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Remote, but not out of touch

Remote communities are usually the quickest to take up new technologies and those in Scotland are at the leading edge. One Edinburgh conference session is devoted to STARS (Superhighway Teams Across Rural Schools), a project led by Northern College within the government's Superhighways for Education Initiative.

STARS looks at how computers and communications can bring new learning opportunities to pupils in remote schools, especially to able youngsters aged 8-14. The Scottish Council for Research in Education is due to report on its independent evaluation next year.

Three interactions are being studied. First, peer communication allows able pupils in different locations to share their interest in common topics and to overcome their relative isolation. Second, expert tutors from a distance can be brought in without the pupils having to travel, offering unprecedented learning opportunities. Finally, there are the opportunities provided by limitless fresh resources, facilities and materials available across the network.

In its first phase, the project is focusing on primary children (8-12 years), especially in smaller rural schools of up to four teachers in the Highlands and Islands. So far, 17 schools and more than 60 primary pupils have been involved. Their teachers' responses have been documented in the project's internal evaluation carried out by project directors at Northern College. Some of these not only demonstrate benefits to pupils and teachers, but also show wider effects.

The project's approach to learning is influenced largely by three thinkers. The most familiar name is Edward de Bono and his Cognitive Research Trust (CoRT) material for teaching thinking skills. Second is Lipman's logical and philosophical approach to improving children's thinking through discussion and reading; able children are stimulated by tasks that challenge them to derive hypotheses, classify, generalise and categorise.

A third influence is the Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment programme (FIE), which is based on the belief that human intellect is modifiable at all ages and stages. Each mental act is seen as having seven dimensions: content, mode, operation, phase, complexity, level of abstraction and level of efficiency, all of which can be enriched by the teacher as mediator.

The learning tasks have a problem-solving focus and are linked with Scotland's 5-14 guidelines in maths, environmental studies and English. The following comments from project teachers suggest that they appreciate the intellectual rigour of these approaches. "Tasks have been quite demanding and certainly got the children thinking and talking." "Children started to think and question what they were doing and why they were doing it." One grateful teacher said of the special teacher notes on solutions to tasks: "At times this was a godsend due to pressure of time."

As well as separate mailbox facilities and on-line conferencing, project teachers had telephone access to project directors. The only face-to-face contact was an Aberdeen teacher seminar. As usual, students came into their own when given responsibility to help out with the technology. Equipment demands were deliberately kept simple: a modern Mac or PC (for example, a 486-based system), a modem (14.4 K or better) and a standard dial-up telephone line.

The schools provide their own equipment and must give children regular access. The project provided FirstClass software for e-mail and conferencing. Education authority staff provide set-up and continuing support.

Two general concerns were widely voiced: that of linking the tasks with the everyday curriculum and that of knowing how much intervention and support to give students. Top of the wishlist for the future were access to the World Wide Web and video-conferencing.

At the EICC conference, Jennie Dowling and Jim Ewing of Northern College (Aberdeen and Dundee campuses respectively) will be presenting the STARS project. Their session will include an on-line demonstration, illustrating not only the learning tasks but also the support available through FirstClass and including sample pupil responses. They will also show excerpts of real interactions between pupils from different schools working over a short timescale on the same task.

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