Man using whiteboard

Internet comes to schools

E&T describes some latest cutting-edge technologies used in the UK's schools.

In Saltash, Cornwall, there lives a pig. There is nothing particularly unusual about this pig, except for her home. This pigsty comes complete with its own webcam and is part of the livestock area at the heart of the local secondary school website, Saltash.net. This 'pigcam' has given the pig a global following; within an hour of her giving birth to a set of piglets a few years ago, the 'pigcam' had logged 100,000 viewings, including many from as far away as China.

The school pig is not alone in being networked; there are egg-cams in the neighbouring chicken coop too. This is part of a project for school pupils to create podcasts about behaviour of former battery hens, compared with those that had always been free-range.

Such projects are core parts of Saltash.net's approach to education. As Dan Roberts, assistant headteacher, explains, the school is in a rural location and has a strong desire to help its community become less isolated. This helped shape its vision to use ICT as a whole new way of learning which can involve working with other schools in the UK and internationally. Earlier this year, the school organised a project called 'The Beautiful Game', themed around the football World Cup. In this project, students aged between seven and 18, from over 60 schools in 11 countries, collaborated online. Groups were each given a different country competing in the World Cup and prepared presentations about those countries: about the food, culture, geography or whatever interested them - as well as the countries' football teams. The groups' presentations were then broadcast via twitcam to more than 2,000 students worldwide.

Saltash.net also actively encourages its pupils to use their mobile phones and social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter during class. 'We tend to not ban things like that but educate students to use them responsibly,' explains Roberts.

E-safety

Saltash.net has an e-safety policy to ensure that these tools are not misused (see panel, p23). However, many schools are concerned about the e-safety aspects and the potential for distractions. A popular alternative is to use a learning platform that includes elements like networking, blogs and wikis within the school community.

The advantage of this approach is that only students and teachers in the school, and perhaps parents too, can access the platform, lowering the risk of the site being misused by outsiders. However, there are disadvantages too, according to Steve Wheeler of the Faculty of Education at the University of Plymouth: 'My criticism is that people should be able to access these tools from elsewhere,' he argues. 'If you only have three kids in a school learning Portuguese, they can't have much discussion on their internal wiki. It would be much better if they could talk to native speakers in Brazil, for example.'

Wheeler teaches learning technology and he insists that the same challenges exist in universities. 'I take my students to Gambia where they meet teachers struggling to find chalk for their blackboards and wrestling with malaria, but still have Internet access via mobile phones and Internet cafes. When my students return, they want to chat with these teachers and share experiences, but they can't speak to them via Facebook from the university campus,' he explains.

Interactive classroom

Another social tool that, according to Wheeler, can help in teaching is the photo-sharing site Flickr. 'If you do this in a closed environment, not only can you share images and have discussions, but you can also tag photos and repurpose that artefact,' he says. A biology teacher could share a photo of a heart with the class and ask the pupils to tag the organ's various features. This could be done individually, in small groups or as a whole class using an interactive whiteboard.

Wheeler believes that the interactive whiteboard is a great piece of technology for schools where teachers make use of the interactivity. These large displays connect to a computer and projector to enable users to interact with websites and learning resources using a pen or a finger. They sometimes include audience response systems, so that teachers can carry out polls or quizzes. 'I've seen how kids respond to opportunity to move numbers around on the whiteboard. It has a really galvanizing effect,' he says.

An example of how interactive whiteboards can be used is the Race to Learn software, developed for Cambridge University Press and the Williams F1 team by Cambridge-Hitachi, a joint venture between Cambridge University Press and Hitachi. The software is designed to be used in classrooms on an interactive whiteboard with pupils aged 9 to 11. The children form teams and take part in a variety of cross-curricular activities: from designing a team logo to exploring how air resistance can slow a car down. The aim is to develop children's group-working skills and to enthuse them about learning science and maths, literacy, PSHE and other subjects.

'The Williams team was enormously helpful in providing a lot of behind-the-scenes access and allowing staff to be interviewed and filmed,' comments Alastair Horne, innovations manager at Cambridge University Press.

