When James Blomfield introduced his pupils to SuperClubsPLUS, an online community for 6 to 12-year-olds, he thought it would be a great way to develop their ICT skills. He was right, but what he hadn't anticipated was how much the opportunity to collaborate online would ignite their enthusiasm for literacy. Since September, one Year 5 girl who used to "struggle to write" has sent no fewer than 1,500 emails.
"SuperClubsPLUS has really captured their imagination," says James, who is Year 5 teacher and ICT co-ordinator at Capel-le-Ferne primary, Folkestone.
"We introduced it to the whole school, to try to encourage after-school learning. Around 87 per cent of pupils take part, and most of the activity takes place at home, although we are now starting to use it in the classroom."
More than 106,000 children and 12,000 teachers are members of the community, which was formerly known as GridClub SuperClubs. Run by Intuitive Media, it used to form part of Channel 4's GridClub online learning site. In April, SuperClubs became an independent operation, renamed SuperClubsPLUS, and membership was extended to take in overseas schools.
The idea is that children can have fun and help each other learn, in a safe environment. Professional mediators are on hand to monitor communications, and all applicants are validated.
"It is a thriving and very active community," says Robert Hart, strategic director of Intuitive Media. "Children are busy building their own home pages, emailing each other, taking part in discussions and collaborating in forums - for example, 20 kids might be working together in the story-writing forum. They invite others to interact via their home pages, setting up quizzes and surveys and forming clubs. At first the mediators formed the clubs, until we realised the children's ideas were much more exciting than ours. Within eight weeks, the kids had set up 500 clubs of their own. Whatever the interest, a child can find dozens of people who share it."
New software features that can enhance home pages are avidly seized upon.
"There is one facility that can recognise your name when you visit a page,"
says James. "Suddenly everyone started using it - it seemed to spread like wildfire."
A series of much-coveted stars is awarded for the use of ICT, and anyone with all five can apply for a place in the Tech Team, taking on formal responsibility for helping others throughout the community.
He says emailing is the most popular activity. The children are also keen contributors of book reviews, and one girl has published her design for the cover of a book she is currently writing. Both pupils and their parents drop James emails when he goes online in the evenings. "I can track what all the pupils are doing, and the parents are really gobsmacked by how active their children are," he says. Around 98 per cent of pupils have internet access at home, and those who don't can join in at an after-school SuperClubsPLUS session run on Thursdays.
SuperClubsPLUS is also being introduced to the classroom to help pupils collaborate on projects, and was recently used to compose a rap that focused on different parts of speech.
Children in Canada, France, Belgium, Germany, Columbia and Pakistan are among recent recruits. "Our ambition has always been that children learn to understand other people, wherever they are in the world," says Robert Hart.
Collaboration with the whole community will help schools support citizenship and global education projects. They can also sign up for School LinkUP, a service that supports collaborative ventures such as e-twinning.
It enables teachers to create forums for exclusive use by their pupils and those in partner schools.
James plans to use SuperClubsPLUS in a twinning project between Capel's cluster of schools - the Dover cluster - and schools in Calais. He says:
"We will have video-conferencing, but I would also like to see the project working at an informal level, with the children communicating directly with each other rather than working via teachers."
"Our research shows that the active children spend an average of two hours a day in the community," says Hart. "Taken over the year, 30 per cent of children spend more time in the community than they do with a teacher."
* In Scotland, SuperClubsPLUS subscriptions for all state primaries are paid from central funding, and schools in Northern Ireland are being sponsored by Intuitive Media until the end of August. In England and Wales, a one-year subscription costs from pound;5 per pupil, depending on numbers. School LinkUP costs pound;50 per year for the school hosting a forum, and pound;25 for each school invited to join in.
* Parents can enrol their children for pound;52 + VAT per child per year.
* Free training is offered to teachers willing to host a twilight seminar for colleagues in other schools.
* Older pupils can graduate to GoldStar Cafe, Intuitive Media's community for 11 to 13-year-olds, and later this year the company is to launch the Pepper and Poppy Club, for the 4 to 7 age range.
* The "sister" service of SuperClubsPLUS (although independent, both came from the original government-sponsored GridClub), GridClub is aimed at 7 to 11-year-olds. It offers 500 online games and activities, organised by subjects, and is run by Grid Learning. All national curriculum subjects are covered, as well as modern languages, citizenship, health and chess. There are also reference areas, such as Fact Gadget, where children can search for facts, and UK Quest, where they can find places of interest. For more details, see Online May 5, page 32.