|Learning with Internet technologies|
This is an exploration of how connection to the Internet has affected children's experience of the classroom.
It is written for learners (and teachers) who may be thinking of making greater use of Internet technologies. It arises from considerable experience in the classroom and beyond it, and refers to many examples - but it makes no pretence at scientific or academic rigour. It is more in the nature of an informed reflection
What is the current situation?
In the UK the government has set targets for connection - these mean that effectively nearly all schools in all education authorities in England, for example, now have a connection to the Internet, while most secondary schools have, or soon will have, a broadband connection. In the East Riding of Yorkshire all schools have a connection of some kind; all secondary schools and a few other schools have broadband connections. The DfES wants us to have 20% of schools with a Broadband connection by August 2002 and 40%: by August 2004 - these are targets that the LEA can realistically expect to achieve.
Domestic connections are less evenly spread and students are sensitive to this - when I asked my daughter about her use at school, she said she had declined a chance to work online at school, so that friends who do not have access at home could do so instead.
And approaches to teaching with computer technologies are still evolving - a few years ago, some teachers may have aspired to a classroom with workstations for every child, each one networked and able to connect to the Internet. Now teachers may prefer one or two computers, a projector and a suitable input device (anything from a touch-sensitive board with interactive software to a keyboard or mouse), so that teaching and learning can be a more collective experience. Neither of these is simply better in all situations - both are more or less appropriate to particular ways of learning.
It is hard to generalize but easy to find examples. On the other hand, we can make some generalizations confidently - for example, that courses of study and modes of assessment for GCSE and GCE exams, compounded with anxieties about results, may cause teachers to make less use of computer and Internet technologies than they might otherwise do, or restrict this use to certain parts of a course. (For example, they may stay away from computers at GCSE because most assessment is by terminal exams and these exams must be handwritten, except where a student has a physical disability that prevents handwriting.)
To cite real examples we can consider
The Internet is not the Web
The Internet has enabled many different technologies to evolve - some of which (newsgroups and bulletin boards) may already have passed out of common use. Others - Web browsing, e-mail, file transfer and chat are in very good health. If they become less popular it will perhaps be only because an alternative technology has improved on what they do - as Web-based forums have replaced bulletin boards.
Distinguishing these different technologies may be important for product developers and programmers, but if learners use them all, as and when they think they need to, this is perhaps no bad thing - in the same way that a learner with a print text might write notes in pencil, photocopy a page and highlight text without reflecting on the difference in these activities, because all are part of a joined-up programme of learning. We don't (normally) tell children, except the very young, what to use from the things in a pencil case.
What is a classroom?
Even without thinking of modern computer technologies, one could distinguish the classroom as a physical space from the classroom as a place occupied by a group of learners, with some kinds of social relationship and interaction, regulated and directed (some would say "led") by a teacher.
Internet technologies challenge our understanding because the classroom may become successively less coherent to our thinking - students may be in different physical spaces, but part of an organized group or they may have less in common, other than some shared experiences.
Within a traditional classroom a teacher may use computer technologies to reinforce methods of control, as much as to encourage independent thinking. But where students are able to use the technology without continual technical support, then it can enable some learners to do things for themselves, or give them limited but significant help with things like surface features of presentation, organizing writing and producing legible text with standard spelling forms.
Children as independent learners
The reasons why children want to learn are manifold. And for some the motivation may be quite mercenary - to please parents or a teacher, or to be allowed more social freedom and a bigger allowance. Nevertheless, Internet technologies give them a means to do it, and many take it up. Sometimes they do this by a simple direct request for help. Here is an example - more polite than some:
Hi, I was wondering if u could help me!!!?
While this one is more telegraphic (and exactly as I received it):
what could you tell me about the character Steve in Arthur Miller play ALL MY SONS
The first student seems not to be confident about what to do next - but with a simple clear answer, may become more personally committed to the work. This could of course happen without the intervention of the technology - but it gives the student another chance of finding help.
