Display Technologies


Smart Interactive Whiteboard

There has been a steady uptake of interactive whiteboards (IWBs) in classrooms over the past few years, especially in primary schools. This has been followed by a growing body of research into their use and effectiveness as teaching and learning tools. These are generally positive, highlighting the power of  IWBs as demonstration tools, especially when teachers use them interactively. Some studies have concentrated on evaluating pupil perceptions of the technology (Hall & Higgins, 2005; Wall, Higgins & Smith, 2005). These suggest that pupils are positive about the the equipment and its capacity to provide an exciting multimedia learning experience and also that pupils would like to have more access to the boards themselves. It comes as no surprise that they expressed frustration about equipment malfunctions.

Other research has tried to analyse the difference using IWBs makes to lessons. Smith, Hardman and Higgins (2005) compared lessons with and without IWBs during 2003 and 2004. They concluded that while IWBs are “useful presentational tools… the technology by itself will not bring about fundamental change in the traditional patterns of whole class teaching” (455). They also questioned the efficacy of “extensive top-down staff development” in-service training. This issue is also raised by Armstrong et al. (2005) who suggest that without effective training “it is unlikely that teachers will either be aware of or be able to exploit the potential affordances of IWBs” (467).

Gillen, Starrman, Littleton, Mercer and Twiner (2007) investigated pedagogic practice around IWBs in primary classrooms in the UK. They highlighted the distinction made by Smith et al. between ‘technical interactivity’ and ‘pedagogic interactivity’ when IWBs are used, concluding that “as a mediating artifact…” IWBs “have a significant effect on teaching” supporting good practice by facilitating “speedy, smooth presentation” (253). However, they point out that it is difficult to evaluate the impact of IWBs on learning, given that using the boards can reinforce traditional styles of teaching from the front. Nevertheless, the boards also made it possible for a good teacher to enable children to interact more effectively “in the manipulation of information (ibid)”.  They concluded that the most effective use of IWBs involves “striking a balance between providing a clear structure for a well resourced lesson and maintaining the capacity for a more spontaneous or provisional adaption of the lesson as it proceeds” (254).

Armstrong, Barnes, Sutherland, Curran, Mills and Thompson (2005) raise the important issue that it is teachers, not the boards, who are the “critical agents in mediating the software, the integration of the software into the subject aims of the lesson and appropriate use of the IWB to promote interactions and interactivity” (457), an issue echoed by Haldane, (2007) who points out that boards are simply a medium “through which interactivity may, to a greater or lesser extent, be afforded” (258).

Haldane (2007:257) speaks of the IWB as a “unique teaching and learning medium” and suggests that “a distinctive pedagogy is emerging” as teachers get to grips with it. Drawing on Kozma’s work on the stability / transience of the learning medium, she highlights the unique blend of stable and transient aspects of IWBs, which allow the learner to change the pace at which material is studied. Stable mediums, like books, provide the learner with a great control over the pace of learning. Transient mediums, like television, although providing “rich symbol systems that may be attractive and interesting to the learner” (259) do not.  Haldane sees IWBs as a compromise, given that while delivery of multimedia can be pacy, it can be controlled by capturing screens which can be returned to for further study. Haldane claims that in many lessons seen during her observations “the distinct functionality of the IWB was used to good effect to capture key points from within an otherwise transient dialogue. Modifying the displayed content by annotation, skipping back to previous screens or visiting a relevant internet site known to the teacher were among the examples of the IWB being used to enhance the important moments of interpersonal interaction” (260). She concludes that “the high production values of IWB content and the speed and slickness of presentation compared with those of other media with which the pupils engage in their leisure time and the observed practice plus pupil and teacher interviews suggest high levels of attention. However the stability of the IWB as a medium appeared to have benefits over and above the pace and quality of the audio-visual symbol systems it displays” (261).

The current research would seem to be suggesting that we are only beginning to understand the potential of IWBs. It highlights the fact that it it people, not technologies, which make a difference and that it is our responsibility to get to know the intricacies of the technological affordances offered by technologies so as to use them to their full potential. As teachers, we need to be inquisitive, creative and adventurous in experimenting with technologies, the aim always being to provide a motivating, relevant and exciting learning environment for pupils. Becoming an expert user involves working regularly with the hardware and the software so as to develop a thorough understanding of the different features it offers. The more experienced you become, the more effectively you will be able to integrate the use of the IWB into your work with your pupils.

Notwithstanding the potential of IWBs to provide a more motivating and relevant interface for learning, it is important that we do not see the use of the IWB as a replacement for children working hands-on with computers and other ICT. However we see IWB’s, they remain essentially teaching as opposed to learning tools. Our most effective learning comes when we use ICT to be creative, to solve problems, investigate, research, write, communicate and share information and ideas.


Panasonic Interactive Plasma Display

New Technologies

Recent developments provide a look into the future of educational display devices. These include the new Panasonic Interactive Plasma Display boards which offer a number of advantages, including portability and the ability to take commands from wireless devices, such as laptops, tablets and mobile phones. This frees teachers and students from being tethered to a computer. Wheeled mounts make these devices portable and enable the screen to be tilted to enable disabled people to use them, or group activities with the screen in a horizontal position. Up to four people can work on the screens simultaneously, using special input pens.

‘Surface’ computing was unveiled in 2007, with the Microsoft Surface device. An upgraded version,  Surface SP1 was launched in 2009. These were designed mainly for business and scientific use, but never quite made it into the mainstream despite the useful features they provided. However, Microsoft Surface 2  has recently been unveiled. Interestingly, new  interactive smart desks look very much the same. These devices could be  seen in classrooms in the near future.


Armstrong, A., Barnes, S., Suthertland, R., Curran, S., Mills, S. & Thompson, I. (2005) Collaborative research methodology for investigating teaching and learning: The use of interactive whiteboard technology. Educational Review. 57(4), 457-469.

Gillen, J., Staarman, J., Littleton, K. & Mercer, N. (2007) A ‘learning revolution’? Investigating pedagogic practice around interactive whiteboards in British primary classrooms. Learning, Media and Technology. 32(3), 243-256.

Haldane, M. (2007) Interactivity and the digital whiteboard: Weaving the fabric of learning. Learning, Media and Technology. 32(3) Pages 283-301.

Hall, I. & Higgins, S. (2005) Primary school students’ perceptions of interactive whiteboards. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning. 21, 102-117.

Smith, F., Hardman, F. & Higgins, S. (2006) The impact of interactive whiteboards on teacher-pupil interaction in the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies. British Educational Research Journal. 32(3), 443-457.

Wall, K. Higgins, S. & Smith, H. (2005) The visual helps me understand the complicated things. Pupil views of teaching and learning with interactive whiteboards. BJET, 36(5), 851-867.

Additional resources:

Slay, H., Sieborger, I. & Hodginson-Williams, C. (2008) Interactive whiteboards: Real beauty or just “lipstick”? Computers ansd Education, 51(3), 1321-1341.

Somekh, B. et al. (2007) Evaluation of the Primary Schools Whiteboard Expansion Project.

Somekh, B. et al. (2007) Evaluation of the Primary Schools Whiteboard Expansion Project (summary).

