Using the virtual world to assist learning

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virtual learningA strikingly original project using social and participative media engages young people in history, citizenship and issues relating to 20th- century conflict. Dan Phillips explains.

Increasingly young people are turning to the virtual world to make new friends, communicate with their peers and learn more about the world around them. The challenge that schools currently face is how to use this technology, and the behaviours and processes it develops, to assist learning.

A major component of the Imperial War Museum’s Their Past Your Future project is an innovative series of educational and commemorative visits for young people.

The visits aim to explore the impact of the 20th century, from a variety of perspectives, by immersing the students in the history and culture of a place. This involves site visits, meetings with eyewitnesses, use of primary sources from museums, libraries and archives, and participation in cultural and commemorative events, as well as more ‘usual’ tourist activities.

Independent evaluation has given us strong evidence that the visits have always been very successful in terms of the impact on individual students (both in terms of knowledge and understanding, and also in promoting creativity, learning new skills, informing values and increasing group working) and with participating teachers. By teaming up with Radiowaves, a specialist website that allows young people to use social media within a safe and trusted educational platform, we have been able to enhance further the impact of these visits on pupils’ learning in new and unexpected ways, and give an added online dimension to the visits which has made them even more successful. Radiowaves works with over 700 schools across the UK, and some across the world, and has considerable expertise in effective ways of using social media for learning, and we have learnt a lot in turn from their approach and experience.

This year we have organised two large-scale overseas trips, one to Thailand and Australia in April and the other to Japan in August, both with the aim of teaching students about the impact of conflict, centring on the key themes of internationalism, citizenship and remembrance. We have found that the social media element of the trips has been a highly useful tool in getting the students to engage with and understand these issues from a very early stage, allowing them to prepare more thoroughly but in an informal way for the history behind the visits.

It is also a way of creating an ongoing dialogue with the group, and helps them get a feel for what they are looking forward to, what they hope to get out of the experience, what they are nervous about, and so allow us to address these issues on the trip itself, and in other ‘offine’ preparations. In a national competition a group of students won places on the trips, and Radiowaves trained them in creating engaging recordings and writings of their experiences while they travelled and before they left.

Working with blogs and creating sound and video stories also helps the students to develop written, ICT and digital media skills, and share them for peer review on a safe platform. Each day a group of students was given the challenge to plan, flm and edit a video for the Radiowaves site, investigating the historical themes of the locations they were visiting. These videos provided both a focus for the group, a legacy for the trip and a mechanism for a wider audience to experience the trip in real time with the young people. The existence of an online audience for their work is important as it is both empowering, and also a way of assuring that the work they produce is of a standard that they are happy for others to see, a great way of focusing the mind.

“We were thrown in at the deep end!” said one student. “You have to work out what you want to do, decide what shots you wanted to take when people were talking and what pans you wanted to have. You have to organise it yourself. It was exciting having that kind of control.”

Alongside these videos, the young people also had their own ‘reporter page’ where they could post blogs and receive comments from other Radiowaves members and the general public. These blogs could be sent from mobile phones while on the move, allowing immediate responses to be captured and preserved and then reflected on by others. The students also had their own individual blog pages which provided a personal insight into their experience in contrast to the collective group response captured by the videos. The blogs provided a ‘behind the scenes’ insight into the process of making the videos and allowed the students to focus on the issues that interested them in particular, giving another perspective on the trip. The videos were viewed by more than 6,000 people during the trip and attracted more than 350 comments, including one from Frances Adamson, the acting Australian High Commissioner.

Their Past Your Future was set up with the aim of increasing young people’s understanding and appreciation of history, national identity and civic participation and responsibility through learning programmes, engaging with veterans of conflict and with primary sources from UK museums, libraries and archives. Our project is unique because, although we focus our work on the curriculum, we are not tied to it in the same way that schools and teachers are. This has given us a freedom to experiment with the media that we use to help students engage with the subject. We are then able to disseminate and advocate these new and innovative approaches to schools and teachers more widely, as well as providing compelling evidence of their effectiveness and impact on attainment and engagement.

We have found that participative media is a fantastic way of tapping into students’ approaches to learning. The blogs enable young people to reflect as individuals, rather than as a group, and in a forum that feels informal and not prone to dry assessment. This offers fascinating insights into the learning process, which we are currently feeding into the planning of future trips, and allows for an evaluation of its impact in the students’ own voices.

