What about introducing the concept of a reflective learning journal to students as a blog? Geoff Tarrant, head of ICT/computing at Trinity School in Carlisle, explains how he ‘hijacked’ the new technologies loved by young people for educational use

I love to see people’s faces when I introduce the topic of wikis, forums and blogs. However, baffled faces frequently become excited at the potential of these new technologies and their use in the context of teaching and learning.

As head of department for ICT/computing in a large (1,800+) comprehensive school, I sometimes feel the ‘been there, done that, got the T-shirt’ that all of us more sophisticated (synonym for older!) teachers go through. Partly because of that, three years ago I embarked on a part time MSc in e-learning.

At the same time, I was involved with a pathfinder group that looked at a range of VLEs that were available at the time. For those of us with the sense to ignore educational fads until they become mainstream, a VLE (virtual learning environment) is a web-based, protected space in which learning can take place. At their worst, they are simply electronic repositories for worksheets. However, during this article, you will find me enthusing that they can be much, much more.

Making use of social technologies During the course of the MSc, I became interested in the use of what I called at the time ‘ubiquitous social technologies’ and their use in an educational context. Obviously too much of a mouthful, they quickly became simply ‘social technologies’. These are the technologies that students use, often on a daily basis, for social communication. Three years ago, most teachers had not come across wikis, blogs, forums and podcasts. I decided to incorporate them and others into my teaching and monitor the results. At the time, it struck me that these technologies could be platforms for many of the pedagogies that we would like to adopt in our classrooms. One of the fascinating aspects of social technologies is that they emerge, become popular, and are dropped as quickly as many popular music bands. However, when I discuss the future of these technologies later in this article, you will see that there are plenty of others to take their place.

In education, we have long recognised the value of reflective learning journals. In the outside world, millions of people publish their thoughts and aspirations online in web logs or blogs. Why not introduce the concept of a reflective learning journal to students as a blog. They all know what blogs are and often have them themselves.

However, blogs can be read by literally anyone. They are published on the web and are freely available for the whole world to view. Not a good idea for students in our current times. This is where the VLE comes in. VLEs are protected spaces. There are lots of flavours available but the pathfinder working party with which I was involved looked at many of these and we quickly narrowed the choice down to a field of one. Moodle was developed by Martin Dougiamas as an educational tool and yes – it has a blogging tool built in. That means that we as teachers can decide who reads the blog. Usually, that means just me and the student.

Try it sometime; just a comment by the student on each lesson or each module. We all know a ‘Susan’ who sits quietly through the lesson and would never in a million years tell you that she didn’t understand this or that. As soon as you ask her to record in her blog – what went well, what went badly, what did you have trouble with? You will immediately find out what help she needs. She doesn’t have to comment in front of other students and after all, blogs are cool.

Constructivism is a philosophical view of teaching that has been around for a lot of years. Many of its best ideas are seen as good practice in modern classrooms. Martin Dougiamas, the creator of Moodle is an advocate of what he terms social constructivism. Much emphasis is placed here on collaborative working. Dougiamas describes the social constructivist pedagogy as having:

  • a focus on collaborative discourse
  • the individual development of meaning through construction and sharing of texts and other social artefacts
  • critical self-reflection
  • connected online dialogue.

Already, we have ticked one of these boxes. The combination of Moodle and social technologies is so powerful we will quickly cross all of the others off the list as well.

Many of my students are members of various forums, often associated with football or music. Hang on – isn’t this an example of ‘collaborative discourse’? Try setting up a forum inside Moodle. Post a question that is contentious. Try asking the same question in class. Face to face, you will often get trite, knee-jerk responses. Remember that Moodle is an asynchronous technology – 24/7. Let the students answer in their own time. It is common to get back discussions that are heated but also well considered and logical. My sixth form often post in the early hours of the morning. I even had one younger student who posted on Christmas day! I would not for one moment advocate that forum discussions replace face-to-face dialogue in class but what an alternative they are.

