Etopia - Mapping the World WE Want
Text Copyright © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007
Proudly utopian, E-topia is a shared online space that aims to show children from different cultures they have common interests. Too idealistic? Sean Dodson reports
Tuesday March 20, 2007
It's 9am on a cold, windy morning in the centre of Prague. A group of UK teachers are shuffling through the solid doors of the old Technical University in Prague and into a light that extends just beyond the gloom. It's surprisingly dark inside, and there's a ripple of hesitation when our group are told by their Czech guide to keep together, less they be lost as they enter "the catacombs".
Such is the experience of this large, labyrinthine institution, which has lain largely underdeveloped since its days behind the iron curtain. There has been a technical university in the city since 1707, but it's not the past our group of teachers are here to focus on. Instead, it's a bright, new future. This is the world of Mirandanet, a charitable, futuristic and slightly chaotic fellowship, hell-bent on fostering as many foreign links as is necessary to share advanced technologies. But first we have to keep up with our guide.
Soon our group are safely ensconced in the dusty old lecture theatre. Our group is here to discuss with Czech and Russian counterparts the future of teaching and take part in a week-long conference promoting a broadly internationalist agenda. There's no talk of targets or standards or tests, just ideals and ideas. Officially the teachers are here to create partnerships between schools in the UK with those in the Czech Republic and Russia. Each one will spend two days in lectures before going out to visit schools in the city. After that, international links will have been forged and partnership projects undertaken over the internet and occasionally, funding permitting, in the real world too.
There's the first of several kerfuffles with the digital projector and then we're off into a morning of presentations. Everyone has their own set of slides, but one thing keeps coming up: the project's latest programme, E-topia. It's a complex technology project that tries to address many things: disenfranchisement, global inequality, good citizenship and personalised learning.
MySpace with a focus
So what will a typical e-topia project look like? London's Westminster Academy is planning a fashion show to take place in London and Prague in two years' time. Meanwhile, students from both schools will be able to use a page on the Mirandanet website (www.mirandanet.ac.uk) to begin thrashing out ideas and eventually plan every aspect of the show.
"It's a bit like blogging," says Maka Baramidze, a teacher at Westminster. "Students will be able to post ideas, read those of others and leave comments. We will encourage them to make short 20-second films on video phones and get them to upload them, too."
Ravensbourne school in Kent is using a wide range of software with its Czech partner school, Gymnazium Arabska. They plan a number of animation projects, using Adobe's Flash software, to run over the next few years. The Czechs will visit Kent next year, says Chris Elliott, the school's director of ICT. "We are a media school and they specialise in sports. We plan to film them for performance analysis and we are currently approaching the local football teams, Crystal Palace and Charlton, to see if they can help out."
At E-topia's heart is a plan to develop an online space where children from different cultures can share ideas about what kind of world they want to grow into, or as the chair of conference, John Cullen, asked, "how are we going to equip children for the century they are going to shape?"
"A lot of what we do is looking at how teachers can improve our future, particularly through the production of democratic participation," explains Christina Preston, the organisation's founder. "Until now, we've been working on empowering teachers, encouraging them to explore the potential of new technologies for themselves, so they will be better at leading young people forward." But now, she says, it's time for the next step.
Mirandanet has been wrestling with such themes since its birth in 1992, inspired by the memory of Preston's own daughter, Corinna. It launched just before the boom in desktop publishing and now has fellows in 25 countries, from the Seychelles to Sunderland. Now it wants to expand, not only to promote links between teachers but between the children too.
But democratic participation, says Preston, is a double-edged sword. "Teachers have realised that learners have to be at the centre of the learning programme. We have tried to give young people a voice and if possible a collaborative shared area across cultural and national boundaries."
Instead of the horrors of the Flanders as its starting point, Preston says the events sparked by the 9/11 attack on America inspired the need to extend democratic participation beyond the teachers to the children. Instead of asking professionals to produce a brave new world, E-topia plans to ask the children what they think.
What's made this possible is the rapid take-up of virtual learning environments (VLEs) and other shared spaces. Boundaries between classrooms, settings, nations may well eventually cease to be as relevant. And it's easy and cheap to maintain, once initial links have been made.
Still, 15 years is a long time to be in the advance guard of ICT, and some more mainstream technology has begun to catch up with Mirandanet. In many ways, the project is a precursor to social networking websites like MySpace and Facebook. Like those, Mirandanet has an open, democratic framework with in-built security structures for young minds to explore. What is lacking with MySpace, from a pedagogic point of view, is any sense of focus or guidance.
