You take the fast road

Eleanor Caldwell finds a thriving online culture in the modern studies course at Perthshire's Auchterarder High School

Modern studies - a now well matured subject in Scotland which combines politics with sociology - has taken on a thoroughly modern slant in rural Perthshire. All pupils at Auchterarder High school from S1 to S6 get their weekly homework from the school's website and can email work directly to their teacher. Since becoming web-based, there has been a significant increase in the uptake of the subject for Standard grade (GCSE).

With little knowledge of structuring a website, modern studies teacher Simon Walker worked in collaboration with library and resources co-ordinator Donald McLean to create a working school website with a strong curricular focus. McLean says he sees a kind of "seamless" development of pupils' work. Study takes on a loop effect, he says, as youngsters become more familiar with cross-referencing possibilities. Feedback lets Walker review and update. "I give Donald a disc of new material which he uploads so changes can be made quickly," he says.

Walker is a keen supporter of "mind-mapping" - a kind of road map of the brain invented in the late Sixties by author and lecturer Tony Buzan as a method for unlocking mental potential. Walker has a clear vision of his objectives: "I have always given out work in a structured way - classes know which days they'll be getting homework. By putting it online, they can plan ahead, understand exactly what they have to do and choose to push further ahead if they want."

The information for pupils at each level in fact goes well beyond basic homework tasks. Second-year pupils, working on democracy, for example, can revert to an online lesson which backs up their class lesson and pursue one of seven hyperlinks for more information. First-year pupils producing a mind-map on "People in our Society" can link to www.mind-map.com to get a better understanding of the technique.

Walker stresses he does not insist that pupils work online, but with approximately 80 per cent of pupils at Auchterarder having computers at home and others having access at school, he says over 50 per cent now email their modern studies homework. Pupils are showing more curiosity and are willing to work ahead, he says.

At Higher level, where students study 15 topics, he has expanded homework notes and online lessons to include more web links. Wide-ranging topics such as "Ethnic Minorities in the USA" have up to nine additional weblinks for students to dig deeper and link to specific areas of questioning, for example, the role of the Hispanic population.

Contact with parents is another important advantage of the online link. "They are often unsure about what's involved in a course in first and second years," he says. "I've included course outlines so they can see what their son or daughter will be working on."

Examples of good work are displayed and applauded on screen with encouragement to pupils to use them as good role models. In a current affairs quiz sponsored by Virgin pupils can win tokens, so positive ethos is transformed into popular pupil reward.

The latest addition to the Auchterarder site is guidance. As assistant principal of guidance in the small school (350 pupils), Walker recognises the potential for pupils to make a new form of personal contact with the four-teacher guidance team: "A young person can find it difficult to approach someone face-to-face, no matter how sympathetic and professional the teacher is." However, one teacher has already been emailed by a pupil with a worry. "It was quickly and easily dealt with," he adds.

The guidance site also offers information on youth problems such as drugs and eating disorders. Links to specialist associations and key sites such as Channel 4 Health provide important information for parents.

The latest WalkerMcLean collaborative project is a training package for teachers to build their own websites. They hope colleagues will take advantage of both this and the Auchterarder site to lead the way towards the online learning of the future.

www.auchterarder-high.pkc.sch.uk Email: siwalker@auchterarder.pkc.sch.uk

Making it work

* Learn to build a website - make friends with the ICT co-ordinator

* Choose year groupstopics for particular focus - or go for them all

* Think of classwork, study and homework as a sort of loop system

* Gain the support of senior management

* Adopt a positive ethos - include celebration of achievement

* Offer paper copies of online homework and information

Subject advantages

* Guidance - privacy, confidentiality and extra information

* Art - individual pupil, class and school exhibitions, links to international galleries

* Computing - individuals or groups integrate site building to coursework

* Online magazine - instigated and run by pupils in different year groups

Realities

* Hard work - heavy commitment

* Cost - negligible, dependent only on school hardware

* Excellent tool for effective teaching and learning

* Positive feedback from young people and parents: 90 per cent of pupils find subject "more interesting"; 83 per cent of parents find site "really helpful"

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