Virtual Learning - Untangled web

13th March 2009 at 00:00
Online learning networks are proving a godsend for the thousands of pupils for whom normal school is not an option

When illness forced schoolgirl Amelia Hayward to spend two years on crutches and in a wheelchair, the internet was a lifeline - offering her an alternative school system and helping her keep in touch with friends.

Amelia developed reflex sympathetic dystrophy - a malfunction of the central nervous system - at 11 after twisting her knee when she fell. And as well as being quite immobile, she was often in unbearable pain.

"Many of the classrooms could only be accessed by stairs at that point," says Amelia, now 20. "Even when I could get to school, I quite often had to do work on my own because I literally couldn't get to my classes. There was one day when I had to be drugged up on so many painkillers just to get in the car that we thought it couldn't go on."

Being unable to attend classes and eventually pulling out of school meant Amelia lost touch with her peers.

The local authority only offered her three hours' tuition per week and from a tutor who was trained in primary school teaching.

"It was clearly not an adequate solution, so I made a nuisance of myself," says Bridget, Amelia's mum and a former teacher. "That's when we were given the option of Notschool."

Notschool is an online learning network that connects teachers and pupils. "(It) works for the disaffected, the excluded, the sick and school phobic; those for whom normal school is not an option," says Jean Johnson, its director.

Because many of the children have had a bad experience of school, vocabulary associated with education is avoided. Teenagers on the project are known as researchers; teachers as mentors and experts; and a small group of 16-plus teenagers are known as buddies. Notschool provided Amelia with both a social and a learning network. "I settled in quickly," says Amelia, who is still in contact with some former "classmates".

While teenagers are assigned mentors who direct their learning, many of the projects are undertaken in groups, with pupils taking different roles. "It's a new way of working, but you're allowed to run with your ideas," says Amelia. "I had this idea of doing a radio play, where kids from all over the place could record different parts and I could do the editing - and they helped me to do it."

There are an estimated 20,000 home-educated children in England who have opted out of school before the age of 16 and many more who may be on the school register but are in and out of school receiving treatment; are in too much pain to attend; or who have ongoing commitments in their family home. There are also those who have been excluded, have behavioural problems or phobias.

For these pupils, developments in ICT offer an alternative school environment much more suited to their needs and has made a difference in their out-of-school life and social network.

At the hospital school in Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital, London, they are in the process of allowing children to access Facebook.

"It's equally important for our children to maintain as normal as possible contact with their peers," says Yvonne Hill, headteacher, who has worked at the school for 20 years. "We get lots of requests for children to be penpals, but it doesn't really work. They've got no interest in that, but if they are out of school for long periods of time it's essential to nurture their existing friendships."

The hospital has a local intranet with educational resources and wireless internet access. If the children haven't got a laptop at home, most of them are able to take one on long-term loan to use in and out of hospital.

"Many of our kids are in and out of hospital for treatment throughout the year," says Mrs Hill. "Now if they're too ill to come down to the school for activities, they can access an awful lot from their bedside. ICT has changed the school completely."

Another virtual learning environment is Schome (which stands for Not School, Not Home), which has 75,000 users despite still being in the testing stages. It was set up by Dr Peter Twining, a former teacher and senior lecturer at the Open University, who wanted to create a less constrained system than those now available.

"We had a pupil who was particularly enthusiastic about sailing and knew more about it than the staff," says Dr Twining. "He organised virtual regattas: the event was advertised on the Wiki page; people could sign up to it, discuss the finer details in the forum and then the event happens in (the virtual world) Second Life. In the process they're developing teamwork skills and communication, as well as literacy and numeracy skills."

Both Schome and Notschool involve lots of children (and teachers) logging on to their computers at their homes, and this is where critics raise fears about security and social networking.

But Notschool and Great Ormond Street's hospital school insist they have extensive monitoring systems that are able to see what sites their children are visiting. Notschool even has a policy of looking at pupils' online behaviour patterns so staff can chart anything unusual.

Baroness Susan Greenfield, the neuroscientist, recently claimed that young children's exposure to sites such as Facebook could "rewire the brain", while Aric Sigman, the psychologist and author, wrote in the journal Biologist that social networking is responsible for society's isolation as well as a growing number of specific physiological alterations.

"Children now spend more time in the family home alone in front of TVcomputer screens than doing anything else . (which is) actively displacing the time they would spend with other people," he says.

In fact, Dr Twining believes that social networking is actually making children more social. "One of the things we need to get away from is this notion that there's the real world and the virtual world," he says. He believes that virtual learning empowers the learner and is far from a negative thing. "At the moment we have a virtual space and a physical space, but actually, if you're spending four or five hours a day in the virtual space that becomes very real. I'm not advocating that the virtual space replaces the face-to-face contact - that would be unhealthy. But I expect it's probably healthier to be engaged in a virtual world, interacting with other people, than sitting watching TV."

Jamie Reid can testify to this. "I used to be so shy - a few years ago, I wouldn't even be here now, talking to you," says the teenager who started Notschool when his severe dyslexia made secondary school too difficult. "It's amazing how sitting at a computer, talking to people and getting your point across changes you."

Notschool's credentials are certainly impressive: 70 per cent opted to go on to college, school, or an apprenticeship at college and only 4 per cent are not in education, employment or training, compared with a national average of 9.4 per cent in 2007.

Amelia was helped to get work experience at a magazine and offered a full- time job after her placement. She has won awards for her films and has gone on to work in a busy radio newsroom.

Despite the success stories, Notschool's Jean Johnson is keen to point out she doesn't advocate this type of learning for all children, and that their pupils have different backgrounds and realities from the average learner.

It can't be denied that far from isolating its users, many out-of-school children are more socially aware and adept than their situation would have allowed in the past. Online learning means that this generation of out-of- school learners and the next will be equipped for the working world.



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