Although teachers will facilitate the E-topia project, all its ideas will come from the children. Naturally, the children are too young to forge links on their own. So Mirandanet is about helping their teachers forge the links for them and a framework for the children to publish their ideas. The Prague workshop follows a similar workshop last year in Friesland, Holland last year and more are planned in Macedonia and China.
An exchange of ideas
Dughall McCormick, ICT subject leader at Holmfirth JIN school in west Yorkshire says the school visits at the conference have been very enriching. "In our capacity as teachers, we have too few opportunities to see other practitioners, let alone other settings, so it is particularly interesting to see what's going on in other countries."
Back home in Holmfirth a couple of weeks later, McCormick says his school is beginning to flesh out what E-topia means to them and their partner school. "Initially it looks like a sharing of artistic projects, music, art etc. I can then foresee introducing them to our VLE and allowing them access to our established communities and forums that we have established," he says. "Of course, we would also be setting up communities and, consequently, discussion areas dedicated to our E-topia links. I anticipate these will include cultural discussion, what we think of school, home, pastimes, what we are learning, what we think is important, what problems we have."
Underlying these issues is the thorny theme of personalised learning. Thorny because it is a controversially vague policy aimed at giving pupils greater control over their education. To some, the policy marks a returned to the child-centred learning of the 1960s, to others the final march of e-learning. But to Preston and her fellow Mirandanet colleagues it is also a chance to ask children not just what style of teaching they prefer, but what kind of world they want to grow up in.
Mirandanetters want a better world. People might say they are dreamers, but think how much can be achieved in a lifetime. As the veteran headmaster John Cullen said at the end of the conference: "I go into schools and see six-year-olds making videos. When I was a lad all I had was a piece of slate on a wooden frame. On Friday afternoon I was given a jigsaw." Times have indeed changed, how much will they change again?
Czech style: A tale of two schools
School 1: Korunovacni school
Situated on an anonymous side street just a goal-kick's distance from the Sparta Prague football ground, is the site of Korunovacni school. The school opened in 1902 and is for children who live in the local area. Once it had more than 700 children packed into its corridors, but now it serves a more manageable 260.
Headmaster Tomas Komrska has been working for 16 years at the school. With his greying blond curls and denim shirt, he looks more like a veteran programmer than a headmaster.
Although the school specialises in maths, the school uses computers in every subject. It likes to use computers in a creative way - "not just like typewriters", says Komrska. One project the Czech school is keen to share with its UK counterpart is to ask the students to imagine it's the year 3000, that they are a team of archaeologists that comes across technology from 2007 (a PC, mouse, keyboard etc), and what would they would make of the ancient kit.
The school has just 25 PCs to share between its 260 pupils, but when we visit, the kids are enjoying making animations, and one of the older pupils has set up his own web design business: he makes banner advertisements for local businesses. Another student lives in Italy, but has been able to continue his studies over the net.
The school website functions as a web magazine full of articles written by the students and edited by the head. "It's my evening hobby," says Komrska. "I try to establish a free environment for the children, but sometimes I struggle to find the time. There's always a queue of articles waiting to be uploaded."
"According to European research, Czechs are very talkative, and these children really want to communicate," he adds. "That's how they like to use computers. There's no time for computer games here. They like to talk to each other and programmes like Skype are very popular."
School 2: Cervny Vrch school
It's a large modernist block on the edge of Prague, and set up in 1965. It has more than 800 children ranging from six to 15 years old, and specialises in maths and science. It has one computer for every eight children.
Headteacher Van Matousova sees Mirandanet as a rich source of new ideas. "It's interesting to see how British teachers work. It's very inspiring for us," she says. The school has already forged links with schools in Japan, France and the USA. Thanks to Mirandanet it will shortly join forces with the Westminster Academy in London.
"Our school has changed a lot," says Matousova. "It's not just new kit and new classrooms but the very mindset of the teachers. The pupils study much harder now and are more motivated than before."
The school has three classrooms with interactive whiteboards. "Our staff like computers for three main reasons," she says. "Firstly it helps motivate the children. Secondly it also gives them so much information from the internet and thirdly, our staff don't want our school to be a museum for children."
For instance, one project involves the pupils devising a code of behaviour for their school. "They have a sense of ownership and they help police each other.
"I'd like to have more computers in the classroom," she admits. "We have computers in our ICT rooms and in the library but we really want to integrate ICT into normal lessons."
Text Copyright © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007