At the Royal Masonic School we have been using MOODLE, Forum Blog and Wiki creation tools to explore how new forms of communication can enhance learning with school students in three scenarios:
online discussion for gifted and talented students;
self-evaluation and support for students of GCSE Information and Communication Technology (ICT);
collaborative and shared learning amongst students of A-level ICT.
Many universities have used Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) for some time to provide blended learning opportunities for students. The online discussion tools within these VLEs can encourage peer-to-peer networking and buddy learning which Godwin-Jones (2002) argues is essential for constructivist learning. Certainly, these environments have the potential to provide alternative collaborative learning opportunities compared to more traditional classroom-based pedagogical techniques. However, commercial VLEs such as WebCT and Blackboard are expensive and until recently have been too costly for schools. Open source products, most notably MOODLE, provide more affordable alternatives. Created by Martin Dougiamas, MOODLE allows the tutor to create core resources and activities that guide the students as opposed to traditional approaches to teaching which can lead to ineffective learning, as they imply a passive transfer of knowledge form teacher to student.
Online discussions for gifted and talented students
There is no doubt that the ability to share a problem in an online discussion forum in a VLE and to talk it out, regardless of the time of day or your location, is extremely powerful. Students have the opportunity of sharing their thoughts and feelings with others. Using a chat facility, whole groups of students can discuss topics that are causing difficulty in a synchronous way, outside the confines of a normal classroom. Weaker members of the class are empowered as their voice becomes as valid as anyone else’s, including the teacher’s.
In this collaborative project between the Royal Masonic School and the British Library, ten gifted and talented girls had to discover alternative ways in which information could be stored. The tool used for this activity was an online forum, in which each girl used a pseudonym. Visitors from the British Library could participate in the forum but they had no idea of the age or sex of the other participants. An example of the online discussion is provided where Nigel, who was a Reader from the British Library, was communicating with eleven year-old Miasma. He believed that she was due to go to university after the summer. Miasma’s postings are remarkable because in class she rarely says a word since she sometimes feels inhibited because her peers comment on her 'posh voice.' She felt that the use of a forum for this project had liberated her. Laluaeza et al (2004) ask:
What difficulties do individuals from different cultures come up against when seeking to share meanings within the same school?
In the case above, although Miasma is a student at a private girls’ school, her advanced vocabulary and accent alienate her from her peers and therefore she rarely contributes verbally to class discussions. However, being able to contribute to open (but anonymous) forums affords such students the opportunity to express their opinions without worrying about what their peers are going to say about what they have said, or how they have said it.
Self-evaluation and support for students of GCSE ICT
Coursework plays an important part in most GCSE courses. Traditionally, pupils have worked on coursework and have either recorded their progress in a report or teacher observation has been required to acknowledge examples where objectives have been achieved. However, there are occasions, particularly in large classes, when a teacher may not see a pupil achieve an objective and the pupil may not mention their actions in their report.
A group of year 10 GCSE ICT students were encouraged to use Blogging tools to keep an online diary of their progress during the 12-week production of a piece of GCSE ICT coursework. As part of the report, the student has to identify a problem and how the problem was resolved. In the example below, a student was not observed to have had a problem, nor did she write about it in her GCSE coursework documentation. However, by including it here in her Blog (see Figure 1), she was able to obtain credit because she had shown that she had identified and handled a problem.
Figure 1: Example of learning identified through blog
This is a common occurrence in coursework tasks: pupils do not get credit for work they have done because they were not seen to do it by their teacher. In this case, the URL of this student’s Blog was sent to the Moderator who could see the date and time that the student encountered a problem and how they dealt with it. The use of Blogging tools has ensured that pupils can write about the work they are doing, but in their own way. So, whilst this student is indulging in social discourse in a form that is not acceptable within GCSE coursework, she is able to show the progress she has made in a style that is totally individual.
Figure 2: Further example of learning described in a blog entry
Collaborative and shared learning amongst students of A-level ICT
The Royal Masonic School has day, boarding and international pupils. To accommodate this range and to extend learning beyond the normal lesson time, it was decided to employ MOODLE for A-level ICT students. The intention was that lessons could be continued beyond the classroom wherever a student happened to be providing they had Internet access. This also meant that students experienced new ways of working such as contributing to forums and submitting assignments electronically.
One of these students suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), which is defined as being:
a communication disorder affecting the social aspects of interaction (eye contact, failure to develop peer relationships) and the understanding of abstract forms of language (such as humor and irony. (National Autistic Society)
Usually, this student will not participate in class discussions and certainly will not reveal anything of her own personal life. It is remarkable then to read this contribution made to the class VLE forum, when “ICT and disability” was the topic of conversation:
…everyone will know about it but it is sort of connected to the topic we are learning in ICT! i suffer from Asperger's Syndrome, which is a part of Autism which is difficulty with communication, socialising, amount of vocabulary! but I’m coping with it!...
Her posting is made all the more remarkable because she has placed the two expressive ‘smilies’ at the end of that post! McCroskery (1999)defines AS difficulties as:
the inability to recognize that other people think and feel differently than oneself. A related problem is the inability to carry out social referencing through understanding non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions.
This demonstrates that the use of online tools can give a voice to such an individual, and from the example (albeit isolated) it can be seen that an AS student can express themselves differently in an online setting to that which would be predicted face-to-face.
I have also found it remarkable how willing students have been to share their findings and their resources with each other in a VLE. There seems to be no culture of selfishness amongst them. This class used a Wiki to produce a guide for pupils using the school computer laboratories:
Figure 3: Guide for pupils using the school computer laboratories developed by pupils using a Wiki
I have found that MOODLE has won over my colleagues in ways that no other package has done in my ten years as Head of ICT at this school. A formerly technophobic colleague approached me to say that her students have told her so much about the VLE that she wants to find out how to use it herself. She fears that they are so excited by its use in my course, that she is holding them back by not letting them use a VLE for her course. She also expressed a worry that when it came time to the end of Year 12 when students decide which subjects to drop, the use of a VLE in ICT lessons would make them choose to continue ICT over her subject!
The emergent new technologies offer exciting 0possibilities for students to learn collaboratively. In order to do so requires dedication from both teachers (initially) and students, but there is no doubt that the potential, as illustrated within this report, is there for educational experiences, and by extension the ‘classroom’, to be transformed beyond all recognition.
Drew would like to acknowledge the help of students, colleagues and headteacher, Mrs Diana Rose, in making this study possible.
Godwin-Jones, B. 2002. Emerging technologies. Language Learning and Technology, 6 (3) pp10-14.
Laluaeza, J. L., Bria, M., Crespo, I., Sánchez, S. and Luque, M. J. (2004) Education as the creation of microcultures. From the local community to the virtual network. Interactive Educational Multimedia, 9 pp16-31.
McCroskery, M. (1999) Asperger’s Syndrome: A Developmental Puzzle. Available at: http://www.mugsy.org/mmcc1.htm
National Autistic Society: http://www.autism.org.uk/
The Royal Masonic School