Students may be shy or diffident about asking more specific questions, but sometimes they do, and this can lead them to take more responsibility for their work - and perhaps improve their relationship with their own teacher. And sometimes students believe that the help they receive has made a clear difference - as seems the case with this student:
I thought I'd let you know how pleased I am with my English resit result.
But even with the first group, one can say that the students are independent in making the request - that is, in wanting to learn, for whatever reason. And they have found their way to someone they think, or hope, will be able to help.
Children as participants and collaborators
Internet technologies give students an opportunity to display their work to wide - potentially worldwide - audiences. In this way, they can also help other students who may learn from their work, as well as from things that their teachers produce.
Here are some examples.
The first example is a word-processed document. This may look unremarkable - but becomes more impressive if one sees that it is written in English, and is the result of a collaboration, conducted entirely by use of Internet technologies, between two pairs of children - one pair in the Netherlands and the other in Italy. They have produced a document in English and their teacher has sent it to me to be displayed on a Web site that teaches about Anne Frank and the Holocaust. In studying this subject, it seems entirely appropriate to work in a way that does not recognize physical frontiers.
The second example is a graphic presentation, in Microsoft™ PowerPoint format. Students in an East Riding school produced this and other documents and presentations, following a visit to Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam, and a summer school for able children, with Anne Frank as the focus.
The third example is a study of a musical interlude in a play by Arthur Miller. The writer is a student (of moderate ability, according to her teacher) who used a study-guide of mine, and produced this response as a text document. In collaboration with her teacher, I made it into a Web page. The guide is quite impressive in its own right - much more so when one knows that the author is not a native English speaker, but attends an international school in Switzerland.
The fourth example is an investigation for A-level English language - the student achieved a very high mark, but his work is of a kind that others could emulate and which therefore works as a model - often not the case with the best coursework. After the exam process was complete the student who wrote it gave me permission to publish it on a Web site, with appropriate contextual information.
The last example is a Web site, which I am currently building for a secondary school in the East Riding. The pupils work with their history teachers to find people to interview - they produce text files and locate documents and images to scan or photograph. I coordinate all this, organize it into a coherent site and publish on the Web. The editor of Spartacus, John Simkin, is publicizing it through a history newsletter, which has some 25,000 subscribers. Already I have had a message from a teacher in Romania, who says she will use it with her students.
Teachers working together - groups without frontiers
Nation speaking unto nation
Imagine this - a group of teachers in different countries, from Finland to Portugal, of the European Union create a project to write learning resources to teach languages of the community to non-native speakers. They have occasional meetings but mostly work from their schools and homes, to publish, jointly, Web documents in real time - the site is hosted in Austria and many of the group's members have never been there. This is a reality and you can see the sites by clicking on these links.
Closer to home, the Internet is helping real students and teachers with day-to day realities and challenges. A simple mailing list has become almost a lifeline to many teachers and students of English language - you can find it at
More ambitious is the Association of Teacher Web sites. Years ago I had a wish for there to be some kind of quality badging for Web sites - in terms of their academic rigour, clarity, usefulness and so on. The government's Virtual Teacher Centre set out to provide this but has yet to attract as wide use as the most popular independent portals. Teachers who write their own sites and publish them free to users got together early in 2001, to create the Association of Teacher Web sites at:
The association primarily gives some quality assurance - the sites are the work of qualified teachers and have substantial content. But the traffic on these sites also reflects the choices of the end users - students and teachers who know what they like. Although the resources are free to users, it makes sense for schools or LEAs to use modest finances to commission more content from the authors, as this will continue to be free in the future, as opposed to subscriptions, which need renewal.
Teachers working together locally
The Cecil Slack archive was once a collection of letters. These letters twice appeared in books - heavily edited. In the East Riding a literacy consultant and adviser worked together to produce teaching materials, using a few of the letters as sources. In creating a Web site, I have had the pleasure of bringing the full collection of letters and diaries to a huge audience worldwide. I was able to work closely with my colleagues to publish their teaching resources and to develop some new ones. The site reaches beyond our LEA, but also has an effect in it - the head of history at one of our secondary schools was inspired to organize a visit to the battlefields of the Somme.