With software like this available in classrooms, interactive whiteboards are big business now for technology developers. According to market research by Futuresource Consulting, one in every seven classrooms in the world will have an interactive whiteboard by 2011. However, there are already threats to the business. US researcher Johnny Lee recently demonstrated that an interactive whiteboard can be created on any surface for about $50 using a Wii remote, an infrared pen and free software. In the first three months that the software was freely available on his website, it was downloaded over half a million times.

Information on the move

The ways that pupils access learning resources, whether free or paid for, is also changing. School children, especially those in secondary schools, increasingly use their mobile phones to access information and to interact with others.

In a project from JISC, which supports and promotes the use of digital technologies in colleges and universities, students on exchange in Japan are using Nintendo DSi handheld games consoles to link to co-students elsewhere in Japan and their tutors back home. This project includes structured language learning exercises and feedback.

'Learning doesn't just happen in the classroom,' says Dan Sutch, head of development for the not-for-profit organisation Futurelab, which is working on a range of initiatives using mobile devices for teaching and learning.

For example, with the help of handheld GPS devices, Mudlarking in Deptford aims to rethink what a guided tour could look like with young people adding their own experiences in images, video and commentary at specific points on the tour.

Futurelab has also created a strategy-based adventure game called Savannah, which takes school pupils out onto the playing fields equipped with handheld GPS devices. The pupils take on the role of lions and can experience hunting deer, taking care of their young and living in a pride. They then return to the classroom and are taught about how lions live together before going back to the 'savannah' to repeat the exercise using their new knowledge.

Game playing

Computer games are finding their way into the classroom in many other ways too. Several primary schools in Scotland have been pursuing a range of activities based around the game 'Guitar Hero'. The premise is that the children are putting on a guitar tour. Through this, pupils learn about geography - as they plan their tour; art - as they create publicity material; and music - as they work on the songs they are going to play. They also use digital cameras and Windows Movie Maker software to create stop-frame animations to record their work.

Nicola Whitton of the Education & Social Research Institute of Manchester Metropolitan University is particularly interested in augmented reality games that take place in the real world and include Web 2.0 social aspects and in-built time for reflection.

Her university uses one such game as a way of helping new students to get to know each other, their city and their own educational establishment. The game begins with flyers, posters and adverts on student radio from a student who has found an old letter and needs help working out what it means. It includes various tasks focused around Manchester city centre and introduces the players to the university library.

'We had about 150 students taking part in this in the first year and those who were engaged got really involved,' says Whitton. However, there were some problems. 'Some students saw the flyer but thought it was advertising a nightclub, while others said they weren't interested in playing a game; they wanted to learn,' she adds.

Despite these objections, Whitton is optimistic about how games can be used in teaching. 'Not everybody likes doing puzzles but it might be a way to learn for some people. Part of the job of a good teacher is to recognise that people learn in different ways. Games provide a world that somebody can explore safely and collaboratively, with problems and challenges at different levels and feedback from the computer.'

Education through games could also benefit from new developments in hardware and gaming platforms. Touch technology is becoming increasingly important on handheld devices like the iPhone and iTouch, while games consoles like the Wii use motion-sensing technology. Dan Sutch of Futurelab believes that physical sensors will play an important role in educational games too, especially those aimed at improving physical fitness. Futurelab recently devised a version of the popular virtual pet toys - FutureLab's Fizzees. The toys are connected to heart rate monitors, so the way to keep your Fizzee healthy is to keep yourself healthy.

With so many new technologies, ideas and sources of information, the role of schools is changing. 'One of the fundamental changes is that young people can access so much information themselves,' observes Dan Sutch of Futurelab.

This creates challenges for teachers as they rethink their professional identity and for schools as they begin to see themselves as just one player in a range of information deliverers. Dan Sutch observes a further challenge too: 'The way that children and young people can access information outside schools can make the established curriculum very dislocated.'

Steve Wheeler of the University of Plymouth believes that schools and teachers will continue to rise to the challenges of new technology and its effects on teaching. 'When slates were introduced in Victorian schools, there was controversy. The same was true with typewriters and calculators but, as each new technology has come along, people have made room for it,' he notes. 'The problem that teachers have is trying to prepare students for a world of work that nobody knows yet.'

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