Mastering new literacies using ICT

The world of communication, literacy and education is changing. In the book centred culture of a century ago, to ‘read’ the classics was often considered to be the best education. Good handwriting and the ability to compose formal letters were essential life skills. Throughout the 20th century, a series of technological changes – telephone, radio, television, computers – has radically redrawn the map of communication. Children growing up in modern Europe socialise and communicate electronically: they are in constant electronic contact with each other through voice, text pictures and even video. Their primary day-to-day experience of reading comes to them through screens… (Rudd, A & Tyldesley, A. 2006:1. Literacy and ICT in the Primary School)
Children of the twenty-first century are fervent users of new technologies, which include computers, DVD, videos, cell phones, email, text messaging etc. These technologies are influencing and changing the activities that children engage with and are in turn influencing and changing literacy. What is evident is that traditional literacy is itself changing and that new and different literacies, now emerging very rapidly in the first part of the twenty-first century are reflecting these changes in technologies, media, the economy, and the rapid movement towards global scale in manufacture, finance and communications. (Evans, J. 2004:8. Literacy Moves On)


Our understanding of literacy has changed considerably in the last few decades. While the term once looked narrowly at reading, writing and speaking, technological changes have resulted in a world which is far more complicated than before.  The ways in which we communicate have changed radically, especially over the last decade and a half, impacting not only on reading and writing but the way in which we interact with the world around us, the way we work, play, buy goods and services and do business. We live in world in which we are overloaded with information, where the very meaning of communication has changed and where the number and kinds of communication tools has expanded. We a bombarded by a massively rich yet subtle tapestry of information. Interpreting and using this information effectively requires the mastery of a wide range of new literacies or competencies.

Lankshear and Knobel (2003:15) speak of oral literacy, visual literacy, information literacy, media literacy, science literacy and emotional literacy, saying that “these uses foreground the notion of being able to make meaning – as producer or receiver – from signs, signals, codes, graphic images and so on.”  They add (ibid) that “in cases of ‘media literacy’ or ‘information literacy’ we sometimes find implications that we need to learn to ‘read’ media or information sources in specialised ways in order to ‘get what is really there’ and/or to avoid being ‘taken in’.”  This highlights yet another competency – criticality – which is important in an age of spam, internet fraud and people who use the web to hide both their real identity and their dubious intentions.

The response of educational institutions has been disappointingly slow. Evans (2004:8) points out that schools are not preparing children for “life in an ever-changing world” despite “well-researched calls for  such change,” this in spite of the fact that children use internet and wireless devices all the time outside of the classroom.  Too many schools,  locked into a pencil and paper paradigm which sees literacy narrowly as reading writing and speaking, are providing an educational experience more suited to the 19th  than the 21st century,  ignoring the exciting new Information and Knowledge Societies which prevail outside the school gate.

Government has spent large amounts of money on hardware and software over the last ten years. In too many schools, however, children have less than one hour hands on experience with computers each week, at a time dictated by a timetable rather than their needs. Little of this time is dedicated to using technology to support cross-curricular work, or to use computers in the common-sense way in which they are used outside of school as writing and research tools which are always on and always within reach. Thankfully, a growing number of schools are investing in mobile technology in the form of wireless laptops which can be shared between classes. However, this still does not meet what some see as the minimum requirement for effective use of information and communications technology, where the computer is at the beck and call of the user, as and when they need it, throughout the day.

Let us consider, for a moment, how most of use work with computers and other information and communications technologies.  Firstly, the devices are always on and within reach so that we can write, read, look up information and communicate using mail, messaging, video-conferencing or applications like Pownce at any time. Many of us have multiple devices at out fingertips – mobiles, wireless PDAs, MP3 players, gaming devices – which we use in a multiplicity of ways for both learning and entertainment. We multi task, using windows which we can flick to and from as we engage with the rich world of information around us. For many of us, computers or mobile devices are constant companions, enabling us to work as we move about.

It is interesting to look at some of the recommendations of the Joint DG JRC-DG EAC Workshop (2006) into European education and training. The report of the group recognised that “Information and Communication Technology (ICT) give rise to new digital skills and competences that are necessary for employment, education and training, self-development and participation in society” and highlights the need for “a fundamental transformation of education and training throughout Europe” (page 1). Furthermore, it recognised that  ICT and other technologies  have an important role to play in realising these changes. An important recommendation is made – “that a new vision of ‘ICT and learning’ is needed that takes into account the shifts and trends that are transforming the way people work, learn, make sense of their world and have fun in a digitalized, networked and knowledge-based society” and the need for a proactive rather than “an adaptive strategy where reactions to new requirements would be made as they arise” (page 1).

The report places emphasis on the needs of what it calls a knowledge based society (KBS). Trends which are likely to shape this include:

  • Widespread broadband internet access
  • Weblogging, Short Message Service (SMS) and Multimedia Message Service (MMS) that are becoming major sources for personalisation of information and for connecting with others such as friends and now increasingly also friends of friends (social software)
  • The rise of podcasting (both audio and video) that provides opportunities for mobile
    learning via portable digital media players
  • The availability and use of open source software and open source content (e.g.
    Wikipedia), and the unlimited and cheap storage of digital information
  • The rise of new internet-native content players that experiment with content services
    that have clear educational implications (page 2).

Also highlighted is the need for “innovative applications of ICT for learning” (page 3) to make learning “better, different, more interesting, pleasant, and more relevant than it is today” (ibid). Experience-based learning, using immersive virtual worlds and experimental learning using computer-generated simulations are mentioned, together with the use of podcasting and blogging. The need to shift towards a digitalised and networked KBS, in which learners become co-producers in the learning process rather than simple receivers of learning content, is emphasised together with flexibility and user-friendliness (for both teachers and learners) and the use of different “digital” learning styles to support learning as a social process rather than an instructorless computer-generated activity.

The report places  good deal of emphasis on the need for new supportive learning spaces, which reinforce learning as a social process and place learners at the centre of learning. Such spaces are seen as connected and social, trusted, pleasant and emotional, creative and flexible, open and reflexive. It is acknowledged that large scale change is difficult. The need for incentives and effective training is highlighted.

There seems to be little evidence of these recommendations being noted in schools in the UK. Talking of primary schools, Wheeler (2005:1) points out that generally “teachers do not use ICT at all, or if they do, it is often reluctantly, and in a fashion that falls well short of its potential.”  To be fair, there are instances of excellent use of ICT to support effective learning, these tend to be isolated.  This brings to mind the assertion made by Cohen and Cuban in 1989, that computer technology would have little effect on schools, and that “to the degree that technology is flexible, it will be bent to fit existing practice and that, to the degree that it cannot be bent to fit existing practice, it will not be used.” (in Collins, 1991:28).

An increasing number of people are raising concerns about the fact that children – perhaps the most enthusiastic users of new technologies – are locked out of this participatory loop in the place where they should be most active in it – schools. Why is it that schools use ICT so poorly?

There are a number of reasons.

Toshiba Netbook, designed for working on the web.

Firstly, there are not nearly enough computers to go around. To use computers effectively means providing each child with a computer which can link to the internet. The main reason for this has, to date, been cost. However, computers are getting cheaper, and changing their form. Netbooks, designed for working on the web as a platform, are relatively cheap. At the recent Handheld Learning Conference in London, a number of success stories were shared, demonstrating how children were using handheld devices (mobile phones, gaming devices, PDAs) effectively as learning and collaborative tools.  To my mind, the most important aspect of these successes was accessibility, in that the children owned the devices and were able to take them home to use as and how they wished. Ownership provides an important level of credibility to the way we use tools and devices. The teachers involved reported on the pupils being motivated by working with what they perceived as appropriate modern devices.

Secondly, effective change requires a critical mass of teachers who really understand the potential of ICT as an educational tool to force change. This mass has not been achieved. Schools are spluttering, rather than exploding with ideas of how to make the learning experience dynamic, relevant, exciting and motivating. An effective programme of training and development has never existed, leaving too many teachers nervous of and reluctant to use technologies in their classrooms. This critical mass will hopefully be achieved as more younger, technology canny teachers join schools.

