For me, the Holy Grail of ICT use in schools is the making of meaningful connections beyond the school walls. This, to me, is the essence of the internet – to collaborate with and learn from people you’ve never met, in far off places. The internet brings the financial cost of this to zero – it is the same to collaborate virtually with the person sitting next to you as it is to someone across the other side of the world. From a teaching perspective, it enables the students to broaden their view of the world they live in. It’s natural for kids to have a narrow view of their own world – the world of our kids is Castlemaine, the world of Bendigo kids is Bendigo, and my world when I was a kid was that of multicultural Sunshine in the west of Melbourne. Of course, this problem can extend into adulthood for many of us.
Yet the internet allows us to connect with the rest of the world, effectively for nothing. So why isn’t it a regular part of what all schools do? One hurdle is the technical capabilities of the school – both the hardware in terms of a stable internet connection, and the know-how of the staff. Once you’ve cleared these hurdles, you’ve got the problem of the curriculum – where does connecting with the outside world fit into VELS (or any other curriculum framework, for that matter), in a way that’s regular and meaningful? It’s one thing to do it as a once-off; quite another to build it into regular teaching and learning that links in with curriculum. And the other problem is the links themselves - even if you have these great ideas, you need someone else to talk to.
While I don’t think we’ve completely addressed all these issues, at Castlemaine North, we’ve started making our first steps this week. Our vision is to have links with the outside world that are meaningful and regular. We have divided these links into two:
Links with other schools. We want our kids talking with other kids. And there needs to be some reason for doing so. We have arrived at the conclusion that, by virtue of being from somewhere else, kids will view things differently. Hence, if we discuss issues with other schools, and the schools are diverse in terms of geographic location, size, socio-economic status, ethnic make-up and so forth, all students will be exposed to different ways of thinking. I imagine my school speaking about indigenous issues to a school in the Northern Territory; the asylum issue with a school in inner-city Melbourne or Sydney; the drought with a rural school in the Mallee.
The access to experts from around the world.Imagine this… in 2010, a Grade 5/6 student at Castlemaine North PS is designing a sustainable house for an inquiry project. She suddenly has a need to understand where to orient her house to minimise energy consumption. She asks her teacher for help, but the question is beyond his knowledge. Then the teacher suggests, “Let’s look on Skype. We have a couple of contacts that are architects. See if either of them are online”.Sure enough, one of them IS online. The student drops the architect an instant message to see if he has time to answer a quick question. The architect answers that he is free, and the student video-calls the architect to ask her question about house orientation. Now imagine that the student has access not just to architects, but scientists, writers, environmentalists, artists…
This week, we did both things at our school. Firstly, we discussed the issue ”Should Aussies travel to India to attend Sporting Events?” with Hawkesdale P-12, Cardross PS, Camperdown College, Maldon PS and Winters Flat PS. We hooked up with each school via a Skype video call, introduced the participants in the discussion from each school, and sent them off to discuss the issue in an etherpad. This is essentially a writing activity; we use etherpad because it is robust, easy to use and doesn’t require the complications of usernames and passwords. After twenty-five minutes, we end the process with another Skype video call, and ask students to identify points made by the other school that they hadn’t considered, as well as why the discussion with another school is valuable.
Our kids were so wound up after the event, they wrote blog posts reflecting on the process. We discussed the value of spelling, the personal experience some kids in other schools brought to the table, the importance of good behaviour in representing your school, and our need as a school to improve our willingness to speak publicly (something that all the schools we contacted were better than us at). While the process is not perfect, the whole thing went very smoothly, and we would like to publicly thank all the schools, teachers and students involved across the six schools. If you’re interested in being a part of it next time, please let me know and I’ll let you in on the invite – we plan on doing one more discussion on a yet-to-be-decided topic in the last couple of days of term.
Secondly, since we are conducting an inquiry into science at the moment, and being a passionate ex-science teacher and ex-scientist, I really want my kids to get a taste for what real science is like. So I teed up two good friends of mine who are still scientists : Dr Chris Armishaw, who is a medicinal chemist in Florida, USA; and Eli Reuveni, who is a bioinformatician at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Rome, Italy. Our students used skills developed in our questioning work that we have been developing in our literacy time to write a number of “fat” questions for our scientists, who graciously stayed up late (in Eli’s case, past 11pm) to be interviewed by our kids. We then reflected on the process and generated more questions which may or may not be answered by our wonderful guest scientists. Again, our school would like to publicly thank our participants for their generosity of time.
With all the insanity and excitement of the week, we sadly obtained very little video footage of the events; but here’s a few moments from our week of linking up with the world.