Brian asked me to write about the benefits of membership of MirandaNet. At first this seemed straight forward but gradually I realised this was not a simple request. MirandaNet is totally unlike any other online community I know of.
Perhaps some background would be in order. MirandaNet celebrated its tenth birthday last Christmas which means it has been in existence almost as long as the Internet. Members are spread across the world. There are MirandaNet members in South America, the United States, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic among others. MirandaNet has used the Internet as its standard form of communication almost since its inception both with email and conferencing. Members also meet online and in the flesh but this is not what makes MirandaNet so unusual. The key to the organisation is the Fellowship system, where Fellows originate (and) what they do. Fellows are drawn from all sectors of education, from government organisations and most importantly, from industry. As important, MirandaNet is based very firmly in the understanding that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The organisation recognise(s)s that businesses exist to make a profit but that also industrialists are as altruistic as the next person. It also recognises that there seems to be a certain species of educator around with a very big curiosity bump. The former of these two factors goes against the opinion that seemed at one time to be widely held among teachers that computer companies ought to give things to education simply because it was a good and worthy thing to do and anyway computer companies were very rich and could afford to do so. This is not of course necessarily true - companies exist to make profits for their share holders and there is no obvious benefit for a company to give things away. Companies such as Oracle or Microsoft are the exception here, and that it probably because of the singular vision of their leaders.
The fellowship system in MirandaNet however allows these factors to inter-operate to the benefit of all and allows companies to become profitably altruistic. Perhaps some concrete examples would serve to illustrate the kind of thing MirandaNet gets involved in and how this operates.
The original project with which I was involved happened in 1995. MirandaNet and Toshiba got together to see what would happen if you gave teachers laptops. At the time this was a very radical idea indeed. Toshiba provided the laptops, paid the cost of an online training course for the scholars (as we were called) and also paid for some conference time. A lot of people were interested in the findings and it is probably no surprise that NCET as was then sponsored a larger scale project based on the MirandaNet findings. The spin-offs for the scholars were numerous. We had suddenly been plunged into a very different world from the narrow horizons of our individual schools. We found that we actually knew more than some of the experts. We were even asked to write chapters for books. Now anything seemed possible - eight years on and everyone involved in that original project is now a significant figure, to a greater or lesser extent, in the world of ICT. It comes as a pleasurable shock to be told you are regarded as an expert in your given field! For Toshiba the benefits were equally obvious. They gained an edge in a very competitive market, made useful connections and were well placed when the NCET project went ahead. Toshiba are still involved with MirandaNet and a current scholar is using laptops provided by Toshiba in a project with disaffected children. Clearly Toshiba would not have made this commitment unless they felt they were getting value for money while the teacher concerned is being enabled to carry out some exciting action research which will both be of a wider benefit to the profession as well as furthering their own professional development.
MirandaNet is presently involved in a number of projects, two of which seem of particular personal relevance to myself. The first is a partnership with Promethean. In return for an extended training package a number of schools are carrying out action research on best practice with whiteboards. It is obvious what Promethean will get from this but it is also adding a tremendous amount to the general knowledge base surrounding interactive whiteboards -surely a worthwhile thing in itself. The teachers doing the research can also, if they wish, use the research towards a professional qualification.
The second project involves the face to face side of MirandaNet which I feel is particularly worthwhile. One of the stated aims of MirandaNet, set out by its founders, Christina Preston and Dr Boba Manova, was to foster international peace and understanding. MirandaNet tries to reach out to teachers across the world and link them together through shared projects. Lawrence Williams from Holy Cross Convent School has long had a connection with a Japanese school and Japanese teachers have been guests in London as a result of this. Visits to other countries to see how their education system operates have been fascinating and humbling. MirandaNet hosted a conference in Prague sponsored by Oracle (not Apple) which inspired the English teachers with what they saw in the Czech schools. On very little money and with limited resources these schools were producing an education to rival and perhaps exceed our own. One school delivered the whole curriculum based around the theme of art and their results were stunning. The fact that the Czech Republic did not have a rigorous national curriculum might have been linked to this or perhaps I'm just cynical.
Currently, MirandaNet is building links with China. At a meeting sponsored by Actis and Promethean in January MirandaNetters met with teachers from Beijing whose visit had been sponsored by the British Council. The Chinese teachers gave impressive presentations about their schools and I hope that many friendships were started. It was over whelming to see how much the Chinese teachers thought we could offer them while we in turn were impressed by the cultural wealth they were offering us. It is already clear to those of us present at the presentation that Chinese schools, in Beijing at least, are exceptionally well equipped though with huge (fifty plus) classes. The Chinese also have a very different and distinct curriculum which reflects their culture. Knot tying for instance is a regular lesson (knots have meanings) in at least one school.
The kind of person who gets involved in MirandaNet is a topic for discussion in itself. They tend, I think, not to be ‘fine detail’ types but rather people with a wider visionary sweep. They are also intensely passionate yet realistic and recognise the barriers they face in their day to day struggle to push the envelope of ICT. They all, without exception, seem to have a huge sense of humour and a rebellious streak which likes bursting pomposity. It may or may not be significant that members who started with MirandaNet in the late 1990s as class room teachers are now HMIs, Head teachers, professors, consultants and company directors. Others are now playing a part in such think tanks as the BCS Schools Expert Working Panel. There is also a fairly even balance of the sexes.
Over the years I have been involved I have never ceased to be amazed at the wealth of creativity and ideas that MirandaNet members provide and I am convinced this is only possible because it does not follow a traditional narrow pathway. It is not just academic, it is pragmatic and it is idealistic. It provides confidence to its members because they know that if they personally do not have the answer, someone in the community will. The attitude is also very much that ‘just because no one else has done it does not mean it is impossible’.
All meetings operate on Tina Time.
No one knows what is going on or how anything will be accomplished.
Everything does go on and is accomplished.
All meetings begin on the edge of a mental cliff and proceed forwards from that point.
No one knows who will pay for it all.
Someone will pay your expenses – eventually.