ICT - A question of trust
At the beginning of every school year, Simon Widdowson teaches his Year 3s a topic on how to use computers in the classroom. But this does not just cover the usual warnings on how to use the internet safely. Instead, it looks at how to find what you are looking for.
"We used to tell pupils to look at the first page of results but that is no longer the best option because there are strategies that people know that will push their pages to the top of the search list," says Mr Widdowson, ICT co-ordinator at Porchester Junior School in Nottingham. "Now we encourage them to look at the address or URL of the site."
There is little doubt that the internet is revolutionising teaching. When almost every conceivable fact is available elsewhere, there can seem little point in teachers simply acting as conduits for information that pupils can get hold of themselves.
But the sheer volume of material on the web presents its own problems. The important skills are shifting from learning facts to knowing where to find them - and which ones to trust.
"We have exhausted the time when the old traditional curriculum was relevant," says Steve Moseley, assistant head at Ashton Park Secondary in Bristol. "We have moved away from content and it is more important that we teach the skill of accessing knowledge."
He believes it hardly matters what it is that pupils are researching: it is the finding out that is important. "That is what inspires kids and animates them," he says.
"We don't need to fill their heads with traditional facts that are going to be of little use to them in their adult lives. What we need to do is to enthuse kids."
He says the key skill is to help pupils interrogate information more and question what they find, and this is made much easier if they are looking into issues they find interesting.
"It can be something like 'Do ghosts exist?'," he says. "They look for evidence and they have to source all the information that they come up with. As the skills develop, they have to look at counter-arguments and opposing viewpoints."
This chimes with the view of Howard Rheingold, an IT guru credited with inventing the term "virtual communities". He says that when it comes to assessing technological "wealth", it is not the hardware that is important, but knowledge.
"The digital divide is less about access to technology and more about the difference between those who know how and those who don't know how to access knowledge," he says.
But it is not just a case of letting pupils loose on the internet. Primary schools in particular must pay close attention to internet safety issues. At Porchester, this is a gradual process. Mr Widdowson says the first step is to give children links that are known to be safe.
Then they graduate to search engines with in-built safety features, such as Kidrex, based on Google but with moderators to ensure the sites are suitable for children. The school also uses Safe Search, a search engine created by IT company Primary Technology. The world's favourite search engine is off-limits, however.
"We tend not to use Google because even with filters we cannot guarantee what will appear on a child's screen," says Mr Widdowson.
As part of the introductory training, he tells pupils to look for trusted internet addresses and to avoid those with a number of sub-domains. Older pupils are encouraged to refine their searches beyond the simple keywords, using the plus sign or quotation marks to narrow the field.
Secondary teachers may assume that pupils who are familiar with technology will have become sophisticated users, but Mr Moseley does not accept that most children are digital experts.
"There is an issue about how they reach the information that they need," he says. "They might be good at computer games and opening Facebook accounts, but when it comes to retrieving information they find it hard to frame questions."
He says that pupils can become stuck if their first query is unsuccessful, and can also be unsure how to sort out fact from opinion. "Old" technology can be useful here: arranging what they have found on a paper grid can help them sort the wheat from the chaff, he says. "It helps them to structure what they are looking for."
This structure is crucial to using the internet effectively, says John Davies, learning futures adviser at Dudley Grid for Learning, which provides local schools with a managed ICT service. "We let kids on to the internet far too early without preparing them adequately," he says. "They become Googlers very quickly and Google without any clear understanding of what they are doing and why they are doing it."
He compares Google to fast food: it gives quick results but not necessarily of high quality. It is only when pupils have demonstrated their ability to use search facilities effectively that they should be let loose on the internet, he says.
The Dudley Grid has developed its own browser, ICE (Internet Channel for Education), that allows pupils to personalise their search and match results according to their levels of interest, maturity, ability and preferred type of media. "With ICE our sites deliver rich resources quickly and safely," says Mr Davies.
Howard Rheingold says that pupils should treat searching like a detective story: not just finding information, but working out where it comes from and whether that source can be trusted. "How do you know what you find online is accurate?" he says. "Who are they? What are their biases? Who links to the author? Who is behind the site?"
It may demand a different approach to teaching, but effective search techniques can equip pupils with the skills they need to make the most from the internet.
Where to find it
Safe Search: www.primaryschoolict.comhi.php
Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre: www.ceop.gov.uk
Hyperwords: A research tool that turns words into hyperlinks, www.hyperwords.net
Not just Google
Alternative search engines
How to search - information seeking strategies
The Big 6: www.big6.comfilesBig6Handouts.pdf
Enquiring Minds: www.enquiringminds.org.ukguidepractical_ideas_and_resources.