Sean Coughlan looks at how a class project to design a website opened up a school's profile
If you're going to widen the appeal of information technology, you've got to find ways to offer something for everyone. It can't be a self-perpetuating subject which only attracts those pupils who already have an interest." So says David Ellin, an information technology consultant and former teacher, who has worked alongside pupils and staff at Dartford Technology College in Kent on a project to produce a website about endangered species of animals.
At the earliest planning stages, the girls and their teachers at Dartford Technology College decided that their internet project would be an inclusive team effort which would risk imperfections, rather than create a shiny showcase.
"It would have been easy to pick the most able pupils," says David Ellin, who was head of modern languages at the school before retraining as an IT consultant. But instead, he says, the project was arranged in a way that involved every pupil in a Year 8 class, across all abilities, with every girl having a task in the writing, design and construction.
Involving the whole class meant engaging pupils who had no experience of making websites. David Ellin explains that in the process of starting from scratch "any anorakiness soon disappeared. The internet became what it always should be, simply a tool to express ideas."
The spur for designing the website was a Channel 4 project called The Big Idea, in which schools in Kent were invited to create internet pages on the theme of an issue that pupils thought would be important in the 21st century.
Dartford Technology College, an all-girls school apart from the sixth form, decided to take the theme of endangered species, looking at an upbeat message of how habitats were being preserved and how wildlife was being protected.
The website includes pictures of endangered species and shows how they can be reared in captivity by conservationists. Online games were made by the pupils, and a glossary helps people understand the terms used. It's not a flashy website, and has none of the flying graphics and somersaulting text that can appear in more exuberant designs. This is a relief, because if you're going to use the site regularly for information, it is very annoying to have to sit through a pyrotechnic display before you get to the content.
In the early days of website building, all too many DIY enthusiasts opted for an overload of graphics and trickery which got in the way. But the Dartford girls' website is a plain and solid presentation of information, clear and uncluttered. The pupils shared out the tasks, which could be anything from researching background colours for the pages to collecting information about the animals, such as pandas or otters.
The way pupils took responsibility for a variety of jobs was often "self-selecting", he says, with different children wanting to specialise in different areas, such as producing the art work, writing or doing research.
As well as learning about the subject and about the process of setting up a website, David Ellin points to the wider skills that were also developed.
In terms of literacy, he says the girls had to develop a way of writing that suited the medium. When he asked them about the style needed, one girl said it should be "like The Mirror". And that led into looking at how the tabloid style of writing often suited websites, and at the wider question of different forms of language. It also raised questions for the teachers about how much to re-write the pupils' efforts.
"There is a tension between wanting not to intervene with the writing, but at the same time wanting it to be correct. In the end, it's about 90 per cent in the children's words. If you're genuinely going to try to give the children a voice, you have to accept an element of 'warts 'n' all'."
And, in practice, this raw quality gives the website some of its individual character - the result of a learning process rather than a professional website that may as well be the work of adults. For example, along with the information about the panda's habits and how they are threatened is the observation that the pupils "detest poaching as the most sick thing imaginable".
Another editorial issue was the growing problem of pupils lifting undigested content from the internet. He says they "drilled into the pupils that they couldn't just cut and paste from an online encyclopedia or whatever". Making them write their own words was another way of making sure it was their own work.
But why build a website, rather than producing all the work on paper? David Ellin thinks a website might be more motivating for pupils. First, unlike a classroom display, it's available to a wider public and has been put into the outside world where it can be seen and used. "Children love seeing their work on display and this takes it a stage further," he says. The second important factor, he says, was the sense of teamwork generated by sharing out the tasks and then working together on building the website, with the end result reflecting their collective efforts.
Now that the website has been launched, David Ellin is anticipating the next stages of developing the school's ICT profile. Websites are already used very effectively by the history department, he says, and he sees more potential for using them for science and modern languages. The endangered species site might also be upgraded to show more about how threatened species are fighting back.
While the site is available to anyone on the internet, schools will have plenty of other learning materials that are only available on their own network. The "holy grail" has been to find ways to make these online resources available to pupils when they're at home, says David Ellin. At Dartford, they now have a secure, password-protected system which allows pupils to log on to the school's online learning materials from home, which David Ellin says is a great help for homework and exam revision. And since pupils' work can be sent in by e-mail, online access fits in with how they do their homework. For a subject such as maths, online working means that pupils can access self-testing exercises in their own time.
David Ellin says that it's this imaginative use of ICT in a range of different subjects that really gives him the biggest buzz. It's not only home-school links that can gain from the internet, he says. It can also help links between schools, and he wants to use a website as a bridge that will help with partnerships with neighbouring schools, including feeder primary schools.
And after the success of the endangered species website, he says, "It would be a shame to lose the sense of momentum."
Tips and links:
If you want to see the endangered species website created by pupils at Dartford Technology, there's a link from the school's home page: www.dtc.kent.sch.uk
If you're relatively new to computers and want to ask an expert for advice about using ICT in the classroom, there is information on the website of Becta (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency).
This confidence-raising information service includes a New2Computers feature and promises a "friendly introduction" to working with information technology. This includes a discussion area on the website, where teachers can share experiences, raise concerns and ask for advice from experienced online mentors.
For anyone considering setting up their own website for a subject area or for a one-off project, this online forum has looked at "Building websites for schools".
There is also an "ask the expert" service, which promises as its selling point, "tailored advice able to support decision making within a short period of time". And you can order support publications and CD-Roms.