Thirdly, government interference and micro-management of schools leaves little time and space for teachers to be be imaginative and creative. The regime of testing and targets, together with an ever increasing bureaucratic demands on teachers leaves little opportunity for them to produce their best, let alone get to grips with the tools which have promised so much yet delivered so little. There is an urgent need for government to trust teachers and to embrace a Theory Y approach with what is largely a highly dedicated and hard-working profession.

Fourthly, the National Curriculum is too big, too demanding and too inflexible for the kind of educational experiences that children need to prepare them for life in a knowledge society. There is an urgent need to re look at the curriculum and to streamline it to focus on the technological and knowledge skills which young people need not only for tomorrow but for today. There is also an urgent need to reconsider the design of schools and to develop supportive ‘learning spaces’ which serve the needs of our information society. Finally, there is an urgent need for government to realise that the best way to improve education is to give teachers the time and freedom to be imaginative and creative.

Finally, there is something about the nature of schools themselves, their management structure and their self-concept, which tends to make them conservative rather than open to change. This goes beyond the fact that most school buildings were built during a bygone age and that teaching rooms are not easily adapted to suit the use of the information and communications technologies available to us. It has something to do with the authority invested in teachers who are more comfortable teaching in the way they were taught than in the way which rapidly changing technologies allow us to teach. While we do use collaboration more often and talk about teachers and pupils being co-learners, too much of what happens in classes is based on behaviourist rather than constructivist principles.

Never before have we had cheap, flexible and easy to use technologies so suited to improving the learning environment, providing contexts for investigating and examining ideas such as composing, presenting, reading and transforming texts, exploring, interpreting and sharing information. Most of us know that word processing packages supports good writing, providing tools like spell checkers, thesauruses and a host of editing tools which make it almost impossible not to produce good writing. Desk Top Publishing software allows us to engage with the issues of design and layout in a non-threatening environment in which things like posters, menus, brochures and certificates are designed. Presentation software like Key Note and Power Point provide keys to support presentations. More importantly, their structure forces users to focusing the mind and to think carefully about the essentials which need discussing.

What we are looking at here are ‘traditional’ software tools which engage users as creators of content and knowledge in an environment which provides the freedom to concentrate on content and creativity, rather than on the nitty-gritty of punctuation, spelling and typefaces, which are easily ‘fixed’ once the content is laid down. Good use of these tools supports traditional literacies as taught in schools. They are perhaps less successful in supporting the development of the ‘new’ literacies of the information age spoken about by Lankshear and Knoble (2003) –  visual literacy, information literacy, media literacy – the competencies  required by the information and knowledge societies which are so important today.

These tools are at hand.  More importantly, we have a ‘native’ clientèle more than willing to use them. What we now need is teachers who are willing to learn to use them to provide a more relevant, exciting and motivating learning environment. These tools come from two sources – the tools that children already own such as camera phones and game consoles and  the powerful, free Web 2.0 applications which allow us to find and manage information and share ideas and resources world wide, using blogs, and applications like Del.icio.us, Flickr, YouTube, Face Book and Twitter.

Mobile phones provide a relatively cheap method of capturing images and of supporting communication using voice and messaging. These are too often banned from schools for no good reason. Photographs are very much part of our visual world and working with them helps develop visual literacy. Picture taking opportunities are easily combined with learning, be it on trips out of school or walks in the school grounds to capture images of mathematical shapes or autumn colours which can be used to discuss mathematical ideas or for creative writing. Most phones today are capable of using free software which enables photographs to be loaded directly to the web – be it Flickr, a blog or social networking applications like Face Book.  We return here to the idea of ownership, where images captured by children have greater meaning than those from elsewhere. Using one’s own images adds relevance, meaning and validity to the task. SMS has been used at the University of Cape Town to create an anonymous collaborative questioning environment and in Kenya to train teachers.  In Finland, the MOOP project looked at children in primary school who used mobile phones to supports the process of inquiry learning, during which they outlined thoughts on the current topic, collected  information and observations from their surroundings and reported findings via a network-learning environment.

In other instances, children have been involved in producing podcasts. These are easy to create, using free software like Audacity which can be downloaded from the web.  As we have seen from the discussion on creating presentations, it is the process of creating which taxes us and makes us think and solve problems, providing the best learning experiences. What these examples illustrate is that imaginative teachers can use modern technologies innovatively, given the freedom to do so.

The most important aspect of Web 2.0 lies in it participatory nature, in which users move from being mere consumers of information to creators and sharers of knowledge. Wheeler, Yeomens and Wheeler (2008) point out that user-created content encourages deeper engagement with learning through the act of authoring, because an awareness of an audience, no matter how trivial or tentative, encourages more thoughtful writing. The on-line voice afforded young learners demands that they take special care and adds credibility to their work. Blogging affords bloggers with membership of an on-line community of citizen journalists who make news (not all of it by any means useful or worthwhile) which can read by anyone on-line. The traffic is two way, given that blogs enable readers to comment on posts and develop lengthy discussion. Applications  like Wikipedia and WikiHow enable multiple users to participate in knowledge generation by adding to or editing information to wikis. What many do not realise is that Wikipedia is the result of the collaboration of a vast number of quite ordinary people, rather than a elitist creation. Anyone with an internet connection can register on Wikipedia and add and edit information. Google Earth allows one not only to explore the world and the heavens above us, but also to add value to the resource by adding one’s own photographs and other information to produce mashups. Participation is open to all, no matter what our age, gender, creed or race.

Working on-line means being part of what is perhaps the biggest popular movement of all time – creators of a massive on-line community which  which has no walls and few limitations.  In many respects, the internet provides a rare instance of real democracy in a world which by contrast is becoming increasingly autocratic. Teachers have a duty to lead the way and to ensure that pupils can make the most of the exciting new learning opportunities to develop the important literacies and competencies that our modern world requires.


Collins, A. (1991) The role of computer technology in restructuring schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 73(1), 28-36.

Evans, J. (2004) (Ed.) Literacy Moves On. Using popular culture, new technologies and critical literature in the primary classroom. David Fulton, London.

Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2003) New Literacies. Changing Knowledge and Classroom Learning. Open University Press, Maidenhead.

Punie, Y. &  Cabrera, M. (2006) The Future of ICT and Learning in The Knowledge Society.

Rudd, A. & Tyldesley, A. (2006) Literacy and ICT in the Primary School. David Fulton, London.

Unsworth, L., Thomas, A., Simpson, A. & Asha, J. (2005) Children’s Literature and Computer Based Teaching. Open University Press, Maidenhead.

Wheeler, S (2005) (Ed.) Transforming Primary ICT. Learning Matters, Exeter.

Wheeler, S., Yeomans, P. & Wheeler, D. (2008) The good, the bad and the wiki: Evaluating student-generated content for collaborative learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(6), 987-995.

Blogs as Reflective Writing Tools

kissmeBlogging is an activity which has exploded into the mainstream over the last seven or eight years. Blogs are personal websites, but designed so as to provide a chronological list of posts, somewhat like a journal. They are used by politicians, professional journalists, political activists, policemen, taxi drivers, pupils and a wide range of people between, providing a broad patchwork of opinions and views on life, society and the world. Blogs are used increasingly in education, both as teaching tools and as learning tools. They are excellent tools for reflection.

What is so special about blogging that sets it apart from what one might call ‘normal’ writing? Firstly, the technology used for blogging is the very latest – relevant, easy to use, attractive, exciting and engaging. They are easy to set up and use. The underpinning software provides a range of attractive templates and editing tools which allow one to insert different media, fine tune the finished product and publish it on-line easily. No knowledge of html and the nuts and bolts of web design is required.

