Lecturers to network
Lecturers could soon be looking across the water for inspiration as staff at an Ulster college catch up with their students' grasp of modern technology.
In a project sponsored by Microsoft, lecturers are being trained to use social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook to communicate better with students.
While the US computer giant makes no bones that this will potentially boost its reputation and sales, the college believes the project will bridge the gap between techie students and confused and bewildered lecturers.
Staff at Southern Regional College in Northern Ireland will also be given time to sit in front of a laptop to answer students' messages and queries under a 12-month trial project starting in September.
Microsoft is providing the college with a free custom-made service for email, instant messaging, social networking, and tools for group editing of documents, which will enable students to do coursework collaboratively online.
The company has supplied the software and equipment to other colleges around the world, but this is the first time it is offering to train lecturers to work online.
Brian Doran, chief executive of the college, said: "Technologically, students put us in the shade. We are using this to see if it can motivate and, hopefully, help us retain those students. This is about meeting their requirements for the future.
"Once kids start using this, they're going to help us develop it with their demands: they will come to us and say how they want to use it."
Mitch Benson, Microsoft's worldwide managing director of education, said teenagers often had hundreds of "friends" online, including some they have never met.
"The model of our classrooms is one where we bring students in and ask them to power down (switch off their devices), rather than bringing them in and asking them to use those tools, including the 755 relationships that they have," he said.
Southern Regional College lecturers will have to negotiate changes to their timetables, with time in the classroom reduced to allow for time helping students remotely online.
Although his background is in IT, Mr Doran said the college's involvement was driven by staff who had been inspired by the potential to use technology in education.
The project will be aimed at 16-year-olds who have gained few qualifications at school, he said, as these were the students most likely to have been put off by traditional forms of education.
Most students own a computer, he said, but the college could provide equipment, while students could also use computers in local libraries or internet cafes or get access from mobile phones.
The project was unveiled at the TES-sponsored annual conference of the Learning and Skills Development Agency Northern Ireland, which will evaluate the project and support the college in its implementation.