Maureen McTaggart, at the e-Learning Foundation conference, hears that Facebook has much to offer schools
Rather than fighting Facebook and treating it as an enemy, schools should ride on the back of the rhinoceros of social networking and use it as a free channel for communication and distribution to parents says Richard Allan, Facebook’s director of policy for Europe.
Speaking at the e-Learning Foundation’s "Survival of the Fittest" London conference, the former Liberal Democrat MP says that as a customised, off-the-shelf service, Facebook has the potential to answer a lot of educational requirements at little or no cost. This would leave teachers “to focus resources, which I know are restricted, on other things you need in a very specialist environment”.“I know the issue of building and maintaining a website in an institution is often a difficult discussion to have,” he continues. “But I would argue that a service like Facebook, where you have very wide penetration of the population [26 million in the UK], may offer a more cost-effective route to your local community and to your parents, because they are on it for at least half an hour every day, rather than a website which they may stumble across once a month, once every six months.”
His audience reacted with surprise to learn that, contrary to popular perception, 87 per cent of Facebook users were more than 18 years old, and those in the 35 plus age bracket were its fastest growing demographic. And that reach, according to Richard Allan, is socially significant when you are thinking about communities of learning and have got something to get out there, to share.
'The content may be in the VLE but the conversation may be on Facebook'
Teachers, he further advises, should examine ways to integrate their Virtual Learning Environment (VLEs) with the social networking site by having some kind of hook, which could simply be a page, into Facebook from a school’s website to put it in front of a lot of people. “I think integration into other services such as VLEs, and other more tailor-made educational tools has huge potential,” says Richard Allan. “You’ve built an environment and you want to remind people that it’s there. You want to get them involved so you need to keep refreshing that engagement.
“People are sharing content. The teacher may not be involved in the conversation around the piece of content, but students can properly be involved around that conversation. The content may be in the VLE but the conversation may be on Facebook.
“The power of recommendation and organic distribution among the community is massive. That’s where you produce something that is really good, whether it’s a piece of video learning material, whatever you’ve done, getting that out to a community of 100 people who are closest to you, getting them to post something on that and if they’ve got 150 friends each then that is going to get into the visibility of 15,000 people almost instantly. And if those 15,000 post again – you can see what I am talking about – this is what the market is doing to greater effect.”
Changing and innovating to maintain progress in the light of new education policies and financial restrictions was very much at the heart of the conference. Leaving the audience in no doubt that the current incumbents of the Department for Education have no plans whatsoever to encourage ICT in schools, Phil Willis, the foundation’s chair and former Liberal Democrat schools’ spokesman, said it was now up to educators to challenge old conceptions and close the digital gap.
'Some ministers are even hostile to digital media as a learning tool'
“Indeed some ministers are even hostile to digital media as a learning tool,” he said. “It seems that learning dates from English history will enhance life chances far more than dealing with the ICT revolution.
“But the internet belongs equally to the rich and the poor and the only barrier there now is access, and today’s teacher must go the extra mile to embed the value of ICT into the lives of not only of pupils but also their families. Today’s conference - Survival of the Fittest - is not another reality show, it’s a call to arms to equip our educators with tools to make a greater difference to young people and their life chances.”
The line-up of speakers, mainly headteachers, rose to the occasion, giving hope and inspiration with their stories. Christine Terrey, head of Grays Infant and Nursery School in East Sussex, spoke in detail about the array of technology tools her teachers use to engage pupils and their families. Homes for some, she said, were the local bed and breakfast establishments and “there are no landlines in rooms and therefore no internet access”.
Five years ago her school didn’t even have a wireless network. With the arrival of Home Access, families now access technology training sessions, sometimes working alongside their children, and through a rolling programme every learner takes home a netbook (some have 3G wireless capability) once a week to carry on working in collaboration with parents. Digital cameras and “talking tins” (voice recording communication aids) are also on offer.
Anticipating questions about trust she said, “We wanted children to have a free hand with the netbooks at home so an important consideration for us was to use software to make sure that when netbooks come back to school they resort to the school setting. There is a set of expectations from the head to the staff, there is a set of expectations from parents and increasingly from pupils.” Her school's work won it the foundation's "Home Access Primary School of the Year" award and she was highly commended for her "outstanding personal contribution" (full awards below).
As with most conferences there was one presenter who managed to raise hackles. While explaining the part netbooks play in engaging his students and raising their literacy levels, Stuart Shepherd let slip that when he took over Woking’s failing Bishop David Brown school five years ago he had to immediately dispense with the services of 37 of the 42 staff he’d inherited.
In his defence, responding to audience challenges, he said he had “inherited a culture of ‘don’t expect kids from this area to do very well because they never have done in the past’”. “We had 35 who thought they were on training programmes to become teachers, a budget deficit of £460,000 and 31 per cent of my 11-year-olds with a reading age below 9,“ he said.
His radical approach found favour with Valerie Thompson, chief executive of the e-Learning Foundation. She believes that everyone in the education community should take responsibility for children’s learning and opportunities, and that, to help schools to address the digital divide, parents should contribute financially to resources their children will use at home. “Why shouldn’t they?” she asked. “It’s their responsibility."
Like Phil Willis, she couldn't see the Government expressing much interest in ICT, and she felt that the days of the big procurement schemes were over. “On the other hand," she continued, "if we do persuade parents to hand over some of their hard-earned cash, schools must do their bit and, particularly, make sure that all their teachers have bought into the new ways of working, teaching and learning. This can no longer be discretionary.
"It’s now going to be down to local discretion and local priorities. Schools serving disadvantaged communities should have access to the pupil premium funds which offer a real opportunity for schools to address the digital divide. Using the pupil premium to top up parental contributions from those who can pay to give you the means to provide every single student with the personal resources they need.
"This could be the light at the end of the tunnel. If more than the fittest are to survive then we have to evolve and to adapt our approach and it is evolution, it's not revolution. It could be that the pupil premium is the catalyst that means many more schools, in partnership with their parents, can offer universal access to online learning resources and allow you to take control of the digital divide in your communities. Give children from low-income homes the opportunity to experience something of the kind of learning advantages that better-off children already thrive on. And if that’s what the big society is about then perhaps it's something that we should grasp and take the initiative. But the initiative that lies with you is no longer big brother: it's your decision your priorities and your choice."
e-Learning Foundation Home Access Awards 2010
Home Access Primary School of the Year, Grays Infant and Nursery School, East Sussex; Home Access Secondary School of the Year; St Mary's School, Limavady; Unsung Hero, James Wright, Nicholas Priory Junior School, Great Yarmouth; Joint winners - Outstanding Personal Contribution, Tony Witte, Rosebrook Primary School in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, and Chris Foreman, Homewood School, Ashford, Kent; Most Supportive Supplier, Novatech; Most Innovative Project, The Pilgrim School, Boston, Lincolnshire; Most Successful Parental Partnership, The Manor School, Nottinghamshire.