Secondly, blogging provides one with ‘paid-up’ membership of an exciting world-wide, on-line community. Being a member of the ‘blogosphere’ bestows a special kudos, but also demands responsibilities with respect to thinking carefully about what we say, how we say it and taking care with things like sentence structure and spelling. One cannot be too careful when one’s potential audience numbers in the millions and where conversation is bi-polar in the sense that unknown readers are likely to comment on one’s posts.

Ahlness (in Bryant, 2007:11) has claimed that “Never in 25 years of teaching have I seen a more powerful motivator for writing than blogs. And that’s because of the audience. Writing is not just taped on the refrigerator and then put in the recycle bin. It’s out there for the world to see. Kids realise other people see what they write.”

Anthropologist Fox (2004:226) has suggested that “… cyberspace is a disinhibitor. The disinhibiting effect of cyberspace is a universal phenomenon…. people … find that they are more open, more chatty, less reticent than they are face-to-face or even on the telephone.

Blogs have  been used as platforms for reflection in a number of educational settings. Roberts (2007) claims that reflection is an essential element of a learning process where students need to achieve deep learning and that blogs are an ideal medium for this process. “The power of this medium occurs when we choose to make our entries public. By making our reflective thoughts public, we engage the social aspects of learning – of inviting others to comment on our thoughts, helping us to build on our ideas and enabling us to become aware of and understand other views. This provides us with a deeper learning experience and with practice this reflective thinking will become ever more natural.

In a study into the use of blogs as learning tools at the University of Birmingham, Beale (2007:4) found that blogs were “an effective tool for supporting students in reflective practice” and concluded that blogging is “an effective, engaging approach for supporting other educational practices.”

The ability to reflect on practice is an essential skill for teachers. Such reflection involves developing an awareness of what is happening around you so as to be aware of the level of engagement, tensions and other issues in the classroom and the ability to address specific problems quickly and effectively. At the end of the day, it involves being able to pick up on what works well, what does not and the ability to develop strategies to improve practice.

It is also useful to develop the ability to reflect on learning. Effective learning skills include the habit of going over material covered in class, to ensure that one understands it effectively. This could involve rewriting notes, looking up information on the web or in a book, and reflecting on what, exactly, one has learned. For the purpose of your own reflective blogs, you will need to think carefully about on your growing understanding of the impact of information and communications technology on the world, our society, your own practice, education generally and primary schools in particular. What we do during sessions will help you to do this, as will getting to grips with the supplied readings and the links to electronic sources on the relevant pages of the ICT website, this blog, the PGCE wiki and elsewhere.

Try this as an exercise. Think about all the ways in which you use ICT on a daily or perhaps weekly base. Which devices and tools do you use? How, and for what purpose? How does this use impact on your life?  Which uses are frivolous and unnecessary? Which have been life changing? Which would you be loath to give up… and why?

Finally… while blogs are very personal, they are designed as tools which encourage discussion via comments. It is a good idea to use this within your own ‘community’, be it the whole class, the group or a select number of friends, inside or outside the university. Looking at and commenting on one another’s blogs provides an an important extra boost to your writing and should help you to develop your ability to reflect effectively in a collaborative way.

This blog is no different, so please feel free to feed in your own ideas and to comment on the ideas expressed or claims made.


Bryant, L. (2007) Emerging trends in social software for education. Becta, Coventry

Fox, K. (2004) Watching the English. The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. Hodder, London.

See this post and  this post.

The Commoncraft Show – Blogs in Plain English by Lee Lefever

See also this clip –

Why let our students blog?

Reynard, R. (2005) Blogs in Higher Ed: Personal Voice as Part of Learning.

Blogging in the Primary Classroom

The Changing Face of Education

The very concept of education is changing for many kids, as they experience self-directed learning, mostly out of school, about things that interest them, and they see how different this kind of learning is from the ‘push it on you’ and ‘test you to death’ methods of formal schooling. Prensky, M. (2007:40)

Rapid social and technological change has had a big impact on the way that the world works. We find technology of various sorts everywhere today – in cars, fridges, ovens, television sets and telephones. Computers control the design and manufacture of everything from jet aircraft to bicycles. We use computers increasingly to shop on line, to watch television, to download and listen to music and watch films. The world wide web is our store of information and, increasingly, the place where we meet, communicate, share and manage information and compete with others, using applications like Facebook, Flickr and Del.icio.us and fast, online multiplayer games like World of Warcraft.

Amongst the biggest digital consumers in this world are young people who have never known a non-digital world. Prensky (2001:1) calls these people digital natives, young people who “have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age.” As such, their view of the world and the way they interface with it is different to those of us who were born before computers were readily available. Prensky (page 2) says that “Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to ‘serious’ work. ”

Prensky (2001) believes that the world of formal education does not really cater for this generation, given that it tends to be highly structured, linear and slow moving. He suggests (page 4) that it is important for teachers to “learn to communicate in the language and style of their students. This doesn’t mean changing the meaning of what is important, or of good thinking skills. But it does mean going faster, less step-by step, more in parallel, with more random access, among other things. ” *

Others have also written about the different way young people view life and work. According to Oblinger (2008:24) “today’s students use their computer as their notebook, locker, backpack and organiser. They expect technology to provide solutions for their wants and needs. Students say they want more ‘learning-on-the-go’ options and mobile device services to align with their mobile lifestyle.” Those of you who have recently finished degrees at university will be able to associate with these issues.

Recent research by Creanor and Trinder (2006) looked, inter alia,  at the nature of effective e-learners. Amongst other things, they believe that (page 26) “technology should be used to enhance their learning and are clear that they will not engage with it if they feel it is not to their advantage.” For many,  “technology is an integral part of their lives and they feel particularly strong attachments to their personal gadgets such as Internet enabled mobile phones, MP3 players and laptops, which they use to support their learning, often experimenting with innovative usage.”  They also take advantage of technology to fit learning into their daily lives, and are good at multi-tasking, with “the boundary between using technology for learning and leisure is becoming increasingly blurred.”

While much of the literature on digital natives has been focused at higher education institutions, it is important to keep in mind that primary school children are also digital natives. They are users of the same tools, with many having their own camera phones, X-boxes, iPods and computers. We need to reflect on the relevance of ICT for primary pupils and contrast this with the level of accessibility in the average classroom.

To what extent do primary schools and teachers understand the changing nature of the world we are living in and the impact of information and communications technology on society, learning and teaching? Do they know that many pupils in their classes are used to having broadband access and that they play fast paced games? Would they agree that the issues we are discussing are relevant to primary pupils and schools, or do they think that they apply only to teenagers? What are teacher’s beliefs about learning and do they understand that social and technological change must of necessity impact on the way we learn?

The importance that government places on the use of ICT suggests that they believe ICT is important for all school goers. However, while industry and business has been quick to embrace the power of information and communications technology, schools have not. This is not to say that they have rejected it out of hand. Schools have bought  computers, interactive white boards and other equipment and ICT is a required course for trainee teachers. Generally speaking, however, educators are always playing catch up as the potential of these technologies as educational tools slowly becomes apparent. There are a number of reasons for this, which I will discuss under the broad headings provision and placement and resistance to change.

Provision and placement.

Notwithstanding the support of government, computers and other ICTs remain expensive for schools as non-profit making institutions. A high level of personalisation is necessary for computers and other ICT equipment to be effectively used – basically, the equipment needs to be available as and when the user needs it. Ownership is an important aspect of technology use and ideally each child should have a computer. Instead, we have the situation where many schools still place computers in shared difficult-to-use suites, which need to be booked out in advance. This does not fit with the always-on always-available nature of ICT use in society, even with more and more schools are investing in portable and shareable laptops.

Resistance to change.

