Online communities based around blogging (weblogs), wikis (collaborative ventures like Wikipedia) and instant messaging services from the likes of MSN and Google are the fastest growing parts of the internet. Ten years ago, a young person's community did not extend very far from their school. Today, they can be linked with people all over the world who have similar interests or views. These new global communities have incredible potential for collaborative learning, but they don't fit easily within current schools.
The problem, in my view, is that learning within a community is most effective when everyone is equal and has something to offer. Structures within schools tend to dictate that, we, the teachers, hold the answers, and 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 topic. Conversely, when children get home and go online, they can chat freely to children all around the world who are there by choice, each getting as much as each other from the community. To unlock the considerable opportunity for collaborative learning the internet offers then we must train children how to operate effectively and safely in such communities, and give them the authority to feed their informal learning back into their school.
To negotiate "virtual" communities children need to know how "real" ones work first. Nowhere is this achieved more impressively than at the Grange School in Long Eaton, Derbyshire. The school has set up a complete virtual town (www.grangeton.com) 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 their internal use of ICT 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 achieved through setting common extended problems for the children to solve, for which they alone will come up with solutions. If they get stuck, the children can send instant messages to share the problem; use VoIP (free telephone calls from the computer using Voice over Internet Protocol); set up a blog so that suggestions and ideas can be stored, shared and built upon; or they can wiki to build up a handbook organically. As with the Grange School project, 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 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 and UK schools both have to set up and run sporting events. Ivybridge Community College in Devon has used the leadership skills gained through such schemes to further the scope of its student voice.
Teaching tips, right, explains how to get started, but you could begin by commenting on this piece. I've posed the question "Does blogging have any educational value?" at www.danbuckleyblog.blogspot.com where you can add your views and comments. And I promise not to moderate your responses.
* Get blogging
Look for blogs that interest you at www.technorati.com. Create your own blog at www.blogger.com. Comment on this article at www.danbuckleyblog.blogspot.com
* Get a Wiki
Wiki sites can be written by all the participants equally with anyone able to change any page and no official editor. The Wiki Encyclopaedia is very informative. Like Open Source Software it is a global collaborative problem-solving exercise and somehow it works.
http:en.wikipedia.orgwikiCollaborative_writing Take a look at some existing Wikis to get the idea. Once you know how they work set up your own by downloading the free version at http:en.wikipedia.org wikiList_of_wiki_farms.
* Get instant messaging
If you are not already into instant messaging you can download software from MSN, for example, free. Then you need to convince someone else you know to do the same, or seek out a new friend.
* Get free phone calls
Download Skype and you can use your computer to make calls over the internet, free, to other Skype users.
* Get ideas
Go to these sites and borrow ideas for your classroom. www.britishcouncil.org montageworld.htm, http:vinccil253.blogspot.com http:buckman.pps.k12.or.usclassroomsleakewww.ivybridge.devon.sch.uk
* Get serious
Our current approach to online learning is failing our children's future needs. Online conferences allow you to get involved in the debate. Join in at www.thefutureofwork.netblogarchives2005_07.html www.sst-inet.netolcwww.learningtimes.org
* Get technical
Your network managers can host wiki and blogging sites free. Lots of open source tools exist - the best place to start is probably http:moodle.org