Staffordshire's learning net unites geographers on the world wide web

23rd June 2000 at 01:00
WANT to know when the Exxon Valdez oil spill will finally be cleared up? Or who needs the Birmingham northern relief road? What it feels like to be in trapped in a tent in a blizzard in Antarctica? Or what a geographical Advent calendar might consist of?

In short, do you want to enliven your geography teaching, help your students use ICT more productively, share creative ideas with colleagues and find an easy way into the vast geographical resources of the internet? Then the award-winning Staffordshire Learning Net for Geography ( is for you.

What started as a lively network for geography teachers in the Midlands is rapidly burgeoning into a bookmarked favourite for geographers worldwide, with resources that are now being used in classrooms on the other side of the globe.

The site, which is part of the authority's learning net, includes all kinds of pages, from Ask a Geographer, which allows pupils to question academic geographers, to a tour of the River Trent with Fergal the frog, and celebrations of good practice in local schools.

Last year the Learning Net won a coveted gold award from the Geographical Association, which pointed out that it was "much more than a simple database or search engine, acting instead to bring contributors and users together in exciting and creative ways". The association praised the Net for its flexibility and easy navigability, the way it encourages collaboration, and because it is constantly being updated: "The Net is a living and growing resource, every time you visit it there is something new and something useful."

For Chris Durbin, inspector for geography in Staffordshire and one of the founders of the Net, the site "is a bit like a shanty town - it grows and changes with the people who do things".

When he arrived in the county two years ago, he wanted to use it to encourage activity between both pupils and teachers, "and I reaped the good work of my predecessor because in Staffordshire there was definitly an established culture of helping and sharing, a whole group of people who, when you asked them to do things and take part in things, they did". The county-based size of the project has, he believes, also helped: "People like to feel they are contributing to something bigger, but not so big it is totally anonymous."

One of the first things introduced was the WOW (Window on the World) slot, which allowed pupils to tell other people how they felt about places they had visited and contribute a poem, if they wanted, to the Poetry of Place project. "Personal geography has rather faded in the national curriculum. People have forgotten that what is in children's minds is as important as what is in the curriculum," says Mr Durbin.

A second feature was the Web Enquiries page, where teachers can post suggested web tasks for pupils, along with possible avenues of investigation. The Net is also being used to extend in-service training to a wider audience by offering teachers the chance to post on the site work they have completed during courses.

Recent additions include an encouragement to teachers to create their own geographical animations (How did a lump of felsite arrive on the sandstone of Cannock Chase? Was it aliens? Floods? Or ice?) while pupils in the county and elsewhere are collecting views from around the world for a massive global database of "local perspectives" on geographical issues.

"With a subject like geography," says Chris Durbin, "you are not only teaching with information technology, but also about ICT and how it is changing the world."

Creating such a site requires "time and energy and a leap in thinking" rather than money. All classroom and training activities have Net potential and the team's task now is to encourage people to build this into the way they work and plan. The site seems certain to continue to grow. Last year it attracted something like 20,000 visits. This year it was more than twice that number between January and March alone.

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