School break out

6th January 2006 at 00:00
From online storytelling to designing skyscrapers, Phil Stubbs sees how the use of connected learning takes lessons out of the classroom

At Clearwater Bay primary in Hong Kong, the opportunity to become part of a connected learning community (CLC) came at a significant time for us as a school. For two years we had been moving towards an inquiry-based curriculum and this process saw the school community go through sustained self-evaluation. It was clear our children needed access to learning opportunities beyond the confines of the classroom and free from timetable restrictions.

Our children had access to innovative teachers, yet we recognised that an enquiry model would demand that their learning network extend to include other experts and professionals. They would need to process new information accessed in different and exciting ways. This information would need to be processed and children would need tools and guidance to help them validate and synthesise findings gained through collaboration with other learners beyond their classroom neighbours.

The information, once processed, would need to be presented to new audiences for validation, assessment and approval - and a personalised learning agenda would need a heightened level of independence from all learners.

So we saw the advent of the CLC and our move to an inquiry-based curriculum as mutually supportive and believed that together they would allow us to be innovative in the sense that we would be empowered as a school to do things differently in order to do them better. It presented us with a chance to offer all members of our school the opportunity to take part in a variety of collaborative learning communities. It was not long before these communities began to grow to form an enhanced, extended and credible learning network.

In our early stages of development, a Year 4 class wrote a series of interactive stories with each child starting one that was to be continued by other children. Each story contained a dilemma, and children were invited to add a series of solutions to each of the problems that could be selected by the reader using hyperlinks.

Once complete, other children went on to add alternative endings that readers could select by adding their own links. The activity was lifted directly from the National Literacy Strategy, but the CLC gave an imaginative teacher the tools needed to bring the task to life. The same teacher had similar success with collaborative story writing and used the online forum tool to let the children discuss their work. She then designed an online survey to facilitate peer assessment from the intended audience for the stories.

Much of the curriculum asks children to produce work or artefacts for specific audiences. For example, in ICT our children produce pamphlets for parents, which they then adapt for a younger audience. The chief audience for anything that our children do has traditionally been their class teacher or occasionally their peers. The CLC allows children to have access to and feedback from the very audiences for whom their work is being produced. Who better than Year 2 children to evaluate books designed by Year 6 children for a younger audience?

The online discussion forum has proved very popular with all our children.

It is not unusual for them to log on between 3pm and 8pm and contribute to discussions about their enquiry units, to make suggestions about the organisation of the playgrounds, to share their concerns during a unit on sex education or simply to support each other with homework. One such forum has involved children discussing their work using Lego Robolab with a research engineer from Microsoft.

Similarly, Year 3 teachers used the forums to develop their children's skills in questioning during a unit looking at life in ancient Egypt. The best three questions were then sent to an Egyptologist at the British Museum and his responses were published on the class home page for inclusion in the children's work.

Year 5 children have just embarked on a unit where a top architect will be setting the success criteria for the year group's architectural drawings of a new building to adorn the Hong Kong skyline. Their subsequent design of one floor's living areas will be supported by online access to interior designers from Benoy UK - and the survey tool will be used to ask questions of the "client" before finally completing a self-assessment questionnaire using a differentiated electronic rubric.

In March, our Year 5 children will be working with animators from the Cartoon Network while creating their own stop-go animations in ICT. Access to such expertise had been difficult to manage in the past, but now it is becoming a reality. We are no longer hoarding toilet rolls, cornflake boxes and old newspapers at home for use in class. Instead, we are collecting contacts and recruiting experts to join our learning network.

Planning is starting to take on a new dimension. Teachers are beginning to expect that their children collaborate with people that hold the key to learning. Year 2 teachers delivered an enquiry unit that focused on a comparison of the lives of children in Hong Kong and Inuit children living in the Arctic Circle. This year they used books and the internet. Next year each class will be partnered with Inuit children in classes that have been given access to our CLC. Nevertheless, the PowerPoint presentations that these children created this year were shared on the CLC and many children seized on the opportunity to continue with the work at home, sharing with their parents and adding elements that they had not had time to complete in school.

Our Year 6 children have all created their own home pages. These are becoming online portfolios of work that the children add to throughout the year, with a view to forwarding to their secondary schools to facilitate transition. This is to be extended to children in Years 4 and 5 next year, as the children have all gained from the process of reviewing their work and sharing their targets with both parents and teachers.

Children with individual education plans have seen particular benefits because the CLC's access tools make differentiation effective.

As a school we feel that we have made a strategic leap to new, dynamic ways of working. Although our move towards the development of a collaborative, extended learning network is still in its infancy, when combined with our vision for the school and our enquiry-based curriculum, learning is being transformed in our school and the CLC is undoubtedly at the heart of that transformation. In fact, it is acting as a catalyst for change by opening our eyes to still more opportunities for all learners.

The challenge now is to manage the growth and facilitate the culture of collaboration that is becoming a central feature of planning and delivery.

We must capitalise on the enthusiasm of our staff and students and constantly strive to ensure that, as sometimes happens with new technologies, the enthusiasm and engagement is not short lived.

The design of the school and the school day, like that of most schools, often placed restrictions on our teaching methods and organisation. The CLC is already beginning to allow us to implement our vision of lifelong independent discerning learners, for whom the distinction between formal and informal learning is beginning to blur. The walls of the classroom are beginning to crumble.

Phil Stubbs is assistant principal of Clearwater Bay primary school in Hong Kong.

* Clearwater Bay uses the CLC provided to Hong Kong's English Foundation Schools by UK company UniServity following a tendering process.

Whole-school subscriptions to UniServity, along with SMART Boards and InFocus projectors, are part of the major TES Online give-away that could transform your learning space - see p48.

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