This study describes the impact of Think.com of the ways in which young people work and learn.
Author: Richard Robinson
Publication Date: 2003
Since starting teaching in 1998 I have been involved with extra-curricular writing groups within my school. One of the skills that we try to encourage is the ability of students to reflect and evaluate their own and fellow students’ work within a group setting.
The Internet gave many opportunities for this, and one of the inspirations for this study came when students began to e-mail work to each other so that it could be evaluated and discussed.
This idea developed further when I became involved with MirandaNet and think.com, it’s online collaborative learning community.
The benefits of think.com are covered in a number of case studies on the MirandaNet site (mirandanet.ac.uk), suffice to say the format and set-up of think.com was instrumental in the development of this study.
The study of Gifted and Talented students is one of my professional development subjects and that led me to specifically target that group in my study. I already had a good relationship with many of the students as I had worked with them on other writing projects.
- The School
The school was inspected by OFSTED in September 2000, this is how the Inspector described the school:
Boston Spa Comprehensive is a community school located on the outskirts of Boston Spa, drawing its students from the surrounding villages and the urban areas of northeast Leeds. The school is much bigger that other secondary schools nationally. There are 1791 students aged between 11 and 19 years of whom 883 are boys and 908 are girls. There are 321 students in the sixth form. Approximately 90 per cent of the students are white of United Kingdom heritage. At 3 per cent, the proportion of students speaking English as an additional language is higher than in most schools.
The proportion of students eligible for free school meals is below the national average. Two hundred and seventy-six students are identified as having special educational needs; as 15 per cent, this is slightly below the national average. Thirty-seven students have statements of special educational need, which is broadly in line with the national average. Students’ attainment on entry is average overall. Students come from homes in similar social circumstances as those of most of their peers nationally.
How good the school is
This is a very effective school, providing very good value for money. Excellent leadership in the successful drive towards raising standards of attainment ensures that students are well taught. Students respond enthusiastically to lessons, thriving in the secure and productive learning environment provided by a team of very committed teachers and other staff who support them in their work.
- The ICT Set-up in the school
Within the school there are twelve suites of computers, resulting in well over a hundred computers in school. The suites are attached to both a curriculum department and a year team, allowing for equal access for all disciplines.
The school has its own independently created Intranet, (mirandanet.ac.uk/publications) and all computers are networked. Students have their own login and password and can use computers during breaks and after school.
The connection is ISDN2 and the network does slow down at busy periods of the day.
III. The Online Learning Environment
Think.com is a: “software environment for schools that is accessed from the Internet.”It offers a protected environment that is freely available to schools and educators. The project is funded by the Oracle Corporation and is a reaction to the Government’s initiative to bring industry and education together.
Think.com is made up of a large number of communities that vary in size and interest. Access to think.com is through a personal login and password, this means that only accepted members can use the whole community. Once inside the community members can visit different sites.
The purpose of think.com is neatly summed up in it’s own handbook:
Its purpose is to offer a secure environment in which they(the students) can communicate with each other. But unlike email it also offers shared reading and writing areas where pupils can read and write content on subjects determined by their teachers as well as of their own choosing.
- The Students
The core group of students that became part of this study are all current year nine students, aged 13 to 14 years old. As a major emphasis was the role of the Gifted and Talented student, the students I chose to concentrate on were primarily from the Gifted and Talented register in year nine. The identification of gifted students at Boston Spa is based on teacher assessment, test scores and identification of specific learning skills. The register identifies two levels of gifted students, ‘A’ students are seen as gifted and talented in more than one subject area, whereas ‘B’ students are seen as having a talent in an individual subject area. There was a conscious effort to get a gender balance within the core group, this was achieved with four girls and three girls.
To create a form of control I carefully involved students who were not considered gifted. These students were chosen either because they had been part of the writing group through their enthusiasm for English or had particular interests that I felt would motivate them to be part of the group.
The table below shows how the core group was seleted to give a variety of situations, by having a control group it meant the findings relating to the computer can be considered more reliable.
Table 1: Case Study Group Information.
|Student||Gifted and Talented||KS2 Eng. Level||KS3 Eng. Level||Home Internet Access|
The group did not meet during lesson times as timetable commitments would not readily permit it. The group started as an extra-curricular one, and that continued during this project. Wednesday afternoon became the regular meeting time as a group. We used the computers in the library which gave a fairly relaxed and pleasant environment in which to work. The sessions were not compulsory, and students were actively encouraged to attend perhaps on a fortnightly basis with the proviso that they worked on their own either at home or using the schools’ lunchtime work clubs to access the Internet.
III. Review of the Literature
One of the first tasks at the start of this study was to explore the current literature on the main themes that would be encountered. It was clear from preliminary searches that the literature relating to the effects of ICT in education and the concept of Gifted and Talented programmes within schools created two of the biggest libraries of educational theory.
It was necessary to be quite selective in my review. The aims of my literature review were to enable me to set up and run my project as effectively as possible. Questions I wanted my literature review to answer were ones such as: how can I use an online community as effectively as possible? What theories are there for helped Gifted and Talented students to reach their potential? There was a vast amount of general theory that I have not included. I feel as a small study one of the aims is to be as concise as possible, and therefore the literature that directly influenced the project has been included, nothing else.
- The role of the online learning community/think.com
From the outset the students on this project were entering unchartered territory as far as both they and I were concerned. Dorner, Field and Sparrowhawk (2000) state that on think.com the discussion tools:
Encourage all the young people to become owners of their own learning. These sort of reflective tasks do not have to take long and they need not be completed in the classroom.
As a result we used the brainstorms, debates and conversation tools on think.com to promote a sense of community and evaluation.
In the same publication it is recommended to begin using think.com by getting members to create personal profiles. Again we followed this by giving the first few weeks over to getting to know the community, and this revolved around allowing students to personalise their own space. We felt this was important in creating a sense of identity and ownership within the community. Only after students had become comfortable with think.com did we move onto more formal written and discussion work.
Dorner, Field and Sparrowhawk also suggest various ways to keep communities successful:
- Write articles that will appeal to the group members – and don’t leave them at the top of the page for months at a time.
- Initiate group work
- Respond to member feedback – encourage them to respond to each other in this way.
- Encourage sub groups
References & Contacts
Since this study’s inception in July 2000 I have been indebted to John Cuthell and Anne Sparrowhawk for their mentoring skills and confidence boosts.
My thanks to the staff at MirandaNet for the facilities and resources the community offers.
Thanks to Fiona Garrett for her help in the decision-making process and Colin Martin for access and advice on Gifted and Talented issues.
Finally the students, without whom, this study would not exist. Their ideas, hard work and effort are highly valued.