The Oracle Millennium Project is set to accelerate the learning grid process. Dorothy Walker reports.
Larry Ellison runs Oracle, the second largest software company in the world. He is passionate about the educational potential of ICT, having pledged $100 million to equip schools in the US with Internet-linked computers. But when Ellison offered his staff here the chance to begin supplying British schools with similar equipment, they said: "No thanks - we have an even better suggestion."
Rather than give hardware to only a few lucky schoolchildren, they wanted their boss to back an Internet project that would reap rewards for all the country's young learners. And they won their case - together with $10 million to fund the Oracle Millennium Project (OMP), which is poised to turbo-charge development of the National Grid for Learning.
Unveiled in July, the scheme was hatched by Oracle's Bob Rogers, a former teacher, and UltraLab's Professor Stephen Heppell, the creative mind behind some of the educational world's most intriguing ICT initiatives.
As part of the project, 10,000 children aged 9 to 14 will be supplied with their own email addresses, a move which is in itself a major step forward. But the real fascination lies in what they will be able to do with their newly-won electronic connections.
Thanks to OMP, they will be linked to Scoop, an online system that may eventually span the globe. Specially-designed and secure, Scoop aims to encourage children to cultivate their own extended network of learning associates, drawn from the other schools and organisations which are connected to the system.
Rather than recruit learners school-by-school, the idea is to bring on board whole communities of people, who already have something in common, at the same time. They might be studying the same subject in different parts of the country, or belong to the same club.
The hope is that they will quickly get the ball rolling by using Scoop to collaborate with new faces in far-flung places. That might mean, for example, that a student seeks an appraisal of a draft essay not from her own teacher, but from one she has never met, or that boys at two youth clubs swap tips for producing professional-looking school projects.
Scoop has clever features that make it easy to collaborate - fuss-free ways of publishing material, electronic "sticky labels" for passing on suggestions, tools to aid brainstorming - and wisely, they have been developed with the help of some of the children who will be using them. In a pilot exercise which began at Easter, groups from Whitehill School in Glasgow, Walthamstow School for Girls in London, and Douglas Youth Club on the Isle of Man began working with Oracle's technical gurus to try out and refine the system.
The two secondary schools took the opportunity to swap notes on science projects, with teachers and pupils offering advice on work that was posted on Scoop. Elizabeth Fleming, head of IT at Whitehill, says: "It was all very positive - a number of girls from Walthamstow wrote thanking me for my advice. Working like this, you get all kinds of help that is not available in a normal classroom."
She and her counterpart at Walthamstow, Jean Johnson, have had enthusiastic discussions about taking the collaboration further. One idea is to encourage business studies classes to exchange business plans, so that pupils not only put together a plan, but also play the role of bank manager, considering the viability of the other school's proposals.
Whitehill is an Education Action Plan school, and Fleming is heartened by the boost that OMP has already given to her students' enthusiasm. Working with the Oracle developers was a great confidence-builder - and she notes with delight that the first feature the children asked to be added to Scoop was a spellchecker. "Because their work can be seen by people outside the school, they want to do their very best," Fleming says. The system gives pupils the power to decide how wide an audience should see their work, and when to publish.
Fleming says: "The project has enabled me to start thinking in a different way about teaching, and about the tools I can use to teach."
On the Isle of Man, John Thornley, ICT adviser to the Department of Education, says that selecting the local youth club for the pilot was a deliberate move to gauge the level of enthusiasm for OMP. He says: "We wanted a group working outside school hours, very much as a voluntary exercise. If they didn't like it, they could walk away. But no-one left - it went down very well."
Two evenings a week, the Manx Telecomputer Bus, a mobile education centre equipped with the latest technology, drew up outside the youth club, and a group of 12-year-old boys and girls set to work on Scoop. With a mission to share their expert knowledge of the island with the wider world, they built a fund of multimedia material, covering everything from tailless cats to the fledgling Manx movie industry.
Thornley says: "It is so easy to publish all kinds of information - the children have no difficulty in expressing themselves. Some of them were motivated well beyond the levels their teachers would normally expect."
He now plans to use the system to link pupils learning the Manx language - which enjoys a large following as far afield as Canada and Japan - and as a way of forging closer ties between primaries and secondaries.
With the next phase of OMP now under way, and a growing list of volunteers keen to climb aboard, there are already plans to roll out a similar scheme in the US. Oracle's Bob Rogers says: "As they learn about what we are doing, more and more people are coming and saying: 'I want to build a community'."
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