The magic bullet

16th September 2005 at 01:00
Where better for online collaboration between east and west to develop than Hong Kong? Merlin John meets some switched-on educators.

When primary pupils within the English Schools Federation (ESF) in Hong Kong were let looose - at school and home - on a new online learning service there was an element of panic, as well as delight, among teachers. While monitoring their first forays into online homework, teachers couldn't believe that their children were showing no signs of tiring at 10pm. Why didn't they go to bed?

There were even worries of a parental backlash. It's a problem that many other schools would love to have.

Hong Kong primaries like Clearwater Bay are moving to query-based learning, so internet collaboration is timely. Kowloon Junior's survey on Tutankhamun had children presenting questions to British Museum experts in London. The children collaborate online and the school builds its own online resources for the curriculum.

Phil Stubbs, from Clearwater Bay, said the response from the first tranche of students on the system had surpassed all expectations. He posted one question for them and had 160 responses: "They came back to me with things I had never even thought about." Children reluctant to contribute in class flowered online.

All teachers reported a significant upsurge of interest and motivation, and collaborations with parents, with scarcely a mention of the technology. Phil Stubbs said: "When you are talking about it to teachers for inset, don't let it be about technology; let it be about teaching and learning."

The primary schools, pilots in the scheme, had been using the Connected Learning Community (CLC), provided by the UK's UniServity, for just one term. ESF secondary schools are only just taking it up, and the difficulties of curriculum organisation and their existing ICT hardware implementations uncannily mirror discussions in the UK. Online will report on the secondary developments in a future issue.

ICT adviser for ESF, Peter Woodhead, ex-deputy head at King Edward VII School, Melton Mowbray, is based in the centre at West Island secondary where teachers meet for staff development and to share experiences. He explained: "It's not every day that teachers send you emails saying things like - 'This is the most exciting thing I've seen in education since I got dust-be-gone chalk,' or 'My class are absolutely loving having their own web page and I am turning into quite a computer geek!' "This is the effect the CLC is having on the teachers. Listening to colleagues describing why they find the CLC so liberating, I sense their strong feeling of ownership of the technology. Because the learning scaffolds - the home page, forums, tasks etc - on the CLC are so accessible, good teachers can quickly make it a personal learning environment for their students."

Teacher interests, of course, were not limited to the CLC. Some talked of their dismay over the rejection of the Tomlinson Report and the desire to adopt more relevant awards such as the International Baccalaureate. They are keenly aware of the geographical and cultural position of their schools - at the gateway to China and a jet-hop from Australasia. And China's commitment to change education has put international collaborations at its core.

Keynote speaker at the UniServity event was Professor Chris Tan, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. An expert on online collaborative learning through his work on "knowledge communities", he runs research projects in schools worldwide, including Liverpool, Bolton and Durham, with links to Chinese schools (see Collaborate, left).

Another ideal local candidate for collaboration is headteacher Paul Lau, who runs the Logos Academy. On a Saturday morning we watched 14-year-olds in a video-conference lesson with a Stanford University professor to prepare for their science camp in the US. Two Stanford students were on hand to support and observe. They were staying at a guest flat at the school which is free to visiting educationists, on one condition - that they share their learning.

Whether the UniServity CLC reaches its full potential remains to be seen, but the last word goes to Peter Woodhead: "For me the CLC is the nearest thing I have seen in ICT to a magic bullet. It really has reached the parts which other ICT initiatives have missed. It has brought ICT into classrooms and enabled teachers to do what they are good at - teaching and learning - rather than intimidate them with the unknown and untried."


Professor Chris Tan, Chinese University of Hong Kong: "Collaborative Learning as a general term emphasises social constructivism where knowledge can be constructed via social interaction. What is more important than social interaction are clear goals of learning, student-centred activities, teachers' design of learning activities, facilitation strategies, sound pedagogy and ways to measure the goals. As collaborative learning comprises many key elements, teacher training becomes important. If technologies are used to facilitate collaborative learning, technologies need to provide some of these key elements."

* Knowledge Community

English Schools Foundation

* Paul Lau, Logos Academy

Shambles teacher site www.shambles.nethongkong


What characteristics lead to an effective connected learning community?

According to UniServity's Tony Hacking, ex-deputy headteacher and curriculum manager at All Hallows Catholic School in Preston:

Awareness Clear and secure subject knowledge

Teaching and learning development Skill in developing learning opportunities, openness to change, willingness to try new ideas

Sharing ideas and resources

Trust others to be supportive, be altruistic, be generous Collaboration

Commitment to development of others, common purposes, shared needs, shared opportunities

Community growth

Involvement of other partners, looking beyond the boundaries of school * UniServity

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