A large proportion of teachers are digital immigrants – the antithesis of digital natives. Born in a world before computers, digital immigrants tend to do things in traditional ways, even when using powerful technologies. As Prensky (2001:2) puts it – “As all Digital Immigrants learn – like all immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree their ‘accent,’ that is, their foot in the past. The digital immigrant accent can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program itself will teach us to use it.” Other immigrant habits include things like printing out emails to read and file, printing out a word-processed document to edit by hand rather than directly on screen, and bringing people into the office to show them an interesting website.

However, these people are at least are using information and communications technology. Some teachers do not, cannot and simply will not, mainly because they are embarrassed by their lack of knowledge of ICT and believe that they are too old to learn about complicated new technologies.

We need to have some sympathy for these teachers. The pace of change in the field of ICT is extremely rapid, and even so-called experts battle to keep up with every change and new development. In addition, there has never been an effective programme for training teachers. They have been expected to pick the knowledge up as they go along, which is difficult given the bureaucratic and other demands of the job.

There is another aspect of resistance to change which is important to look at, this one considering our understanding of what teaching and learning is about. Notwithstanding the lip service paid to the importance of using constructivist, socio-constructivist and constructionist approaches for learning, many teachers behave in a way which suggests that they are behaviourists at heart. As such, they see themselves as disseminators of information rather than facilitators of learning. Those who use ICT tend to use it narrowly and in a prescriptive fashion which minimises the power of the technology. Cartwright and Hammond (2007:390) analysed the use of technology in a primary school regarded as a good user of ICT over a two year period. Their findings were that  ” ‘fitting ICT in’, rather than ‘effective use of ICT’, provided a more accurate description of the complex decisions and actions that were made regarding ICT use in the school.” Smeets (2005) looked at the extent to which the potential of ICT was used by to develop powerful learning environments in 31 primary classrooms in Holland. He concluded that while many teachers applied several elements of powerful learning environments in their classrooms, the use of ICT generally showed characteristics of traditional approaches to learning. However, this is not too surprising given that, as far back as 1988 David Cohen and Larry Cuban argued that computer technology would have little effect on schools, predicting that “to the degree that technology is flexible, it will be bent to fit existing practice and that, to the degree that it cannot be bent to fit existing practice, it will not be used” (Collins, 1991:28).

Prensky (2008:3) makes the point that for too many teachers, education is “a backup of old methods – ones that are useful only in unlikely emergencies” rather than one which prepares them for the world of the future. The irony is that schools seem incapable of understanding, let alone embracing, the Information Age paradigm which is the common currency of modern society. Too often, the information age stops firmly at the school gate, with pupils forced to power down and step back into an irrelevant past age where the pencil, paper and rote learning predominates and where powerful new technologies capable of facilitating children’s writing, problem solving, research, presentation, creativity and investigative skills are the exception rather than the rule.

Where do we go from here?

While many teachers may feel threatened by these rapid changes and the different needs and attitudes of today’s students, new technological developments characteristic of the so called Web2 environment, provide us with many of the tools we need to make education more exciting and meaningful for young people. More importantly, these are becoming cheaper (many are free), easier to access and easier to use. These applications, falling under the broad ‘social software’ label, are web based, making them available from anywhere at any time, given access to the Internet. Bryant (2007:9) states that we are starting to see “innovation on the consumer Internet translating into a new approach to the use of on-line technology in supporting both work and education…” with students and teachers “moving away from passive consumption of e-learning content to becoming active participants in their own relationship with technology…” This, he believes, will enable us to make educational systems “less prescriptive, target driven and centralised.”

Social Software includes blogs, wikis, podcasts, photo sharing, bookmarking, podcasting, vidcasting, micro-blogging and social networking applications. These Web2 applications have been embraced by young and old alike outside of school and have been shown to support more exciting learning and more effective teaching. Schools, however tend to be wary of them given the perceived need to protect children on the net.

Twist and Withers, (2007:35) say that “the shadowy perceived threats which follow in new technologies’ wake” include things like copyright infringement, identity theft, Internet fraud, and the dangers of grooming by predators who target children. This notwithstanding, Twist and Withers (page 28) point out that change is inevitable: “Traditional gatekeepers and hierarchies are losing grip as the only controllers of knowledge flows, communication, creativity and opinion. Blogs, podcasting and social networking sites such as MySpace and YouTube have given people space to be creators of content in ways that are more innovative, direct and social.”

The biggest challenge for schools is recognising that the world has changed dramatically over the past decade and that they need to change with it if they are to remain relevant. This change will involve recognising the potential of ICT and embracing the learning potential that (mainly) online applications offer. The future lies largely with creative and imaginative young teachers like yourselves, who are are either digital natives or flexible enough to become successful digital immigrants. It is your responsibility to lead in schools as change agents, demonstrating the power of information technologies, supporting older teachers and working with parents to ensure that children can use the internet responsibly and safely, recognising the dangers which are there and combat them.  As regular users of ICT, you should understand the potential of technology to provide a more interesting, relevant, powerful and meaningful learning environment for pupils. It will be largely up to you to ensure that it does.

The video below comes from the Transforming Teaching Through Technology site, which has a number of useful tips about podcasting.

A vision of students today, from Kansas State University


Bryant, L. (2007) Emerging Trends in Social Software for Education. Becta, Coventry.

Cartwright, V.  and Hammond, M. (2007) ‘Fitting it in’: A study exploring ICT use in a UK primary school. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 23(3), 390-407.

Collins, A. (1991) The Role of Computer Technology in Restructuring Schools. Phi Deta Kappan, Sepember.

Creanor, L., Trinder, K., Gowan, D. & Howells C. (2006) LEX. The Learner Experience of e-Learning. Final Project Report. Glasgow Caledonial University.

Oblinger, D. (2008) Growing up with Google. What it Means to Education. Becta. Coventry.

Prensky, M (2001) Digital natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon (MCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001)

Prensky, M. (2007) How to teach with technology: keeping both teachers and students comfortable in an era of exponential change. Becta, Coventry.

Prensky, M. (2008) Backup Education? Too many teachers see education as preparing kids for the past, not the future. Educational Technology (48:1) 1-3.

Puttnum, D. (2007) In class I have to power down. Education Guardian.

Smeets, E. (2005) Does ICT contribute to powerful learning environments in primary education? Computers and Education (44) 343-355.

Twist, J. & Withers, K. (2007) The challenge of new digital literacies and the ‘hidden curriculum. Becta, Coventry.

Supplementary reading.

Downes, S. (2008) The future of online learning. Ten years on.

Paul, M. (2007)  Embracing the Information Age paradigm.

* The work of Prensky has not gone unchallenged, but I am loath to get into this particular debate here. Bennett, Moton and Kervin (2008:775) argue that “rather than being empirically and theoretically informed, the debate can be likened to an academic form of ‘moral panic’ ” and call for a “more measured and disinterested approach” to investigate the supposed phenomenon.  My own experience is that ‘digital natives’ as described by Prensky are very thin on the ground. However, Prensky’s claims serve a useful purpose, providing us with a view of students of the future.

Bennett, S., Maton, K. & Kervin, L. (2008) The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5). 775-786.

Social Constructivism and e-Learning

There is no one true reality – rather, individual interpretations of the world. These are shaped by our experience and our social interactions. Learning is a process of adapting to and organising one’s quantitative world, rather than discovering pre-existing ideas imposed by others. Clements & Battista, 1990.

