Alastair Wells tells how, using tools developed by Oracle, a Cambridge school is pioneering on-line learning communities for the next millennium
Netherhall School in Cambridge does not have any special advantages over other local comprehensives. Yet we receive visitors from all over the world. The reason? We provide evidence that advanced technologies create learning opportunities.
Our approach to learning started to change when staff realised the opportunities afforded by our website. A team of 50 sixth form students and their teachers developed and published cross-curricular multimedia materials that could be downloaded. An ongoing design period helped us decide on content, simplify navigation and identify a structure to allow fast access to resources and support for the end-users - our pupils.
Meanwhile, we extended our community role by involving local people in developing, trialling and evaluating our online learning materials. And we developed the website to support online learning at home. We were seeing a huge growth in the number of homes with Internet access and began to see learning gains derived from our website.
But establishing the Internet as a source of information and means of publication was only the first step. We wanted to replicate the level of learning in the classroom - the talking, debating and reviewing of ideas until they were understood and learned. So we pursued the concept of a web-based learning community, because online technology could be accessed by everyone.
As part of the MirandaNet Fellowship, a professional development group for teachers, I was invited to trial a web-based learning environment developed by Oracle with Professor Stephen Heppell, renowned for his expertise in children's learning. Oracle was developing exactly the web-based tools we needed and not only were they free, they gave every pupil an email address and 40Mb of web-space in which to store work.
Using this web-based learning environment, currently code-named Scoop, communities can communicate and publish email, articles, focused discussions and formal debate through their own Web pages in a clutter-free environment accessible from the school, home and wider community. And in this learning context, teachers can focus learners on the design, implementation, publication, analysis and evaluation of content, not to mention teach computer skills.
With this tool in place, we turned our attention to the communities in our catchment area. Developing a community online presented another steep learning curve.
The first community was between staff and year groups. Staff have their own intranet so are able to establish department communities and working groups, while the site gives pupils a means of developing year-group materials, homework clubs, sports clubs... the opportunities are endles.
Once they started setting up online communities, staff realised the possibilities for other online groups. We now have an Afro-Caribbean group, supported by students at the university and multi-cultural staff. And we have a group of on-line parent experts, including a glaciologist at the South Pole, a dietician, a vicar, engineers, astronomers and many more specialist subjects, all willing to answer specialist questions from pupils. And experimenting with the impact of online learning in the home, we set up two family communities: one a "blood relative" family, the other for primaryjunior pupils, some of whom had just moved to new secondary schools.
We are also establishing a link with the local hospital so that long-term sick children can interact with the local school and get involved with the community beyond the hospital wards. Finally, each class has been established as a community with its teacher so that homework support can be offered once a week and pupils can seek help via the web in a private community - interactivity is only seen by others in the class.
Oracle's tools offer many other options for online communities: pupils can publish their own articles, create folders of electronic work for specific subjects, set up brain-storming sessions, conduct surveys and produce multimedia materials. A world-wide audience encourages pupils to produce high-quality work and there is no doubt their information and communication technology (ICT) skills are advancing. Indeed, by using Scoop, pupils can achieve Key Stage 3 national curriculum targets in an exciting and dynamic environment.
Given that Oracle's web-based system is platform independent and works through any browser, this has to be one of the most exciting ICT developments for some time. The software presents a real chance for learning to flourish between our schools and extended communities. Parents, staff and students are making major progress in understanding the role of advanced technologies in society, but they are also extending their capacity to collaborate, negotiate and debate - all skills essential today.
The Government is expecting all teachers to be ICT literate by 2002. And pound;230million has been set aside by the Teacher Training Agency for ICT training. Schools will quickly hit their ceiling in terms of capacity and competence to deliver ICT and demand almost always exceeds the access schools can provide. As such, web-based communication from home is a valuable means of ensuring interaction with our pupils and ICT while maintaining a focus on learning.
Alastair Wells is head of IT at Netherhall School, Cambridge. www.netherhall.cambs.sch.uk Schools seeking an Early Adopters Trial to explore Scoop and contribute to its development are invited to fill in the form on the MirandaNet website: www.mirandanet.ac.uk