By Douglas Blane
Smartly dressed and quietly-spoken, Margaret Vass is no one's idea of a typical technology expert. It came as something of a surprise even to her. "When they suggested I apply for this job I told them, 'That's not me.'
"I thought an ICT specialist was somebody who came into your class and set up your whiteboard." But as an ICT curriculum support officer in Falkirk, Margaret has far more impact than that on learning and teaching. Local authorities around Scotland have moved at different speeds to embrace the benefits of new technology.
The problem is that these only become clear when children start using ICT in the classroom, and sometimes not even then. Blogs, podcasts and wikis don't sound inspiring, and a plain description of them often fails to convince. "Quite a few teachers and school managers have said to me 'I just don't get it'," says the primary teacher and mother of three young men.
Even pupils can have trouble seeing what it's about: "I remember one girl saying 'I don't get it,' when I first told my class they could use their blogs for anything they wanted, not just for schoolwork."
But the response of her Primary 7 pupils at Carronshore Primary School, once they grasped this new-found freedom, convinced Margaret it was an essential step in her social media journey – a journey that's still in progress and will probably never end.
'It started with a seminar at the Scottish Learning Festival'
"It started with a seminar at the Scottish Learning Festival three years ago, with children from Woodhill Primary talking about how they were using blogs and podcasts. I was inspired. But I'd no idea how to start. So I became an avid reader of Ewan McIntosh's blog, found out what to do and set up a class blog a month later – the only one, as far as I knew, in any Falkirk school.
"t totally changed the way we taught in most subjects, not just in writing. We had a maths and information handling project, for instance, with kids interviewing everybody, collecting information and drawing maps and tables, which we then blogged. Everything we did we thought of the blog. It became our audience."
But after a time the children's initial enthusiasm began to wane, for reasons that weren't obvious. The answer came through a happy accident, Margaret says. "I'd been letting them use the class blog and wiki only for homework or things they did in school. I was dictating what they could do with it. I wanted to stay in control."
The decision to allow the children to write about anything that caught their fancy, inside or outside the classroom, came when one girl wrote an imaginative story on the class blog, with classmates as the main characters. They were then inspired to have a go themselves. "They were doing something that interested them. They now had ownership," says Margaret.
She decided to investigate the effects of this as the research component of her chartered teacher programme, and write it up as her Master's dissertation. The findings were instructive and sometimes surprising.
Blogs did not "privilege the written word", since boys in particular were keen to upload images, sound and video. Girls wrote far more invitational, experiential and reflective posts. Boys took great pleasure in demonstrating their skills with Web 2.0 tools and video and audio equipment.
All the children were highly motivated to "design and furnish" their new web pages, which highlighted the importance they attach to ownership and personalisation of online spaces – seeing them as extensions and expressions of their identity.
One surprising finding was the children's perplexity when comments came from beyond their immediate community. "They were unexpectedly bewildered by it, and had difficulty coming to terms with how their blogs were discovered," Margaret says.
The discovery of an audience beyond the classroom
They couldn't quite grasp how visitors stumbled upon their blogs. "They seemed to have no real conception of what it means to publish to the World Wide Web. Their perceived audience was themselves and their peers."
But the most fruitful finding of Margaret's research was the "gradual fusion of online and offline worlds" that happened when children were given their own blogs. Granting them freedom to use online spaces as they wished provided the teacher with deep insights into the individuals in her classroom.
This in turn led, through class discussions, to changes in the delivery and content of the curriculum. It grew more learner-centred, more effective. "Children’s informal online voices began to influence their formal offline learning programme," she says. "I wasn't expecting that."
Following successful completion of the chartered teacher programme, Margaret took up the post of ICT curriculum support officer. Her job now is to guide other teachers along the paths that she's been following – helping them realise the benefits of Web 2.0 in their classrooms through CPD courses and personal contact.
But while shortening their time to reach the destination, she can't transport them directly. "It has to be a journey. When teachers ask me where to start, I don't advise them to go straight to individual children's blogs. There are pitfalls and ways of doing things you have to learn first, through a class blog and wiki.
"You can't just give space to children and tell them to do what they like. You moderate comments. You keep track of blog posts using RSS. You set up some structure and control.
"My latest idea is that primary school children could shape their personal blogs into e-portfolios, which they would take with them to high school and beyond. I'm going to try this out in a local primary school. By the time I introduce it to the teachers next spring, at the end of my series of course, I'll understand how it works – and I think they'll get it too."
Conditions for innovation
- Take chances.
- Tune in to other innovators.
- If the pros outweigh the cons with something new, do it.
- Take sensible precautions then trust the pupils.
- Build a network of people willing to share, learn and communicate. Twitter is ideal.
- Most communication and sharing happens online, but take opportunities to meet up with like-minded colleagues through events such as TeachMeet.
- Write a blog to clarify your own thoughts and get valuable feedback.
“Can Weblogs, Wikis and other emerging social software tools be used to create an effective on-line learning community?” Margaret Vass's dissertation. http://mvass.net/about-2/
Regularly updated blogs on social media and new technology by Ollie Bray and David Gilmour
Primary Blogger. Create your own blog and find others to read. Free and ad-free. http://primaryblogger.co.uk/
Blogging rules. "Children are given freedom, but online safety is paramount and a page containing our blogging rules is embedded in each individual blog." http://cpsdarrenm.edublogs.org/blogging-rules
Blogging comments. Strategies and classroom exercises for improving the quality of children's comments on others' blogs.
Voki. A free service that allows children to create personalised speaking avatars and use them on their blogs, profiles and email messages.
Voices of the world. A place to connect children using their voices rather than the written word, and help them develop an appreciation of languages, accents and dialects from around the world.
E-portfolios in the upper primary. Motivation and structure for moving from classroom to individual blogs: http://mvass.net/2009/10/14/eportfolios-revisited/