Constructivism is essentially a theory of learning, which developed from the work of Piaget. It is based on the belief that ‘reality’ is not an external absolute, but a personal composite constructed from our active thinking and previous experience. Learning requires the active construction of knowledge, rather than absorbing it from books  and lecturers (Eckerdal, et al. (2006). Thus, understanding is created as we engage mentally with our ‘environment’ in an effort to make sense of it, referring, as we do so, to what we already ‘know’ to be true. The word environment is used loosely here – it could be the world around us, a specific situation, a mathematical problem or a poem; essentially any situation which we strive to make sense of.

Zurita, G. & Nussbaum, M. (2004:235-6) cite the work of Rochelle and Teasley (1995) in listing the characteristics of effective constructivist working environments. These include learning being constructive, active, significant, based on consultation, reflexive and collaborative. Thus:

Constructive means that the students have to modify their current knowledge schemes to integrate new information and acquire new knowledge. Active indicates that a total student participation is expected. Significant refers that learning has to be with a meaning, built from the conceptual structure the student already has. Based on consultation points out that the child has to formulate his/her own questions, from multiple interpretations and learning expressions. Reflexive shows that the student has to mirror his/her own experience on other students, making them experts in their own learning. Finally, to be collaborative indicates that the child learns from others by working together on the same objective, where each group member is a potential source of information.

For constructivists, learning is a transformative process in that our understanding is constantly changed by additional meaning making. Mezirow (1991:94) argues that transformative learning ‘‘begins when we encounter experiences, often in an emotionally charged situation, that fail to fit our expectations and consequently lack meaning for us, or we encounter an anomaly that cannot be given coherence either by learning within existing schemes or by learning new schemes.’’

The ability to reflect is seen as a powerful tool by constructivists. Mezirow (117) states:

Reflection is involved in problem solving, problem posing and transformation of meaning schemes and perspectives. We may reflect on the content of a problem, the process of our problem solving or the premise upon which the problem is predicated. Content and process reflection can play a role in thoughtful action by allowing us to assess consciously what we know about taking the next step in a series of actions. Premise reflection involves a movement through cognitive structures guided by the identifying and judging of  resuppositions. Through content and process reflection we can change our meaning schemes: through premise reflection we can transform our meaning perspectives. Transformative learning pertains to both the transformation of meaning schemes through content and process reflection, and the transformation of meaning perspectives through premise reflection.

Constructivists believe in creating learning environments that offer learning opportunities that are meaningful to the learner, provide maximum learner control over the learning situation and encouraging the learner to be active in their construction of mental representations of phenomena in their world. Constructivist teachers value the understanding (often informal in the case of young children) what learners bring to the table and use it as a starting point for further learning. Constructivist do not really believe in ‘teaching’; rather that learning occurs in an environment which is creative, exciting, engaging and motivating for learners.  The function of the facilitator (teacher) is to create this environment, and to guide or support the learner in his or her path to understanding. This is done in a number of ways, including asking pertinent questions which steer the learner’s thinking so as to provide direction.  Bruner called this  support scaffolding, based on Vygotsky’s idea about the zone of proximal development, being the difference between what a person knows now, and can learn next.

Social constructivism (socio-constructivism) is based on constructivism, but places emphasis on the social aspects of learning. Vygotsky saw language as the prime conduit for learning, saying that our most valuable learning is gained by talking about things. Knowledge making can occur as we reflect on issues as individuals, but discourse – discussion, questions, argument, explanations – is the most powerful method of refining our understanding. Downes puts the idea neatly by saying (2008:24) “Although we learn what we learn from personal experience, we usually learn what we learn from other people.”

Learning environments reflect the change in our beliefs about how learning occurs. Today, desks are arranged to facilitate discussion and teachers provide opportunities for groups to discuss issues. Fernandez, (2008) provides us with a useful contrast between the learner as an individual and the learner as a member of a social group, reflecting on Brown’s comments that the idea of ‘I think, therefore I am’ should be replaced by ‘we participate, therefore we are.’

Constructivism was welcomed by educationists who were turned off by the assumptions of the behaviourist school, which tended to see learning simply as a matter of responses to stimuli. Lowerison et al. (2004:466) say that  “the objectivist position is that reality exists independently of the human mind and is not affected by an individual’s particular belief system. Physical laws are constant, and are based on an objective and reliable set of facts, theories and principles. Perceived changes in the nature of reality are simply the evolution of our knowledge about the “truth” driven by the discovery of some previously unknown, but pre-existing, phenomena.” The essence of the difference between these paradigms is the way they perceive the nature of truth, and the way one goes about ‘acquiring’ it.

E-Learning and social constructivism

It is relatively easy to create a social constructivist environment in a classroom. It is more difficult to do so in the context of distance learning, whether paper based (these still exist in developing countries) or electronic. Early distance education e-learning environments tended to be simple electronic versions of old paper based ones, where lecture notes was provided for students to read on screen. Communication was more or less limited to e-mail discussion with  the course tutor. The attrition rate in distance education has always been high, one of the reasons being that the systems designed to deliver e-learning has tended to leave students students feeling isolated (Flood, J. 2002). E-learning designers have struggled to design systems which provide a social constructivist environment, largely because it is impossible with the technology available at this stage to recreate classrooms online. According to Valentine (2002) problems include “the quality of instruction, hidden costs, misuse of technology, and the attitudes of instructors, students, and administrators.”


The kinds of applications used to ‘deliver’ content have been called Learning Management Systems (LMSs), managed learning environments (MLEs) and virtual learning environments (VLEs).  VLEs like Blackboard force users down a narrow, highly directed path and are not particularly user friendly as a result.  However, vast improvements have been made by open source developers, who are involved in ongoing work on more flexible applications like Moodle, which is more capable of supporting  constructivist pedagogies (Downes, S. 2008). Fernandez (2008) makes the point that Moodle “isn’t just a piece of software used for teaching and learning, it’s also a community of educators and software developers who have incorporated the culture of the guild and apprenticeship into their work processes.” The influence of educators is important when it comes to providing systems which match the needs of learners.

We see here that better software does facilitate better design and provision. This notwithstanding, it is useful to take cognisance of Farmer’s comment (2008) that “the use of constructivist methods does not necessarily require a specific e-Learning system…” and that providers need to “focus on instructional methodology rather than information technology.”

Virtual Learning Environments as we understand them today, are unlikely to be as powerful as blended learning environments for the simple reason that it is is impossible to mirror the classroom, with all its nuances, vocal and visual clues. However, e-learning providers have learned much in recent years, supported by more powerful computers, communications infrastructures, Internet technologies and applications enabled by the changing way in which we understand and use the web.  What has become clear is that a high level of personalised support or “hand-holding” (Martinez, M. 2003:1) is important for distance learning students and that learning-management packages need to come bundled with tools which enable students to communicate effectively with one another to make use of the potential of socially constructed learning.  Computer mediated communication plays an important part in this, providing the potential for supporting both personalised and social learning in terms of choice of tools and the means to communicate with one another to create effective learning networks. More and more communication tools are on offer – email, messaging, sms texting, discussion boards, video-conferencing, blogs, wikis, podcasts, vodcasts, microblogging applications like Twitter, Plurk and (until recently) Pownce. The number of choices grows almost daily. Downes (2008:24) has suggested that developments in conferencing applications “will make actual in-person meetings less necessary, and the ‘blended’ aspect of blended learning will come increasingly to reflect the in-person activities people undertake in their own workplaces or communities.”


The bottom line is that educational institutions as we now know them are bound to change. Already we see lectures being replaced by podcasts and a steady reduction in tutor-student face to face time as management types replace academics as leaders of universities and universities become more like businesses, trimming costs and urging faculty to ‘work smarter’. New applications like Second Life are already attracting a good deal of interest in academic circles, raising the possibility of adding value to both  distance education and replacing at least some part of current face to face blended learning. In the future, the brave new world of virtual reality will have an even larger impact on the way we communicate, learn, recreate and do business.

