Modern way to examine history

24th March 2000 at 00:00
SCET is turning the world into a virtual classroom through its online learning environment. Douglas Blane reports.

Imagine Paris in 1919: the First World War is over and Allied politicians are redrawing the map of Europe, inadvertently creating a host of anomalies and injustices for unscrupulous leaders of the future to exploit.

At the end of a long, brightly-lit room delegates from the United States and France are seated at two large tables; the Italians are scattered around in solitary silence; the Poles and Serbians are hard at work in an antechamber. Meanwhile, the British are relaxing in a corner, stoking up for their next bargaining session with burgers and chips from a fast-food outlet.

The delegates are schoolchildren re-enacting the complex international negotiations that led to the Treaty of Versailles. Thirty fifth- and sixth-year pupils from Cleveden secondary in Glasgow and St Ninian's High, East Renfrewshire, are at the Scottish Council for Educational Technology's premises in Glasgow and each one is connected via the Internet to hundreds of other children at schools in Thurso, Inverness, Pitlochry, Kinlochbervie, Edinburgh, Monmouth, London and elsewhere. At a school in Mysore, southern India, the architect of the project, former teacher David Gardner, is monitoring events, surrounded by local children who are also taking an active part.

The Treaty of Versailles project, part of the annual European Netdays Programme, is built around an online learning environment called SCETPioneer, which provides structured and safe access to the Internet.

A National Grid for Learning staff development specialist, John Dickie, says: "The most important art of ICT and the one we are only just beginning to exploit is communications. There's a perception that ICT is all about children sitting at computers and information travelling one-way, but a project like this, which brings people together and gets them looking outward and working collaboratively, is much more important and exciting."

Permbir Khaira and Leslie Welsh, fifth-year friends at Cleveden Secondary, Glasgow, agree: "It was pretty cool talking to children at a school in India. It would be good to get more countries from all over the world involved."

"Talking to people around the world is much more memorable than my simply telling them about the Treaty of Versailles," says Chris MacKay, principal teacher of history at Cleveden.

"In school right now we're dealing with Hitler's foreign policy and the demilitarisation of the Rhineland, which is all there in the Versailles settlement. I could send the students to do a search of the Internet for Hitler or the Nazis but I'd have no idea what they might uncover - there are all sorts of strange websites out there. SCETPioneer is very useful because it guards against that."

At the end of the afternoon session David Gardner says: "It is a very positive use of ICT - an experiment in stretching ICT in a constructed framework where people can communicate properly for educational purposes."

John Dickie says the online environment eliminates the social distractions of a normal classroom. "Communications become impersonal. You don't know who you're talking to so you have to respond to the points they're making, not what you know or feel about them. That's a big plus."

SCET, tel 0141 337 5000

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