Exploiting online information

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The technological revolution shows no signs of abating and offers fantastic potential for learning so how can we ensure that pupils are making the most of technology and online information? Randall Wilhelm, chief executive officer of netTrekker, discusses how schools can make the most out of the abundance of available content across the internet, and goes on to highlight things to consider when choosing to support the specific educational needs of each child.

The computers that first appeared in UK schools during the mid 80s bear scant resemblance to today’s models; eight colours, basic sound and graphics capabilities, with no mouse. It was around a decade later that the PC started to come into its own and the advent of the internet – originally a military tool - and the pace with which the technological landscape continued to change was blisteringly fast. As Bill Clinton commented in 1996: “When I took office, only high energy physicists had ever heard of what is called the World Wide Web.... Now even my cat has its own page.“

Fast-forward to 2010 and things are radically different. ICT has now been firmly embedded into today’s schools, with pupils regularly using laptops, netbooks and handheld devices in classrooms. Technology and the internet are now an integral part of our children’s lives and of our lives. The use of technology has certainly enriched education and will no doubt continue to do so. However, the use of computers and presentational technologies such as interactive whiteboards drove the need for digital content. Without this the technologies were simply empty hardware.

As a result, a wealth of excellent learning content, eLearning resources soon followed.
However, the first restriction of such content is that in the majority of cases, available content comes as a digital version of print material, and like print content, it is offered as a ‘one size fits all’ format. One activity for supporting the understanding of converting fractions into decimals, another for phonological awareness and further resources labelled to help those children with special educational needs. But as teachers will recognise, few children exactly fit the learning styles defined by content developers.

Ideally, for us to personalise the instruction for each student, content needs to consider all aspects of each child’s specific requirements.

Undoubtedly there is some great learning content out there, but in the current economic climate with threats of cuts in public sector funding, how can schools buy enough individual learning resources to suit every single child’s specific need? Yes, standardised resources are cleverly adapted by teachers. Others, despite huge time constraints, have become highly skilled in creating their own resources.

While this is a near impossible challenge to find content for every individual child’s specific learning requirement, if we could pool, categorise, align and effectively organise all quality resources, we would then have a tool for teachers to select the exact teaching resource to match each child’s specific learning need.  This would be a critical and essential step toward personalised learning and increased student performance.

However this brings us on to the next challenge faced by teachers searching for appropriate content.

Of the changes to our society as a result of technology, the internet is perhaps one of the most far-reaching. The accessibility of information and content in the digital age has transformed the way we research and communicate - expert opinion from worldwide sources is available at the click of a button and we are able to communicate with people on the other side of the world in seconds.  No longer is the power held by the limited few that had access to resources.  Web content continues to expand at an amazing rate – around 7.3 million pages per day. The internet contains useful information for almost every need, and therefore has the potential to be a fantastic learning tool. But for practitioners, the rapid implementation of technology and the dominance of the internet as a research and content delivery tool presents almost as many challenges as it does opportunities to enrich pedagogy. 

While the internet has opened up exciting new possibilities for teaching and learning, the open web poses a number of risks to children in terms of safety as well as quality.  How can schools best meet this challenge?

In school libraries, books have been selected by professionals to ensure suitability, relevance, and accuracy.  In stark contrast, the internet is a library to which anyone can add material, where accuracy cannot be guaranteed and information changed, where sources are often hard to establish, and where a great deal of inappropriate and inaccurate content is easy to access.
Faced with millions of results from a search on the open web, how do children and even teachers, know what they can trust?  Children need to learn to distinguish the good from the bad and to value quality sources by asking questions such as:  Who is the author?  What is their expertise?  Is the article likely to be biased?  Is it up to date? Does it infringe copyright laws?

The most common mistake made by schools is to feel they are saving money by using freely available, unorganised, non-vetted, unaligned online digital content. While there is a wealth of images and content available across the internet, there are many disadvantages and actual risks of going down this route.

Digital content resources must be able to enhance the teaching and learning experience by increasing accessibility and differentiating learning styles and ability levels. Auditory learners can benefit from downloading podcasts, whilst gifted and talented students can be stretched by accessing more advanced material. But what of reluctant or struggling readers and children with English as a second language? How does learning content support children whose language comprehension may not quite be up to the level of the content’s copy? Are these children excluded from the learning activity or do teachers have to take up more of their invaluable time to find individual learning resources for each child’s educational needs?

Research undertaken by Becta in 2007 found that e-maturity – the strategic and effective use of technology to improve educational outcomes - was linked to greater ‘investment in learning’ by pupils. Helping children attain the critical and evaluative skills to determine the accuracy of content is vital but is by no means an argument for unfettered access to the internet for learning purposes.  Online digital resources from educational publishers, such as those made available by netTrekker, can provide the answer for schools wishing to tread the line between child protection and self-determination.  This pioneering search tool called netTrekker has been established to give schools access to thousands of online images, supplemental content, newspaper archives, learning content, and video clips that have all been reviewed, assessed by teachers and tagged by learning objective, curriculum area and key stage. Taking this one step further, all online content searchable through netTrekker also comes with support for children with special educational needs. For example for children new to the English language the dictionary translation tool defines unfamiliar words or translates any text into a number of selected languages – therefore not only providing support but offering a highly effective teaching tool.

Children who may be below their expected reading age can also use the ‘read aloud’ tool or dictionary to help them understand any words that they are struggling with, without experiencing the humiliation of having to ask the teacher.

Tools, such as netTrekker, mean that pupils can enjoy the immediacy of using fully searchable online content to further their knowledge. Authoritative information is made more accessible and the speed with which pupils and teachers can reach appropriate copyright approved information can provide a springboard for more in-depth investigation; particularly when resources provide external links to encourage further research, or detailed timelines that provide thematic pathways through a particular subject. The use of credible online educational resources can offer peace of mind for teachers and a safe, trusted and interactive framework in which children can learn.

Online resources can again help overcome this challenge. Those created specifically for educational purposes are copyright cleared for use and source material is clearly cited, enabling easy adherence to legislation. Added to this, netTrekker users can enable access to resources from a home PC, a laptop and even an internet cafe via a safe and secure network, allowing for 24/7 usage. The fact that the resources can be accessed simultaneously also has a cost saving aspect for schools; purchasing a subscription to online resources that can be used concurrently, at any time of day and from any computer chosen by the learner or the teacher. This is a cost effective and sustainable way of providing credible education materials for use throughout the entire school.

Now is the time to take advantage of the way children entertain themselves today, to employ those same media and thinking habits they foster for the betterment of learning outcomes.

We live in an exciting time of learning transformation both inside and outside of school. Television, podcasts, social media, internet, online images, videos, historical clips, blogs, to name just a few are delivering content which can, when used correctly, support learning.

netTrekker aims to broaden the application of all these checked and approved resources by wrapping them with additional functionality to broaden their application, help teachers and students access the information quickly and generally help schools to use content more effectively, making their lives easier whilst achieving their overall learning objectives.

Randall Wilhelm, chief executive officer of netTrekker

Digital Learning