A problem shared

27th October 2000 at 01:00
Feeling isolated? Well, the internet really can help. Elizabeth Holmes guides us through the online world of newsgroups and websites

As if you didn't have enough people to communicate with and jobs to do already, without being confronted with the ever-growing numbers of internet newsgroups. However, with a little caution, these just might be the key to added value in your teaching.

Usenet is a collection of more than 60,000 newsgroups - topic-based discussion groups - covering a huge range of subjects. Each group is a public forum, creating the opportunity for users to air views, ask questions and respond to others' messages.

Access to newsgroups is courtesy of your internet service provider - ISP - which will have selected the newsgroups it considers suitable for general consumption - the porn and anti-social material will probably have been filtered out. That said, there will still be many thousands of groups to choose from.

In the UK, the education newsgroups are great for networking and "meeting" fellow teachers in schools around the country and the world. Often, a question posted on a particular problem or issue, or a simple request for ideas or support, will generate replies from teachers of diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and they are likely to suggest useful internet addresses, which is extremely positive.

Other non-education newsgroups can also be a reliable source of information for teachers. If you're tackling a large project on a particular topic with a class, there is bound to be a newsgroup offering access to an expert in that field who may be in a position to short-cut your burden of research.

Second-year PGCE student Darren Birchall founded uk.education.teachers.trainee, a newsgroup created specifically to deal with the many queries that were being posted to the more general uk.education.teachers and uk.education.staffroom newsgroups. Birchal has been impressed by the variety of postings from teachers of a wide range of experience and training. He says: "This variety has pleased me most because I think all the subscribers have had their own individual situations and problems put in perspective."

Perhaps this is a key to the education newsgroups' success. With the demands of induction and the first years of establishment in a new profession, support must come from somewhere - if not in the "real" world, then the virtual one may be a temporary substitute.

Discussion groups for educators are also hosted on a variety of websites. From the TES's virtual staffroom (www.tes.co.uk), where you can find groups for every aspect of teaching and school life - the NQT "corner" of the "staffroom" will be of particular interest - to the National Grid for Learning site, there's an opportunity to ask and receive answers to just about any question you may have. And the support isn't just one way. A quick lurk in a newsgroup will show you just how much knowledge you have that's of use to others.

Darren Phillips, website director of the Appointments for Teachers website (www.aft. co.uk) agrees that newsgroups can offer much to new teachers. He recognised that "there was a need for a message board system on the AFT site where we could display and reply to teachers questions on job finding issues".

Where the AFT and TES sites gain favour over Usenet is in their security. Email addresses cannot be extracted from them for the purposes of "spamming", the Net equivalent of junk mail, which is a major bonus.

Finding the time to become familiar with the global and national internet education community could well offer you knowledge, information, perspective and support, with perhaps one proviso: aim to give as well as receive. Pass on the best of what you have learnt and discovered in order to receive the same from others.

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