record of decision-making, providing the basis for later feedback, and teachers can monitor the discussions. Mr Leneghan says there are few disagreements.
"When the pressure is on, they very quickly come to a consensus," he says.
At Aquinas, Mr Leneghan books a couple of sessions in the computer suite for his class and estimates that they spend at least another three hours working on the project outside school. "I am a facilitator," he says. "As long as I know they can go online and co-operate in their groups, I stand back and let it evolve."
Teams deliver their final presentations at Aquinas using an interactive whiteboard. Later, their presentations and discussion-board messages are reviewed by two A-level examiners who provide each team with informal feedback on how they interpreted the resources and presented their conclusions.
Mr Leneghan says: "The exercise is brilliant. You can't teach decision-making skills on the blackboard - they can be learned only through experience. It is hard to sell the project to students at first. They say the content is not part of their course specification. Only when they begin to work through it do they realise that it is not the content but the skills they are learning that are important."
He believes the teamwork is of immense value. "Producing collaborative work as part of a team of people you don't really know is something that anyone would want to include in a personal statement or CV," he says. "The project is another strand in our relationship with our colleagues at Wellington.
This is a relationship we have fostered over many years, and we are very keen to maintain it."
The ODME is one of a number of collaborative projects which have taken place at Aquinas. Last year the school was laureate winner in Northern Ireland's ET Sharing Excellent Practice Awards, which recognise outstanding achievement in the application of educational technology.
Mr Roulston, ODME's creator, is also a curriculum consultant for Classroom 2000, an initiative which provides every school in Northern Ireland with computers and online educational resources. All schools will be linked by a network, and findings from ODME are being used in the creation of Learning NI, a virtual learning environment due to be launched next September. He says teachers and pupils have noted how the online dimension helps to bring issues to life. As one student says: "It all felt very real - but on paper it feels fictional."
Mr Roulston adds: "There are no teaching materials for the decision-making paper, so students work through old exam papers. Sometimes there is collaboration in class, but usually it is individual work, and it is really difficult to latch on to the skills. The only way to get through it is to talk through the issues. In ODME, the real learning takes place on the discussion boards."
He says that Northern Ireland's Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) is to look at the potential of an online decision-making geography exam. CCEA is already piloting several online examinations, including one in GCSE geography, although this is not a collaborative exercise.
Mr Roulston says: "There are issues in assessing an individual's contribution to a collaborative project - but it is the collaboration that is particularly exciting."
ODME is being adapted for younger pupils, with a similar exercise being designed for KS3.Classroom 2000: www.c2kni.org ODME uses virtual learning environment software by Blackboard: www.blackboard.com