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Virtual forum is as valid as any

Headteachers Roddy Renfrew and Jacques Chezeaud respond to recent criticism of the online community Heads Together.

Recently in the columns of TES Scotland (Head to Head, January 17), John Mitchell compared the Heads Together online community unfavourably with a conventional headteachers' conference with its late-night conversations and he suggested that electronic communication is a poor substitute for face-to-face conversation.

Heads Together is much more than a chatroom. It is an Internet community offering huge potential for developing communication because it offers scope for reflective discussion.

At present, 500 headteachers are members and another 500 will be online by May.

Articles are posted and members have time to consider the issues fully before replying, which is not always the case with verbal exchanges. It is also a very democratic forum, allowing everyone an equal chance to participate. So, it complements rather than replaces face-to-face discussion.

We have to be honest about the limitations of face-to-face discussion. You have to be there to take part but that is not always possible. On Heads Together, we have corresponded with many people that we would never be able to meet. Also, face-to-face discussion is influenced by so many factors, such as the relative status of each participant, their oral skills and, as John Mitchell mentions, the time of night. We have all taken part in late-night discussions only to find the next day that no one could remember what we were talking about.

We happily use telephones and other means of communication; e-mail and voicemail seem to play an increasing role in our everyday lives. Online communication may be more limited currently, but it just needs a little more time to develop.

The guiding principles of Heads Together are that:l it is entirely dedicated to headteachers in Scotland. No one else has access to the content of the site, apart from the site managers;l it allows easy and unlimited communication across local authorities without interference from line managers or others. Potentially this is an incredibly powerful tool for sharing good practice;l policies can be posted, exchanged and downloaded at virtually no cost. We are all too busy reinventing the wheel in our own little corner. At last we seem to have the beginning of what could be an educational MP3, free!l ideas, help and advice can be exchanged among members of the whole community, within a restricted group or simply with one individual. Local communities can be created if desired;l Heads Together clearly addresses aspects of continuing professional development for headteachers both in terms of using information and communications technology and subject content. Debates can be about educational or other issues. Other related education sites are made more accessible.

It is also possible to use the same software package ( to create an online community for students. Of course, students would not have access to the ring-fenced headteachers' segment.

At St Joseph's College in Dumfries, we are going to extend the use of the software package to S2 ICT classes to create an online community and S4 computing studies students will be invited to join. It will allow the students to create homepages and experience online discussions and "hot seat" questioning.

Heads Together is a new form of communication and people will inevitably be wary at first, as they are with many new things. One Scottish Chamber of Commerce in the early part of the last century deliberated at length and eventually decided the telephone had no place in business because no one would have time to answer it.

Internet communities are a new and complementary form of communication, not a threat to face-to-face discussions. Telephones, faxes and e-mail have not replaced face-to-face dialogue. Heads Together won't do it either but it will enrich our existing channels of communication.

Roddy Renfrew is headteacher of Perth GrammarJacques Chezeaud is headteacher of St Joseph's College, DumfriesLearning and Teaching Scotland manages Heads Together on behalf of the Scottish Executive Education Department, with Ultralab support. For details contact development officer Phil Galbraith, tel 0141 337 5178

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