For the Anne Frank exhibition, I was able to plan before the event, and involve more colleagues. As well as the adviser for history, I was able to work closely with the project manager for healthy schools on creating teaching materials for citizenship and with a project manager and a primary head teacher, to develop resources for teaching Religious Education, based partly on our LEA's agreed syllabus. I also obtained permission from its author, a teacher, to reproduce an excellent resource from the Schoolhistory.co.uk Web site. And finally, the Web site records the activities of students at a secondary school, who focused on the exhibition for a summer school for gifted and talented pupils.
Does this mean we do not need teachers?
The idea of a machine or robot to take the teacher's place and work indefatigably without pay is as old as the earliest automata. You can see it wonderfully in Isaac Asimov's 1951 story (set in 2157) The Fun They Had.
The part Margie hated most was the slot where she had to put homework and test papers. She always had to write them out in a punch code they made her learn when she was six years old, and the mechanical teacher calculated the mark in no time...Margie went into the schoolroom. It was right next to her bedroom, and the mechanical teacher was on and waiting for her. It was always on at the same time every day except Saturday and Sunday, because her mother said little girls learned better if they learned at regular hours.
This idea remains a fantasy - the reality is that the technology does not replace the teacher but can lead to new ways of working. If we continue to want to assess students (which seems likely in the UK for years to come), then we can do so - but use Internet technologies to submit it (e-mail attachment, file transfer and so on). Students will still make excuses for things they have not done - but the excuses change: teachers will be familiar with claims of printer and hard-disk failure which are implausible, given the real reliability of these components.
What does not change ultimately is that a student still places trust in a qualified teacher - though there may be little or no direct real world contact. I have worked informally with students in this way - in one case for a year of a GCE course - and it is quite manageable. For all she knows I have two heads; for all I know so does she?
Teachers who publish learning resources in this way will necessarily only be able to help waifs and strays who ask for help. But we can be proactive if we are employed to work - whether as subject teachers or support tutors - with a designated group. And students can easily miss out on close attention in traditional classrooms - in fact, using computer technology could more easily show us if we are spending time unevenly or if we are favouring some students over others.
Special educational needs and inclusion
The potential of computer technology to help children who wish to learn outside the conventional classroom - some or all of the time - is massive. I find this exciting, but it has barely begun to happen yet in schools in the UK.
But it is not only pupils - there are many teachers with disabilities, and could be in the future, who could teach remotely, using computer technology. Of course, I do not suggest that those who want to work in schools and challenge prejudices should do anything else. But what of those who have done this and do not want to continue, or who want to work remotely from the start? The teacher's initial invisibility might disarm prejudice - and if the student were to learn later that his or her excellent teacher was partially sighted or had cerebral palsy, then he or she might form a deeper judgement of the teacher's abilities - and the PC term differently able would suddenly make sense.
There are many reasons why some young people do not want to be in school - there may even be some schools or classes in schools where this wish is healthy. Some children find it difficult to attend, or to do so every day. Some are excluded because their behaviour in school is not always appropriate. Others may feel they are bullied or may have a poor self-image. Where, for good reasons, schools, parents and students have accepted that full time attendance at school is not right, then Internet technologies can be very helpful in sustaining the learner's contact with, and inclusion in, the wider society they may one day be able to join or re-join.
Why should teachers not have a class of remote students, perhaps making occasional visits to a school or learning centre, but otherwise working from home? Of course there are some practical difficulties for some learners in this but there are also solutions. For example, there are many good teachers who no longer feel able to work in schools - or who are themselves frustrated by the same things that drive the children away. And there may be schools or departments where teachers are not familiar with the UK curriculum or exam courses - but these may be good teachers, who need only some help in adapting their knowledge and teaching style to a new situation.
© Andrew Moore, 2002; contact me