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Lots to learn from country cousins

Stephen Heppell says rural schools can show their urban counterparts the way forward in IT. Contrast, for a moment, the small schools serving much of rural Scotland with the huge urban learning institutions that were built in the 1960s alongside vast new housing tower blocks. Just as many of those homes stacked in the sky are now being demolished in the name of community, we can now, with the help of information technology, begin to rethink the vertical learning structures of big schools.

In the Sixties, there were compelling reasons to build huge schools: how could we offer examination-level Russian in a school of only 400? Where would we find a specialist for Higher level economics? And anyway, the pressures of demography were considerable.

But suddenly, as we approach the end of the 1990s, we find through communication technology that the need to create the critical mass of students that allows broad curriculum choice does not depend on a common geographical location. We can connect them together in different places. Students as far apart as Australia and Scotland are busy proving that technology can bring learners together in a way that is sociable, affordable and plausible.

Whether it is the vast distances of the outback or the remoteness of our Highlands and Islands, a copper wire (or better still, dark fibre) with a handful of silicon offers a stark challenge to much that we had uncritically accepted about the way we have managed learning in the past 40 years or so.

It may just be that with the disadvantage of size solved by technology, the small rural school, heading for extinction a decade ago, now offers the blueprint of future learning organisations and institutions.

It is clear from many on-line learning experiments around the world that electronic communication does a lot more than simply circumvent the problems of distance and remoteness. SCET (the Scottish Council for Educational Technology) saw this earlier than most with its FirstClass conferencing system in the Highlands andE-cademy cable links across schools in Lothian (see page 8).

The opportunity to reflect before offering your comments, coupled with the chance to review others' contributions, has helped to generate electronic learning environments that are genuinely delightful. Teachers and students within them find that, freed from the indicators of age and status that are normal in our schools, a modeless learning develops where young and old work together when their interests and needs coincide and where teachers are happy to learn from and with students.

In a large school, where it is possible to find whole rooms of children whose immediate learning community is determined by a birth date that falls between two Septembers, this modeless learning may sound radical. But in a tiny school on the west coast of Scotland, it sounds like everyday life and it is to tiny schools that we must look for skills and strategies to make the most of the new collaborative and intimate learning environments technology offers. As children from large schools begin to link electronically with each other, the questions "how old are you?" and "are you a boy or girl?", give way to "are you interested in Vikings?".

Scotland's smallest schools have something else to teach the world: the relationship with the home. Again, IT is changing the playing field. Everyone from the traditional publisher to the digital broadcaster will confirm that home learning is the growth market of the new millennium. With 17 million households compared to fewer than 30,000 schools, it is easy to see why they are keen. Already the sales of "educational" CD-Roms to home far outstrip the sales to schools. How we harness the potential of many homes equipped with learning technology and how we handle the social equity issues of the have-nots are genuine causes for debate and concern.

Again, in the very large school, we see a one-way export of learning from the "expert" - the school. Work is taken home as homework and the wealthier parents try to build microcosms of the school with little desks in children's bedrooms. But every small school teacher will agree that their school is not the only learning source: learning in the community and the family is especially important and the small school offers a place where that learning can be shared, evaluated and celebrated.

If we are to realise the full potential that technology offers us for learning outside our traditional educational institutions, then once again it is the model offered by our tiny rural schools that may offer the best hope. Small schools never try to "own" learning precisely because they are too small to do so. Yet their role at the heartof the learning community is undisputed.

The explosion of home learning that technology has brought means that, eventually, large schools too will be unable to "own" learning, yet they also need a role in the new learning community.

Economic progress has a habit of destroying the things we need for our future in a frantic attempt to bury the past. Tower blocks destroyed the very communities that we are now frantically trying to recreate. We must be careful to ensure that we do not make the same mistake with our learning communities. IT and telecommunications allow us to rethink the way we organise learning and we desperately need working and effective models. Scotland, at least, has plenty of places where we can look. It is a huge advantage.

* Conference: Professor Stephen Heppell, director of Ultralab atAnglia Polytechnic University, will talk about Learning for the new Millennium, Wednesday 2.00pm.

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