Curriculum - Happy talk

20th November 2009 at 00:00
Interactive Web 2.0 applications can make classes exciting and dynamic, but many teachers don't use them - and some local authorities ban their use. Jack Kenny reports on a technology that's dogged by its association with social networking sites

The internet is full of applications that teachers want to use, that children are enthralled by, that educationists recommend, yet most schools are looking the other way.

Web 2.0 applications can be viewed, edited and interacted with should provide a simple way for teachers to make learning exciting and dynamic. Sadly, the reality is different.

A recent report from government IT-promotion agency Becta on Web 2.0 starts positively. It found that using the technology encourages engagement and participation. It also reported that creating, editing and sharing their work in Web 2.0 applications gives children a sense of ownership. Even better, they discovered that when pupils published their work online, it encouraged attention to detail and an improved overall quality.

However, the report also reveals that Web 2.0 technologies are used only infrequently in classrooms. Half of all respondents said that the use of social software is not encouraged at their school, while many stated that learners are discouraged from using it, often at local authority level.

Teachers who do make use of Web 2.0, are enthusiastic about it. "There is a whole world of stuff out there: Google apps, wikis, blogs, photo sharing, animation," says Jaye Richards, principal for the Cathkin Learning Community in South Lanarkshire, Scotland.

"You can pull it all together into one space. The new Google Wave (a real-time collaboration tool) has enormous potential and we will probably base our e-portfolios on that. Most of the applications are intuitive. Learning is all about creating, collaboration and communicating."

Professor Stephen Heppell reflects ruefully that education always reacts to perceived threats with bans: comics, ballpoint pens, calculators and phones.

"It starts with a ban then gradually there is acceptance. I watched children last night using Skype and Twitter in one of the Harris Academies. They were having a conversation with a school in Sweden about assessment systems. It was all run of the mill to the kids. Schools that ban Web 2.0 are a little like schools that don't teach children about swimming and then at 16 take them out and throw them in the water."

The sticking points for many local authorities are social networking sites such as Facebook, Bebo and MySpace. YouTube is banned in many schools. One school defended its ban on social networking by insisting that it would create a distinct web area for the school, even though most pupils would consider the content irrelevant compared with the kinds of sites they could probably access at home.

Phil Moore, CEO of the Yorkshire and Humber Grid for Learning, points out that in many areas a teacher who wants to use particular materials can ask for permission to bypass filters temporarily. He also says that (teacher-specific sites) TeacherTube and SchoolsTube can be used instead of YouTube. "In the final analysis it is the school that is exposed to the risk," says Mr Moore.

And as educational consultant Gloria Sayer points out, pupils learn about risk - for example, in the PSHE programme of study for key stages 3 and 4. What teachers need to do, she suggests, is provide safe learning environments in which pupils can explore these risks. But she warns: "The risk-averse school is likely to seek the safety of traditional teaching methods rather than enable pupils to provide their own answers to some of these difficult issues."

Some developers have already come up with ways to enable pupils to dip their toes in potentially risky internet environments. Games such as (developed by Channel 4) can take pupils through some problem areas in a stimulating, web-aware way. The game is about life on a social network called White Smokeonline. It asks who can be trusted. There are clues, phone calls, online chat, puzzles and games.

Teachers can also work with parents on developing awareness of the risks. Last month, the body of 17-year-old Ashleigh Hall was found in a ditch after she had apparently been lured into a trap by a man she met on Facebook.

Elaine Boyd, assistant head at Sandy Upper School in Stevenage, uses parents' evenings to acquaint the less web-aware parents about some of the signs of problems. "I talk about how to look at the computer to spot, for instance, if the history has been wiped and encourage them to adjust security settings on their home PC. Twenty per cent of pupils nationally have arranged face-to-face meetings with people that they have met online," she says.

Jane Hart runs the Centre for Learning Performance Technologies. Her website is a gold mine for Web 2.0 advice. She is fervent about arguing for the use of the Web 2.0 in class. "I try to use terms such as social learning and collaborative learning, which suggest that we are using purposeful and focused tools. I always try to show how these tools are being used for formal, informal and personal learning. It is all happening and banning it will not make it go away. It is about embracing the technologies and harnessing it, ensuring that it is used in appropriate ways, not just kids chatting around, talking inanely."

Ms Hart argues that one of the key advantages of using Web 2.0 is that sharing can take place globally. "It is not just something that happens in one place but it is a much bigger conversation and discussion. It is about opening the classroom to the world," she says.

"I see teachers introducing other people into their classrooms through different tools and media. Say someone is doing a green project, they would be able to ask experts to become part of the conversation. It gives children a different and better perspective: conversation, collaborating, networking. It allows for a much wider understanding of a topic, not just about what they read in a book or hear from the teacher," she adds.

Meanwhile teachers are expanding their own horizons by acquiring a global perspective. "It is continuous professional development," says Ms Hart.

She argues social media is here to stay. "It is something that younger people are interested in and teachers have a need to keep in touch with their audience. Teachers have a duty to find out how to use it in a learning context and not to dismiss it. They can learn safely, securely and privately."

But how? Ms Hart says teachers should simply try it. "It is something that people can pick up by dabbling around in it. We have to get away from the idea that all learning is formal structured learning. Some of it is play, trying, experimenting." Fundamentally, she adds, Web 2.0 can change the model of the teacher as the expert. Everyone - teacher and pupils - is part of the community of learners.

Unfortunately though, for many members of that community, the wealth of applications can seem out of reach because the balance between creativity and risk is out of kilter. As teachers struggle to get to grips with "official" learning platforms that have taken months to install at great cost to the school, wouldn't it make more sense, and have more impact, to open the doors to Web 2.0?

10 Web 2.0 applications to try


Adobe's Buzzword is an online word processor where the latest version is always available to anyone with web access.


Google Docs makes it easy to share and produce collaborative documents that could be used in almost any curriculum area.


This high-quality audio software allows you to record and edit podcasts, among other things.


This is one of the many free "mind-mapping" applications available. Why not try a few and see which one your pupils prefer?


Jing takes the pain out of explaining processes on a computer. The free program enables you to make a short recording of activity on the desktop. It also enables pupils to create their own explanations.


This application enables you to capture, save and make a note about anything you or your pupils come across on the web.


This allows you to create images and edit them and is a great creative stimulus.


Just a few years ago this virtual atlas, complete with high-definition images of every location, would have been unimaginable. Now many geography teachers wonder how they managed without it.


Like evernote, this enables anyone to make a comment around an image or a document - the difference is it's in audio.


A web service that allows you to make free calls over the internet - useful if you want to talk to a far-flung expert as part of a project.

FURTHER RESOURCES - A website about safety for use by pupils and teachers. - A Channel 4 sponsored game on web safety. - Jane Hart's top tools. - A blog from Tom Barrett, an inspirational primary school teacher.

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