Spreading the word

14th May 2004 at 01:00
The Next Generation Foundation has been set up to help those in education share creative learning resources around the globe, Julie Nightingale reports

Technology is ubiquitous in schools these days, but what are we using it for? Some teachers are exploiting the new digital tools creatively to devise new styles and objectives for learning but they are the exception not the norm, and many of their experimental ideas have yet to trouble the mainstream.

According to Seymour Papert, an international authority in education and computers since the 1960s, the position with digital technology now is comparable to the early days of movie-making. "For the first 20 years, all people did was reproduce theatre in a studio," he says. "It took another 20 years for them to devise the techniques that made cinema an artform in its own right."

Papert, a former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is one of the team behind the Next Generation Foundation (NGF) - a new non-profitmaking body which aims to change the way technology is used in education, encourage the dissemination of good practice worldwide and press policymakers to grasp the far-reaching benefits of creativity to learning.

"One of the things that holds us back is that people are not sharing information," he says. "The foundation aims to facilitate that contact so people can find out what others are doing in creative learning. Out of that, we hope, will grow a different culture of learning."

NGF's flagship project is the Map of Creativity, an internet initiative to showcase the best creative education and technology projects around the world.

The map gives users access, via a website, to a database of more than 400 projects. The database is searchable by place, age group and theme but users can also browse at random.

The projects have all been recommended to NGF by leading thinkers in education technology worldwide, drawn from universities, thinktanks and organisations such as Unesco and Unicef, who also act as peer reviewers.

"It's a bottom-up approach," says James Bradburne, NGF's director and a museum specialist who lectures internationally on new approaches to informal learning. "We have gone to our network of contacts in education and technology and asked them to recommend the most interesting projects they know."

Projects range from radio schemes in the Ukraine to computer training in a refugee camp in Bethlehem; storyboarding software for analysing Shakespeare in Oxford to the self-explanatory China Adolescents Science and Technology Invention Contest.

NGF has also produced its own projects to model its ideas. kids.in.motion, for example, brings together children aged 7 to 13 with choreographers and educators to work with LEGO's Mindstorm robotics technology. Besides studying movement and basic programming, the project is designed to bring together children of different ages.

Bradburne says: "Formal education often doesn't recognise when older children help younger ones because it seems like 'cheating' but we always try to create experiences which encourage it. We have to design an experience that isn't susceptible to shortcuts - where the answer isn't the goal of the exercise, for example. That wrongfoots a lot of educators and it means rethinking how they use computers."

Some ideas, such as Bloke on a Bike, in which children examine the potential impact of technology on life in the Australian outback, are country-specific but plenty of them could be transferred to other environments and many of the sites include software or tool sets which teachers can download.

Some countries have little representation and there's a clear North American and European bias so far, though this is being addressed.

Predictably there's nothing from Iraq or Afghanistan yet. From Palestine, there's Playgrounds for Peace, a scheme to set up play areas and recreation centres in Gaza, Nablus and Al Bireh run by the Middle East Children's Alliance.

Besides learning what their counterparts in Tokyo or Tripoli are up to, teachers - and anyone else involved in education - can propose their own projects for inclusion on the site and NGF is actively encouraging such participation. Projects have a comments folder and other users are invited to rate projects.

Deirdre Butler, a former primary school teacher and now a teacher trainer in Dublin, whose Empowering Minds project features on the Map, sees NGF's bottom-up approach as its unique selling point.

"There are other portals out there but a lot of them are run by government agencies so particular projects get highlighted. The Map, on the other hand, is looking at the innovative, the cutting-edge, and picking out people who do projects in a different way."

NGF is also performing a valuable professional development function, she adds, by enabling ideas to be shared and expanding the learning community worldwide.

Bradburne echoes this point. "The map is a platform, basically," he says.

"There are wonderful projects out there but the people doing them don't have enough chance to meet and learn from each other and so they risk reinventing the wheel. There's actually work being done out there that was being done better elsewhere 10 years ago."

The Map of Creativity is the most visible aspect of the NGF. Its other activities include placements for educators around the world to study at institutions such as MIT and funding conference places for educators and researchers from the developing world.

NGF itself is the brainchild of Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, the 205th richest man in the world (according to the last Forbes list) and chief executive of LEGO. The toymaker has no financial involvement in the foundation and Kristiansen is funding it from his own pocket for the first year, though he will be looking for external funding in the future. But it is his background, growing up in the family-owned company, that has driven his interest in creative learning, he says.

"It's always been part of my role to think about creativity in learning. As a result, we had so many interesting contacts within children's education that it was natural for us to start thinking how we could start a movement around creativity. By creating an independent institution we hope to get the ball rolling worldwide."

Politicians and policy makers have yet to grasp the opportunities presented by the explosion in technology and the potential for innovation in learning everywhere, he believes.

"The position is different in different countries but I don't think there is sufficient support given to educators in the uses of technology. But much learning is informal, too. It's just as important to think of how we can promote creativity and new ways of learning outside the classroom as well as in."


Map projects


A pan-European project on climate



Schools in Sweden and the UK develop storytelling tools


Antarctic Waves

Bafta award-winning music composition toolkit for KS3, GCSE and A-level in the UK


Playgrounds for Peace

Set up by the Middle East Children's Alliance


Ekumfi Schools project

Library and computer project in rural Ghana

www.john-knapton.com ekumfi.htm

Al Rowwad Centre

Based within the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, provides children with access to art classes and computer training


Through the Glass Wall

Looks at ways to interest more girls in maths


Our Own Voice

Children report on events in Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua


Bloke on a Bike

Australian rural schools link up to look at the impact of technology on life in the outback


Children's Voice

A radio programme in Kiev run by 10 to 18-year-olds http:fyce.orgmediacenter mediacenter_eng

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