In the immediate future, new, web-savvy students who were raised in a digital age and use powerful information technologies on a daily basis for both personal and work purposes are pointing us in a new direction, that of personal learning environments (PLEs). Unlike VLEs, these are created by the users themselves, providing rapid access to the resources they require to do what they do. From a pedagogic perspective, the importance of this is that PLEs provide a high level of personal control as opposed to institutional control, providing a good fit with the constructivist paradigm.  ‘Digital natives’, as Prensky (2001) calls them, are natural networkers, highly ‘connected’, social, collaborative, multi-taskers. They use information and communications technologies intuitively, even if they do not always understand the educational potential of all the applications they are familiar with (Trinder et al. (2008). The idea of connectivism (Drexler, 2008) ties in well with social constructivism, demonstrating how new generation learners use the power of our networked world to tap into remote sources of knowledge, including experts in various fields.  These learners work in a world without boundaries from a technological point of view. They are adept at finding, storing, managing and sharing information using new web-based applications. More importantly, they are involved in knowledge creation, using blogs, wikis and other on-line applications to mash and developing new ways of looking at and using information. These students bring fresh challenges for learning institutions across the educational spectrum, given their need for a fast moving, game oriented learning (Pensky, 2001) which traditional learning environments are hard pressed to provide.

The video below, created by Wendy Drexler, shows how today’s independent learners use technologies to find, organise and manipulate information in our information rich world, using their connections to develop powerful social networks to mediate their construction of knowledge.  It is these skills which are essential for all learners if they are to flourish as members of the knowledge economy.





This post first published on M’s CBLT Blog.


Bellefeuille, G., Martin, R. & Buck, M. (2006)  From Pedagogy to Technagogy in Social Work Education: A Constructivist Approach to Instructional Design in an Online, Competency-Based Child Welfare Practice Course Child and Youth Forum, 34(5). 371-389.

Clements, D. & Battista, M. (1990) Constructivist learning and teaching. Arithmetic Teacher, 38(1). 34-35.

Downes, S. (2008) The Future of Online Learning: Ten Years On. Accessed 30/11/2008.

Drexler, W. (video) Access via Belshaw, D. (2008) Finally! A video that explains what I’m aiming for as a teacher. Dougbelshaw.com (accessed 29/11/2008)

Eckerdal, A., McCartney, R., Mostrom, J., Ratcliff, M., Sanders, K & Zander, C. (2006) Putting threshold concepts into context in computer science education (2006) Proceedings, ITiSE ’06, June 26-28, 2006, Bologna, Italy.

Farmer, J. (2008) Social constructivists and eLearning. Michael Feldstein’s e-Litrate blog. Accessed 29/11/2008.

Fernandez, L. (2008) Moodle and social constructionism: Looking for the individual in the community. Academic Commons. Accessed 29/11/2008.

Flood, J. (2002) Read all about it: Online learning facing 80% attrition rates. TOJDE 3(2)

Lowerison, G., Sclater, J., Schmidt, R. & Abrami, P. (2006)  Student perceived effectiveness of computer technology use in post-secondary classrooms. Computers and Education, 47. 465-489.

Martinez, M. (2003) High attrition rates in e-learning: Challenges, predictors and solutions. The e-learning development journal.

Mezirow, J. (1991)  Transformative dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pear, J. & Crone-Todd, E. (2001) A social constructivist approach to computer-mediated instruction.  A social constructivist approach to computer-mediated instruction. Computers and Education, 38(1-3).221-231.

Prensky, M (2001) Digital natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon (MCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001).

Trinder, K., Guiller, J., Margaryan, A., Littlejohn, A. & Nicol, D. (2008) Learning from digital natives: bridging formal and informal learning. The Higher Education Academy.

Using distance learning to your networking advantage. The e-Learning Portal. Accessed 29/11/2008.

Valentine, D. (2002) Distance learning: Promises, problems, possibilities. Accessed 29/11/2008.

Zurita, G. & Nussbaum, M. (2004) A constructivist mobile learning environment supported by a wireless handheld network (2004 Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 20. 235-243.

Supplementary material.

Belshaw, D (2006) The kind of school in which I want to work. Accessed 1/12/2008.

Brahm, Taiga (2008) PLE illustrations. Social Software and More blog. Accessed 3/12/2008.

de Freitas, S. (2008) Serious Virtual Worlds. A scoping study. Serious Games Institute, JISC

Using social software in the classroom

Social software consists of web based applications which are generally free. They include blogs, wikis, bookmarking, photo and video sharing, social networking, microblogging, photo editing, mapping and poster making applications.

This posts lists and describes some of these applications, providing examples of how they could be used to make work in the classroom more relevant and engaging. Links to discussion and research papers are provided where possible.


moleskineBlogs are essentially journals which can be used to discuss a wide variety of topics. They cover politics, democracy, life, sexuality, society, travel, oppression, gender issues, freedom,  emancipation and much in between. Blogs are especially useful as reflective tools and have been used in a number of educational environments to get students to think deeply about their practice. Just why blogs are so powerful as writing tools is discussed further in this post. Educational blogging is growing rapidly, with educators using blogs to share ideas , augment face to face teaching  sessions and as e-learning sites. Blogging is used increasingly in classrooms in the UK and USA.

Ideas for using blogs in schools.

A class blog, overseen by the teacher and managed or students, works well in classrooms. Examples of creative writing, artwork, photographs by children, reports on sport, school outings and residentials supported by photographs, can be covered. Be careful not to show photographs of students.


Wikis can be seen as communal blogs. While blogs are largely personal, wikis are designed specifically for collaboration. They have been used to develop major resources like Wikipedia and WikiHow as well as on a smaller scale for sharing resources, collaborative research and as as e-portfolios. While wikis are usually open to the public, they can be private, as in the case of a wiki used as an e-portfolio in an educational institution.

Ideas for using wikis in schools.
Community History.

In this instance a wiki could be used to develop a community history project in a specific location. Older citizens have many memories and a great deal of knowledge about their community as well as artifacts of various sorts. These include old photographs, old tools and  even skills which are no longer be current, such as soap and butter making. A class project of this nature could involve input by children, the local town hall, the Member of Parliament, senior citizens, professional historians, genealogists and other interested persons. Schools  could invite senior citizens for a ‘seniors day’ where they can talk about past times. These talks could be recorded (audio and video) and placed on the wiki together with bios, photographs and favourite sings from bygone times. This kind of work gives children the opportunity to work first hand with information and communication technologies, developing their interviewing, recording, videoing, editing and writing skills.

Inter-school projects.

Wiks are also ideal as tools which enable schools to share information, ideas and practice. Take for example a shared project between schools in the UK, USA, South African and Australia. Sections of the wiki could be used by teachers to share ideas and good practice. Other sections  could be used by pupils to share experiences, photographs, music and different ideas about youth and culture and to do specific projects on curriculum areas, such as ethno-mathematics.


2305106421While photo-sharing applications like Flickr are normally used for recreational purposes, they have the potential to be used a educational tools. Each class should have a Flickr site, which students can upload their digital pictures to. These could be pictures taken around the school, on class visits, residentials, and elsewhere. They could include pictures and videos of shapes for discussion during mathematics, mood, colour and shape for creative writing. They provide a useful photographic record for the class which could be used, amongst other things, for assessment.

Flickr encourages members to use the Creative Commons copyright convention to provide a clear indication of rights of use. Copyright is a major issue in a society where it is easy to copy and paste. Encouraging students to consider the kinds of copyright limitations they would like to place on their own photographs raised the issue of the nature, reason for and importance of copyright in an environment which is relevant and meaningful for those involved.

