ICT - A world of possibilities

21st May 2010 at 01:00
Learning platforms provide pupils with a global perspective and transform learning and teaching - from infant class to sixth form, as Jack Kenny reports

At Chepping View Primary in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, Victoria Jackman is introducing infants to learning platforms.

"It is slightly different from what they are used to, but they soon pick it up," the Year 2 teacher says.

The platforms feature areas for literacy, maths and science, and include topical material. One of the teachers was stranded by the Icelandic volcano eruption, for example, and the children were able to follow her journey home.

School trips and visits are recorded, with the children creating podcasts by recording what they see and do and interviewing the people they meet.

Ms Jackman uses the software to track what children do when they use the platform at home. She also ensures that parents know how to use the platform so that they can check on the progress their children are making.

During the Easter break, children took home some bean plants and, using the forums, regularly reported back on the growth of the plants.

But the learning platforms' potential for transforming teaching and learning go far beyond primary classrooms. Sixteen-year-olds are managing virtual learning environments (VLEs), teachers are working routinely with schools across the world, resources are shared internationally and students are learning history from those involved in the events.

At Weston Village Primary near Crewe, teacher Jan Webb says she cannot imagine life without their learning platform.

"It is our window on the world," she says. "Not having it now would be detrimental to the work of the school."

In the past year the pupils have worked with schools in Singapore, Brazil, Wales and Brunei.

"Children collaborate through the forums, building up banks of knowledge right across the class, not just with those on their table," Ms Webb says.

The pupils also use the learning platform to work with wikis, opening up their work for readers to edit and add to.

"It is a great tool for doing projects with many participants," Ms Webb says. "You can have multiple pages so that different parts of a project can be built up simultaneously. It is a multi-layered tool which can be as complex or as simple as you wish it to be."

Learning platforms are not only useful for pupils. Teachers at Weston Primary use them to store their planning documents and "how to" guides, saving time on preparation.

The platforms are also a good way of encouraging children to do their own research and learning. "They are more actively involved, taking ownership," Ms Webb says. "They can also see the work on the platform when they are at home. We have even had children doing work from abroad when they are on holiday."

At Tideway School in Newhaven, East Sussex, history pupils used forums on their learning platform to recruit someone who lived in Londonderry during the Troubles in the 1960s and '70s to help with a unit on Northern Ireland. "For the length of the unit that person was online and the students could talk about what life was like during that time," says Jim Fanning, assistant headteacher and technology co-ordinator.

The pupils' next step is to recruit members of the Western Front Association to help with a project on the First World War. "It is far easier to set up these online encounters than to bring people into schools," says Mr Fanning. "In school they are only available for a short time. With this method they are on tap and available for a long period."

History teachers also put their lessons online so the pupils can go back to consult them or catch up on work they have missed while absent or ill.

But new ways of learning also require training for teachers. Mr Fanning cites two teachers who were asked to do some work using the school's learning platform, one with training and the other going in cold. The first teacher, who had training, achieved better results and the pupils showed evidence of deep learning, while with the second, untrained, teacher, the learning proved to be superficial. "Online learning is not just about logging in. There are skills to be learnt," says Mr Fanning.

Tideway has introduced the platforms gradually and this has helped to embed them into the school's approach. "Initially, in most schools you are parachuting a new way of learning into an old fashioned way of teaching and learning," says Mr Fanning.

Harry French, assistant headteacher at Attleborough High in Norfolk, runs courses on using learning platforms for other teachers and schools.

"We wanted to make sure that we had every teacher and every pupil using the platform on a day-to-day basis," he says. "Once you have people using it then there are opportunities for online socialisation and learning to take place."

Attleborough uses what are called "impact components" to drive traffic and people to the learning platform. One example is the business languages champions competition that the school has been running for three years. This year's subject was the use of languages in the car industry. Pupils created a digital response, a podcast or PowerPoint, which was then posted online and judged by executives at the competition sponsor, QLS Automotive.

The school has also run a project with schools in Germany and France with the Attleborough learning platform as the hub. Pupils at the partner schools can log in and create community pages about their own areas, as well as being able to contribute to Attleborough projects, including through video conferencing.

Mr French says the secret of the learning platform's success is that the school found out what people wanted before they developed it. "We didn't put a square peg in a round hole, we created our own peg," he says. "We asked the kids: what do you want things to look like? We asked teachers the same and acted on it."

The school has its own VLE champions from Years 9 and 10 while sixth- formers act as e-leaning managers. The older pupils also carry out work for the faculties they are paired up with, and are linked to primaries where they run training sessions for teachers.

For Years 12 and 13, the theory content of the product design AS and A2 level course is delivered by podcast, with interactive tutorials to show the students how to use the software. This also means they can learn at their own pace and in their own environment.

"The teacher becomes the facilitator," says Mr French. "In terms of revision aids, the system is second to none." The students can download the podcasts on to their iPods, and for teachers it is straightforward to record a podcast and have it on the platform within seconds, creating a bank of resources that are not time limited.

In some ways, platforms are enabling teachers to do what they have always done - but in a medium that children find attractive. But when used well, learning platforms can help teachers do what would have been impossible just a few years ago.

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