Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Tomorrow's world

Futuristic image

MySpace, Facebook, mobile phones; for many students, it's second nature to communicate and share content with people all over the world. Can schools and colleges afford to ignore the new generation of personal technologies, asks Steve Gater.

Technology is changing, fast; much quicker than many adults can keep up with, and the implications are potentially enormous - for schools and colleges, employers, young people, families, as well as teachers and adults who support their learning and wellbeing.

More than ever, schools and colleges need to provide the lead for young people and their families on how to take full advantage of the ICT revolution and to avoid the pitfalls. What do we know about how young people are using the technology?

Ownership of mobile phones is already widespread. Meanwhile, the internet is rapidly becoming more interactive, allowing people to upload and share content they have created themselves, rather than simply be passive recipients of it. This is the purpose of 'social networking' sites such as MySpace, YouTube, Facebook and Bebo. There are many more. This latest phase of internet development is being called 'Web 2.0'.

There are various downsides to these trends, in and beyond the classroom. Exam boards are clamping down on internet plagiarism and cheating through the use of mobile phones, MP3 and MP4 players.

Cyberbullying has extended the scope and range of bullying and increased the anxiety of student, parent and staff alike.

This type of abuse is not the fault of technology but technology can exacerbate it. While the mobile phone can offer an easy opportunity for confidential whistle blowing on bullying it can also provide a bully with a simple medium for serial malicious texting.

Digital natives

But on the other hand, think about the ability of the people who perpetrate such abuse. Their skills are ill-applied but they have certainly got to grips with handling the technology; they understand its potential to capture information and communicate effectively and have used their skills, knowledge and creativity, often to huge effect. Think of the impact we could have if we harness that power for positive uses.

The Demos pamphlet Their Space outlines how young people are quickly adopting the wonders of Web 2.0. They are the 'digital natives', growing up in a technologically-rich environment where it is quite natural to communicate online and to inhabit virtual worlds.

Schools and colleges may wish to limit student access to social networking sites but a ban will only cover the internal network and remote access via a virtual learning environment (VLE).

More importantly, by prohibiting access are we negating a duty to educate students on the potential opportunities and risks of Web 2.0 technology? Is it good enough for a school or college to say that because access was not via the organisational infrastructure then it has nothing to do with them?

Besides, there are other reasons why students might need access to Web 2.0 sites and services. Students looking for jobs, for example, may need to take advantage of facilities which allow them to post online profiles or even video CVs online.

Second Life

Universities are exploring ways of using virtual worlds such as Second Life to attract potential students, as well as posting lectures on podcasts, videocasts, blogs, wikis and so on.

Ultimately schools and colleges will not serve their students well by not preparing them to use such tools safely.

We need to find time to understand what is happening, discover how technology is changing now and how it is set to transform the way we live and work in the not too distant future.

We need to embrace those changes now and prepare to adopt and adapt future technologies. It means setting our minds on transforming schooling and developing pedagogy that relies upon, rather than resists, changing technology to support learning that really does come from the learner.

It requires us to acknowledge that, very soon, the learner will have access to all the information that they need. It will come via the internet (and what follows); it will be obtained by students themselves or by their interaction with others through social networking sites, mobile phones and so on.

That implies that the role of the teacher will shift from the 'gatekeeper of information' to that of learning mediator/coach/guardian.

So how do we start to prepare for the change? Of course, it will depend where you are now, what your context is for embracing technology and how compelled you are to use it to raise standards.

You could establish a team to audit student access to and use of Web 2.0 software and what they expect to use it for in future. That information can be a real driver for change.

Ban mobiles?

In terms of resources, I suspect that access to PC time is not the biggest limiting factor. A much bigger resource is the technology already owned by students and their families.

The amazing growth in ownership of mobile phones has put technological wizardry into the hands of the vast majority, if not all, students from early years secondary upwards and is set to grow with the launch of tools such as the iPhone.

Consider the facilities available on most phones or smartphones now - voice and voicemail, text, SMS, messenger and email, digital photography, videocam and photo album, MP3 and MP4 player, office software and dictation facility, personal calendar and address book, internet, games...

Then we can add iPods and MP3 and 4 variants, games consoles and other gadgets - all extending the user's ready access to information and communication.

Do we ban them outright? Or do we find responsible ways to capitalise on such personal technologies in school and college? To me, a ban is futile. Instead we need to be educating children in how to use them for learning.

Some colleagues and I have started to experiment with using mobile phones in class. In maths, for example, parts of lessons have been recorded on video and made available so students can upload them on to their phones for reference later.

I used the digital recording device on a mobile with a year 7 English class to have them record their reflections on a story we had been working on about the experiences of an evacuee during the Second World War.

It appealed especially to the boys. Not only were they more engaged but the language they used - phrases like 'traumatic experience' - was more descriptive than usual.

Open source

Access to software is not a major issue. Much of the Web 2.0 software is open source, so free to the individual user. This includes social networking sites. If you 'google' Google you will discover how they are rapidly developing a wide range of free applications.

Wireless zones and broadband bundles linked to digital television and telephony are rapidly bringing internet access to the masses. School may soon become a vital hub for your local community.

Some may be comfortable with students typing on a keyboard in a room full of computers but that is only one way to learn from and with ICT.

We need to grasp the challenge of using the wide range of technology to enhance learning and lifestyles and, at the same time, be able to deal effectively with the risk of abuse and threats to personal safety.

We need to merge the controlled use of ICT at school/college, using the institution's hardware and software, with the guided, risk-informed personal use of ICT in a time, space and place chosen by the individual.

Getting that blend right will move us into personalised learning where the learner chooses to use technology because that is right for them - not simply because it is there.

The digitally confident young people of today have an amazingly open world to grow into. Even more than ever they need the right advice, support and challenge to ensure that their journey is safe and fulfilling.

Steve Gater is head of Walker Technology College in Newcastle, an 11-18 school with 2,000 pupils on roll.

ICT checklist

Here are some possible starting points for thinking about Web 2.0:

  • How are students accessing social networking sites to learn at home

  • How far can you explore their possible use in school/college

  • How do students use handheld devices to learn across the curriculum

  • Can students view podcasts and videocasts of learning/lessons

  • Do you encourage them to make podcasts and videocasts of their learning

  • How are you planning for even greater use

  • What is stopping students using their mobile phones in school/college

  • How far do your strategic plans for ICT embrace Web 2.0

  • In what ways are staff and students collaborating to explore more effective and safe ways to learn with ICT beyond the VLE

  • Have you involved students in training staff in how to use the latest technologies

  • How do you balance internet creativity

Useful websites

Becta provides useful advice on strategic planning for ICT with its self-review framework and on e-security (Signposts to safety). See http://publications.becta.org.uk

For an exciting insight into the application of mobile technologies in schools see www.learning2go.org

For the Demos pamphlet Their Space, go to www.demos.co.uk/publications/theirspace

Local authority information is vital. For example, Kent County Council offers extensive advice (www.clusterweb.org.uk/kcn/e-safety_home.cfm) for schools to set their own policies and procedures.

The national Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) site www.ceop.gov.uk has information on steps schools, colleges and parents can take to inform and enforce safety.

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