Learning without fears
Hussein Ahmed is a lively, intelligent 14-year-old, living in an outer London borough. He likes sport, Big Macs, computer games and movies - a typical teenager.
In some important ways, however, Hussein (not his real name) is not typical for he has Tourette's syndrome, an unusual neurobiological condition. It is characterised by involuntary body movements, vocal sounds, including barking and grunting, and obsessive and compulsive behaviour. Sometimes, for example, he will feel compelled to tie and re-tie his shoelaces "because they don't feel quite right".
These problems are accompanied by Attention Deficit Disorder, which means he experiences hyperactivity and has problems with concentration.
His is a difficult condition with which he and his family do battle with humour and frankness, but which schools have usually found impossible to handle. A special school was recently found which would take Hussein, but he was against boarding, partly because his experiences of school had included bullying and mockery.
For several months, therefore, he has now been at home, a situation which everyone agrees is not ideal, but which has been made a lot easier and more fruitful by a new service offered by the Open School, an educational charity.
Created in 1989, the Open School excels in imaginative ways of reaching pupils who at best might under-achieve and at worst could drop through the net. In particular, it provides "teletutoring" by fax and electronic mail. Pupils enrol for a range of courses (often tailor-made) and materials are delivered by these technologies. Teletutoring now includes the latest service from the school, Teleweb, which enables users to chat and exchange information with other children using an e-mail and bulletin board system.
Both services can be used in mainstream schools to provide extension work for very able children; in small schools where it is uneconomic to provide a large range of subjects; and hospital schools, pupil referral units, and with home-bound individuals like Hussein.
For Hussein, they offer two great benefits. First, as he says, "it takes the pressure off". Hussein often feels and seems quite well, but without warning he can be convulsed by tics for hours on end, or he may find himself caught in a compulsion. At these times he is incapable of work.
For a school these aspects of his disability are very hard to handle. But open learning is much more forgiving. "When I miss out, I can just take off where I left off: I can work at my own pace."
Teletutoring also offers a sort of companionship. "You feel as though they're right beside you," he says of the tutors and other young people he swaps messages with. "I burst out laughing the other day when John said something funny, and I know he did too when I said that I had."
When he first enters the Open School's closed bulletin board, Hussein can choose from a number of icons on the menu screen. He can select Chatline, which, as its name suggests, gives him direct access to tutors and other pupils, either at pre-arranged times or on spec. If he wishes he can leave messages in e-mail boxes for everyone or for specific recipients.
He can also access topic discussions to which students and tutors can contribute items and ideas. Topics available at the moment include poetry, to which pupils can contribute either poems they like or ones they have composed. Hussein, a poetry enthusiast, has done both. Other topics include reptiles, music, movies and cats.
"Teleweb is interest-led," says tutor Paul Bernal. "Subjects are those in which the children involved express interest, not those chosen for them by adults. It uses a simple graphical interface the children themselves can use without the need for adult assistance."
More formal is the use of teletutoring to help Hussein in his academic studies. At present he is studying three subjects through the Open School - English, maths and history - and will start information technology soon. These subjects are scheduled for three mornings a week (four-and-a-half hours of tutoring time), providing he is well.
He will also spend a lot of time on the computer doing his homework, writing essays, writing his messages to other pupils, contributing or reading from the topic discussions or just playing games.
Hussein types fast and was already totally familiar with the system when I visited him two weeks after it had been installed. But, because his time on-line is limited to 25 minutes (to keep costs down), he writes many of his messages off-line. His chatline conversations with his tutors or with other pupils are usually on-line, however, and he enjoys this immediacy: "It's very much instant. It can be quicker than having a normal conversation."
This sense of its being a real conversation shows in the choice of language. Here is an extract from a typical conversation with his maths tutor, Carol Flood, which followed an exchange of faxes: Carol: The reverse of doubling a number is halving it. Do you agree?
Carol: The reverse of multiplying by 4 is what?
Carol: Good. What is the reverse of dividing by 8?
Hussein: Multiplying 8.
Carol: Good, you've got the idea.
Hussein: Yep. Right, so now that I know all of this, should I try to do the sheet?
Carol: Now, when you have more than one thing happening as well as reversing the process you have to reverse the order in which they happen. I think we need to go back to the fax now, for me to send you some examples. Don't try to do the puzzles yet.
Hussein: OK, so do you want me to log off?
Carol: Yes please.
Hussein is the first individual to be given the combined fax and e-mail service. More are expected to join soon and this will widen his social and educational circle. It is also hoped to send software through the system which will extend the work he does, and eventually give him some direct access to the Internet.
The Open School is also negotiating with Hussein's local education authority in the hope of extending tutoring time. The outlook is good as the authority is pleased with his progress and increased enthusiasm for learning. And Hussein? He is excited by the possibilities and looking forward to getting "more time and more people".
"It's a magnificent thing," is his overall verdict.
* The Open School, Park Road, Dartington, Totnes, Devon TQ9 6EQ Tel: 01803 866542. Stand IT56