Using wikis
The wikipedia is the largest encyclopaedia in the world. It is web based and can be edited by literally anybody with web access. Although this sounds like a recipe for chaos and anarchy, the truth is that the whole process is self-regulating. A page that is added advocating extremism in any form will quickly be edited by thousands of others. However, teachers would be happier if they were able to monitor and control more closely the production of any collaborative piece of work. Moodle has a facility to allow groups of students to collaborate on a document in a protected environment but it has the facility to track editing. I have used wikis in a number of ways and have always found that the discussion between the students in the production of a collaborative piece of work is significant and considered. The monitoring facility not only tracks contributions to the document but also the editing process. Because of this, it is possible to assess an individual’s contribution. It is also possible to let students see who has edited what and then to use peer assessment as part of the process.

Students learn in different ways. Part of the learning process involves the absorption and redistribution of new ideas and facts. Why do we always ask for this to be done as a written piece of work or, if we are feeling innovative as a PowerPoint presentation. Whoever coined the expression, ‘death by a thousand PowerPoints’ certainly knew what they were talking about. Why not ask a student to record their work as a podcast. Remember, we are talking about anywhere, anytime learning. They might be reluctant to do it in front of their peers in class, but a podcast produced at home, particularly if it is done as a group activity can be great fun both for them in producing it and for you when you eventually listen to it.

When I discuss these ideas with colleagues, the initial reaction always centres on their department’s lack of computing facilities. This is missing the point. What I am trying to advocate is extending the classroom walls. Most of these activities are best done at home. For the few students that do not have internet access, make the school facilities available to them at break or lunchtimes.

A second constraint that is often cited is lack of time. This is a real issue even if the skills that are required to set up a forum or a wiki in Moodle are minimal. This is the single thing that is stopping us making much faster progress in e-learning. The solution that our school has adopted is to employ a full-time web developer. Now our head of languages can simply ask that his students are able to walk down a virtual Champs Elysées and have the facility to discuss what they see. He doesn’t have to worry about the technology that is going to be used to implement it. Yes, there is a cost but smaller schools can always share such a post.

What about the performing arts department using podcasts or videocasts as methods of recording student performances. It would be fascinating to see a forum created to allow history students arguing about the causes of the first world war. How about a wiki created by a sixth form tutor group to give a personal view of the process of applying for university to be read by the following year’s sixth form.

As wikis, forums and blogs become mainstream, other social technologies move in to take their place. Inevitably, a student who has been asked to maintain a blog in school is less likely to create or maintain one as a social activity. But students are social creatures who invariably embrace new technologies.

So what of the future? Well; it’s already here. The next wave of social technologies is among us. Which of us over 25 years of age have heard of del.icio.us? Millions of teenagers around the world use it to share bookmarks to websites that they use. Del.icio.us has a ‘hotlist’ on its front page which helps to surface interesting content. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this could be utilised as part of our teaching and learning.

MySpace is a popular social networking website where users upload and share thoughts, music, photographs and videos. Again, this has a lot of potential to become a tool with which educators could engage students.

What about YouTube, a site which allows users to upload video content. This certainly offers us a chance to make our lessons more widely available but isn’t it more interesting to think about student centred learning and the opportunity for students to deliver material to us in a new and innovative manner.

Most exiting of all however, must be the manner in which Second Life is being used. Second Life is a web-based, virtual world, which allows its residents to interact with each other by means of avatars. They can explore, meet other residents, socialise, participate in individual and group activities, create and trade items and services from one another. There are currently seven million registered users who can listen to live concerts (U2 are one of many bands to have their avatars perform). Increasing numbers of British universities are registering a presence in Second Life and Edinburgh University has built its own island there. Students from around the world are taking part in virtual tutorials, sitting around a campfire on the beach. Of course, the avatars are always fitter, slimmer and more attractive than their real-life counterparts!

The opportunity for innovation in our teaching will always be there. As YouTube and Second Life become boring, mainstream technologies, something else will come along to take their place.

Our job as educators is to take any opportunity to inspire and motivate and if this means hijacking the latest fad, then so be it. There will certainly never be a shortage of social technologies that we can utilise for this purpose. It is also worth noting that these technologies are not the domain of the ICT specialist. They are there to be used by anyone who has an interest in teaching and learning.