By Gerald Haigh
You all know Dan Roberts, assistant headteacher responsible for learning at Saltash.net Community School in Cornwall. The tweeter who goes by the moniker @chickensaltash.
You don’t? Well, it’s time you did. For my money he’s one of the liveliest thinkers – and doers – working anywhere in the education sector. He’s one of the team that’s put Saltash.net on the global stage for its innovative use of ICT in teaching and learning.
So when I read on Dan’s blog that he’d become enthusiastic about a photo-sharing site called Photopeach, I logged on and looked at it. I made a slideshow and send the link to a friend.
“Very nice,” I thought, “But any bit of built-in photo software, or sharing site will make even prettier slideshows than that”.
Then I talked to Dan, and he put me right. What’s special about Photopeach, of course, is that you can write captions that make comments and ask questions. You can actually add a quiz at the end with multiple-choice answers.
So it becomes, in effect, as well as a straightforward photo-sharing site, a teaching and learning tool – and trust Dan and other Web 2.0-savvy educators to realise that. Because Dan’s an advocate of peer assessment, he encourages his students to make Photopeach sequences about topics they’re studying, and invite classmates to comment. He has a couple on his blog – slide sequences by Year 11 students about the function of the human kidney, set to rather startling Y11–style music. (“Eee, Edna, I can’t tell a word that young man’s singing!”)
Getting to know Ning for independent learning and peer support
What also caught my eye, though, was the bit on Dan’s blog where he says, “The students actually embedded the files to their class collaborative space on Ning.”
Now I’m probably supposed to know all about Ning, but I didn’t, so first I had a look at the website, then I arranged to phone Dan in the evening to ask him about using Ning in class. (I interrupted him as he was building a wardrobe. That’s what they do in Cornwall in the evenings.)
Again, for Dan, this is about independent learning and peer support. The students make collaborative groups, using Ning to work together on projects. What makes it different from other kinds of online collaboration I asked?
“The students love it,” says Dan. “It’s so easy to use, and the look of it is so similar to Bebo and Facebook. They can put their own music and videos on there. For them, when they look at VLEs, and other collaborative stuff, they don’t like them so much. Ning has that Facebook feel, and some will go on and use it more socially, and you can sort of trick them so they end up doing work and learning more.”
Dan’s students – and it’s not just top sets by any means – really take to peer assessment, helping each other through problems in an impressive way. Dan recalls how one student, not very good at spelling, was advised by another, via a comment on the site to write his entries in Word, to get it spellchecked, before posting them.
'Don't check it with a teacher; check it with a friend'
“Some of the information may be incorrect, some spellings will be wrong, but the idea is: ‘Don’t check with a teacher; check with a friend.’ We’re finding ways of making them independent.”
A guided tour of Ning at Saltash.net, courtesy of Dan, shows students banding together to tackle their work with a remarkable amount of enthusiasm, mutual support and genial anarchy. It’s as far away as you can get from, “Open your books. Copy the diagram. Do examples one to eighty-nine”.
In fact, dare I say, it’s also a long way away from the approach of some supposedly innovative online material coming via learning platforms and other e-learning sites.
Just to prove that it works at every level, Dan showed me “Saltash Rainbow”, which is the staff’s Ning collaboration at Saltash.net. (Dan actually enrolled me on to Saltash Rainbow so I can see it. That’s fine, I thought, so long as I don’t get a cover note for double maths with bottom set Y9 tomorrow.)
In fact SaltashRainbow is a good way for all staff and people associated with the school to share ideas informally. It has drawn in teachers who started out techno-phobic, and it has ideas from a supply teacher who did a short time at the school. It has sub-groupings within it, such as “Masters of the Universe”, which is the group of teachers studying for a Masters degree. There are examples of students’ work, too, including brilliant video about the Global Fashion Industry by Rhoda Frost of Year 9 that ruthlessly exposes, through interviews, the way that even those of us who know perfectly well what their origins are will still buy cheap clothes. Rhoda’s teacher wanted colleagues to see it, so he posted it on Saltash Rainbow.
Ning is particularly useful when it comes to course work, says Dan. They post it and get feedback, and because the students know what stage they’re all at, they bring each other along.
“They see the ones that are keen extending themselves by getting more support, and the others are then dragged along.”
Practical questions and practice in a world of uncertainty
My look at Photopeach, and Ning, with the visit to the Saltash.net material, and the chat with Dan Roberts really made me realise that so much about education is deeply uncertain at the moment -- the nature of schools and classrooms, the place of ICT, the role of the teacher.
It’s not just a matter of deep philosophy either. There are highly practical questions – where do VLEs fit in to the vision, for example? What about handheld learning? Are we getting new school buildings right? What does peer assessment mean? How prepared are teachers trained through the 1990s to embrace risk-taking, creativity, collaboration and student-led learning?
Most importantly, perhaps, are we listening to people like Dan Roberts, debating with them, questioning them? Or are we just going to say, “That’s nice! Now where were we?”
Gerald Haigh’s is a freelance education writer. His Five Things To Think About column for the National College builds on his highly popular newspaper work and highlights important issues for school leaders engaged in Building Schools for the Future and the Primary Capital Programme.