The technology also brings a new level of immediacy to their responses. The young people were able to use mobile phones to capture images and genuine feelings on the spot and send them live to the Radiowaves site, providing a brilliant record of their activities, and allowing school, family and wider community members back home to participate also by following progress and commenting along the way. The site is also a resource that other schools, veterans and history enthusiasts can use and interact with by leaving messages for the students.

Carole Chapman, a history tutor from Godalming College who was the lead teacher on the trip to Thailand and Australia which took place in April, found that the students took well to using the participative media equipment – and it had beneficial results.

“One of the aspects of the trip which had a profound impact on students learning was the use of social media technology in getting the students to analyse and evaluate what they were experiencing, both before the trip and whilst they were away,” said Carole. “The technology was really useful in that it gave students a reason to quiz members of the public on the streets of Australia to fnd out their opinions of ANZAC Day [an annual event honouring servicemen and women] and Australian national identity. It also forced the students to think on their feet as they were going round asking people questions and making videos to post on the website.”

The material that the students created on the trip is still viewable on the Radiowaves site ( Carole feels that this material “adds a whole new dimension to the students’ experiences”, adding: “The material that the students created and posted was very impressive. It demonstrates that the students have thought about what they saw and processed it into a set of opinions.”

Closer level
Radiowaves’ qualitative evaluation has indicated that the use of social media has also helped the students to interact with people on a closer level. Certainly comments from students have demonstrated this: “You got to hear real people’s thoughts... having a microphone was an excuse to speak to people which you can’t normally do.” Additionally students have indicated that the use of social media helped them to deepen their learning experience: “It gave us a clear focus for when we went into a museum… it made you learn a lot more and want to absorb all the information.”

Lucy Neale, an account director at Radiowaves who has been working with the Their Past Your Future Project, says that although some teachers might be wary of using social media, they should take the plunge as it can be a powerful educational tool.

“Participative media can open up new opportunities to connect with others and offer a unique way for young people to reflect on their world,” she insists. Young people are already familiar and extremely comfortable with this type of media, and increasingly flex their ownership of the virtual world. Teachers
can themselves learn a lot of new skills to inform their own teaching practice, and meet in the middle of where the classroom ends and the virtual world begins. By embracing the new technologies and behaviours, and thinking creatively about their application to learning, the classroom becomes just the beginning of where learning can take place, rather than the end.

Dan Phillips is deputy director of the Their Past Your Future project.

Taken from e-Learning Today.


Top tips to get started using social media in your lessons:

  • The world is listening. Don’t be afraid of setting parameters. Your students will respond well to boundaries; just allow them to create their podcast in their own style. This will give you opportunities to talk about what is and isn’t relevant to an audience.
    Anyone can listen, and because it is going online students will care what it sounds like and want their programme to represent them.
  • You don’t need to be technical. There is a misconception that in order to create media you need to be tech-savvy with a suite full of expensive equipment. This couldn’t be further from the truth. All you need to get started is a computer with internet access that a microphone can be plugged in to. Portable mp3 recorders and video cameras are the next step up, allowing young people to report on the move in the playground or on school trips.
  • Planning is key. Creating a podcast or video is no different to any other class work. It needs to be planned, researched, scripted and rehearsed before recording. This learning process is just as important as the end result and ensures that your students take ownership and responsibility for the content they are producing.
  • Work as a team. Creating podcasts or videos is a great team activity. There are different roles which need different skills including writing scripts, researching material, recording and presenting, editing the content and promoting the podcast. Creating a team helps to take the focus away from the technology and back to the content of the podcast.
  • Stay safe. There are really simple steps you can take to keep your students safe online. Make sure you choose a safe network in which to publish your media, where content is moderated. Never allow students to post personal details online, especially any that can be linked back to the school.

Free equipment tips

  • For podcasting: Audacity is a great free audio editing package which can be downloaded free. It allows you to cut and paste and add music and sound effects. See
  • For video: Macs and PCs both come with easy-to-use video editing software built in: Windows Movie Maker on the PC and I-Movie on the Mac.
  • Sign up for free to Radiowaves’ Voice It to have a go at blogging and podcasting today! See
Digital Learning