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A Resources special: Online learning - Education needs to plug into Web 2.0

Social media is not the enemy. In fact, it can be a valuable asset in the classroom, argues Tom Barrett

Social media is not the enemy. In fact, it can be a valuable asset in the classroom, argues Tom Barrett

Rummaging through a pile of papers recently, I discovered an old book: A Guide to Using the Internet for Teachers. It made me laugh to think I owned such an antiquated manual, but it was published in the early 2000s - not so long ago. We are repeatedly told how the "computing power in our pockets" has changed our lives. But perhaps it is the worlds that have been built online that affect us the most.

In the late 1990s, when I started out as an ICT coordinator, social media was something for dedicated geeks. Today, the public's acceptance of websites such as Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest is staggering. Yet much remains the same in the bubble of education. While I imagine that 100 per cent of educators use Facebook at home, that percentage plummets in school. Bridging the gap still seems impossible for many teachers.

Neil Hopkin, executive head of Rosendale and Christ Church primary schools in South London, suggests that heads should set the agenda for innovation. "It's crucial that they don't let crushing administrative pressure prevent them from innovating," he says. "They can't abdicate responsibility."

In Norway, almost all older children take laptops to school. But simply providing pupils with the equipment is not enough. On a recent visit to the country, I found that few educators used blogs or Twitter for their own learning or in the classroom. This appears to be a global story.

Perhaps one of the biggest barriers to engaging with the social web in schools is the perceived issue of safety: many teachers say they are left feeling helpless when pupils' work is available on the World Wide Web. I have been blogging with classes for eight years and these common-sense guidelines always work:

- Be open to parents and allow them to share any concerns.

- Moderate all comments before they are posted online.

- Have a clear and robust e-safety policy.

- Work within the school policy on images of children on blogs.

- Publish a set of blogging guidelines on your site and share them with parents.

- Make sure the whole school community is aware of your work.

Another stumbling block for teachers can be the perceived complexity of technology. Yet new social tools allow us to build beautiful sites with a few clicks. Free tools such as Tumblr or Posterous can get you started, while Blogger and WordPress can help you to build something more substantial. These tools allow you to concentrate on the discussion and the content, and just like any great learning technology, they melt into the background as the learning comes to the fore.

My own blogging journey ran in parallel with a class blog I set up in 2006. The pupils and I both benefited from the connections we made with schools across the world and we began to learn from people we had never met. Chris Harte, lead teacher for personalised learning at John Monash Science School in Melbourne, Australia, describes feeling a similar sense of community when sharing his own professional learning. "I soon realised that I was not blogging for others but for my own professional reflection. It was my place to look at my own practice," he says. "The fact that some people were interested, read and commented on my writing, forced me to think in different ways, sent me scurrying to read and learn from other blogs, and I very quickly became a member of a community of bloggers."

Blogs are a platform to publish to the world, shouting about the wonderful things happening in your classroom, and they offer the perfect space for developing language and literacy skills. Through blogs, parents can see their children learning pretty much as it happens, without having to wait until the end of the day to ask them what they have been studying. It is appealing to look beyond our own borders but it is often communication within your immediate community - your class, their parents, the school - that has the most powerful impact. The blog is a chronicle of the life and times of your classroom: something to be proud of.

Jon Overton, ICT coordinator at Rosendale Primary, says children from his class of two years ago continue to return to the class blog to reflect on their learning. "It is an ongoing record of their collective learning journey and they love to revisit it," he says.

Although it is hard to predict what the future holds for young learners, we can be certain that the information available to us will keep growing. Every 10 days, more than 100 years' worth of video footage is uploaded to YouTube; Facebook has 1 billion users a month and there are more than 100 million Tumblr and WordPress blogs.

In the near future, young historians will watch news events as they unfold on the social web, and will learn as much about prominent figures from their blogs and Facebook likes as from their actions. As educators, we should be central to pupils' growing understanding of what it means to learn from and with these tools. We must help learners to develop the finesse to tiptoe selectively rather than wading through overwhelming amounts of content. To do so we need a deeper focus on skilled searching and the wider elements of information and digital literacy. Children need to use the internet but they should also learn when other search tools are more effective.

Allow only some children to use Google within a project and encourage the whole class to reflect on how they are gathering information. How easy was it to obtain? Did Google have a noticeable impact? What were its limitations? Use the project to start a discussion about search engines.

"In the same way that we teach children to measure lines on a page using a 30cm ruler rather than a metre stick, we need to help children to find the right tool for the job," Overton says. "That might be another child in their class, a dictionary or the 'define' option within Google search. But the same question asked of a classmate may elicit a much clearer and more relevant answer. We need to be teaching children how to search, of course, but also when to search."

Perhaps we do not need that old teacher's guide to using the internet, but we certainly need an open-minded approach to the changing nature of the social web. Sharing my professional reflections over the years has helped to define the way I learn my trade and uncovered communities that to this day inspire and support me. Educators need to be on the front line, positively influencing how our young learners see the social web and helping them to discover how best to use it, search it and leverage the tools on offer to effect change in their own lives.

Tom Barrett is a senior consultant for NoTosh, a global design, learning and digital consultancy (, and a former primary deputy head. Follow him on Twitter at @tombarrett and read his blog at edte.chblog

What else?

Developing good internet habits is a long game and should involve the whole school community. Here are a few tips to get you started:

Get your class to solve the daily A Google a Day puzzle.

Read the Tree Octopus website, a "spoof" information site often used by educators to discuss and explore authentic web content. zapatopi.nettreeoctopus

Access the Google Search Education curriculum. bit.lyGoogleEdSearch

Find different ways to search the internet - what other tools are out there? bit.lySearchTools

Read The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser and reflect on how the way online material is filtered affects online life in schools.

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