Flickr also supports geotagging, a process in which photographs can be linked to a map  to show exactly where they were taken. Geotagging can be used to teach a number of skills, the most obvious of which are mapping skills in geography.

Digital photography has changed the world of photography quite radically. The ‘art’ is open to more people given the development in camera phones and the fact that the cost of shooting is reduced without the cost of film, developing and printing. We also have access to cheap or free digital editing software, making it easy to work creatively by manipulating images. Sites like Flickr also provide a number of other services, including social networking groups and specialised printing services.


YouTube has a comprehensive collection of video material covering a range of interests. Use intelligently, it provides a powerful  resource for both teachers and pupils. Like digital photography, the development of cheap and easy to use video cameras has resulted in an massive increase in the number of ‘resources’ available. Some are dire, some merely poor, but a reasonable number are good, demonstrating just what can be done with a bit of imagination. The resources include music videos of various artists taken over a long period of time.

I was recently introduced to the music of the late Eva Cassidy, which includes a magnificent rendition of Judy Garland’s song  Somewhere over the Rainbow. I do not have any music by Judy Garland but was able to find a video clip of her singing this song. More interestingly, YouTube provided me with a list of other artists who have performed the song, which meant that I was able to listen to renditions by Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Tommy Immanuel, Katharine McPhee,  someone called Israel Kamakawiwo’oke, Jason Castro, Doris Day, Connie Talbot (age 6) and Leona Lewis.  It struck me that this was a useful tool for music teachers.

Music Sharing.

iPod TouchThere are a good number of music sharing applications on the web. I use Last.fm, Blip.fm and Spotify, which are quite different from one another. I use Last.fm as a tool for developing personal stats of my listening habits with iTunes. However, it is also a social networking tool which identifies other subscribers  with similar music tastes as possible friends and allows one to highlight forthcoming gigs. It also highlights events in one’s geographical area where favourites will be appearing and recommends other artists similar to those one listens to. Thus, on identifying Eva Cassidy as a favourite of mine, Last.fm recommended that I also listen to Norah Jones, Dianna Krall and Amy Winehouse. A click on Norah Jones takes me to Last’s Norah Jones page and provides me with a list of her songs to listen to. One can also link material from YouTube to Last.fm, where they can watched.

Using this application has enabled me to expand my knowledge of music by introducing me to a range of other artists without my having to risk spending money on music which I might not like. At the same time, it does provide a way to purchase music which one likes by providing links to online music vendors.

Blip.fm is a lot of fun, enabling one to provide an online DJ service. Spotify enables one to stream music to one’s computer. Adverts can be avoided by paying a small fee. This post provides more information.


Microblogging is particularly popular at the moment. Applications like Twitter an Plurk enable users to send short messages (maximum 140 characters) providing information about what they are doing or thinking, which can be seen by others. Links to stories and resources can be shared and photographs can be stored and shared via Twitterpics.  Small communities of followers (Twitter) friends and fans (Plurk) who can see and respond to each other’s posts develop, providing a unique yet powerful social network. Tweets and Plurks can be forwarded to other social networking sites like Facebook, where they are reflected on one’s profile. A major feature of microblogging is the ability to send short posts quickly and often, which provides a useful conversational stream. These enable one to develop a comprehensive understanding of virtual friends. Microblogging an also be done via mobile / cell phone using SMS, making it an anywhere, anyplace any time application. I recently read a tweet sent from an aircraft flying over the Rockies.There are a growing number of allied applications. In the case of Twitter, they include Twitearth (a location aware application which shows where tweets are coming from on a spinning globe), #hashtags, Twemes and Twitwall, the latter enabling one to write longer posts.

There have been a number of articles about the use of Twitter as a teaching tool, including this one by Steve Wheeler.


This is a popular leisure activity, with podcasts covering a wide range of subjects. A number of schools in the UK are working with podcasts as a creative medium, and some boast their own ‘radio’ stations. The term podcast has become generic to includes both audio and visual mediums. It is very useful as an alternative platform for story telling, providing an alternative method for those who are not particularly strong as writers in the traditional sense of the word. At the same time, this medium requires and helps develop the skills which underpin ‘writing’, given that it involves a high level of reflection and planning, much of which is noted in some or other form, including storyboarding.  Listen to these podcasts created by students at WAlthsam Forest Academy. Podcasts are increasingly used instead of lectures at universities.

The potential of social software for learning and teaching.

The discussion above suggests that social software has the potential to revolutionise classroom practice. However, in the UK, many social networking sites are blocked to schools because of concerns about inappropriate content, paedophiles, cyber-bullying, stalkers and other (real and imagined) cyber predators.  This makes it impossible for teachers to access sites like YouTube and Flickr and to use content which they know to be appropriate and useful. Educationist Stephen Heppell has commented about a new digital divide which he describes as “far more serious than have or have-not computer ownership. It’s between those children for whom the whole power of new technology is locked down (ie offer limited access to web content and functions) so utterly, that they are left helplessly watching their computer screens, while others are forging ahead unfettered and unrestricted.”

Julie Nightingale points out that “Children need to develop IT literacy – the skills to enable them to operate safely and effectively in order to capitalise on the wealth of knowledge and opportunities offered by the online world. The parent who bans all online activity risks depriving their child of a tool that can enrich their education.”  Parenting expert Dr Tanya Byron speaks in similar vein, and suggests training for parents. Ideas about how to go about this are addressed in this article.

While it is important to keep children safe online, we need to move beyond the scare mongering and conspiracy theories that are quoted as gospel in so many schools and to look at this issue in a logical way which allows us move forward.  The knee-jerk, nanny state, lock-down policy so loved by the current government serves little purpose other than to to negate the effectiveness of the most powerful learning resource we have ever had.

Useful resources on social software.

Lee Lefever has developed a number of useful videos which explain a variety of social networking applications in an easy to follow way. I have provided links to some of these below.

Blogs in Plain English | Wikis in Plain English | Online Photosharing in Plain English | Social Bookmarking in Plain English | Social Media in Plain English | Podcasting in Plain English |

Using Wikis as Learning Tools

The social Web is characterised by the richness of interpersonal experience users enjoy when they use its tools and services. It is this shift in emphasis and a repurposing of the ‘old’ Web spaces into shared environments that is shaping the new digital territories in which the information age is redefining itself. It is this new dynamic which the ‘digital natives’ the so called ‘Net Generation,’ are colonising. We have noticed a distinct migration from text to hypertext and then towards hypermedia, and we now observe a relentless progression from reading to reading/writing/participation made possible by open architecture tools.
Wheeler, S.  (2009) Learning in Collaborative Spaces. Encouraging a culture of Sharing.  Connected Minds, Emerging Cultures. Cybercultures in Online Learning.


Wikis are Web 2.0 applications designed specifically as collaborative environments. In some respects, they can be seen a ‘communal’ blogs, which can be open to the public, or limited to members of a specific group. Wikis support learning communities well, given that sites are available at any time from anywhere and because they can be freely edited by members of the specific wiki community. Wikis are often used by researchers who are located in different locations, providing a common resource on which to co-create knowledge and share data and ideas. The idea of community members being able, or perhaps even obliged, to edit one another’s work, is key for effective collaboration, although, as we shall see, this is not always the case.

Wikis have a number of features which provide added security. Amongst these is the ability to ‘roll back’ to previous versions of posts and, if necessary, to set them as current. These features are especially useful in socially authored public wikis like Wikipedia, which are open to abuse by vandals. Wikipedia, remains one of the most popular internet sites, despite concern about the validity of some of its content. Other popular wikis are listed here. Citizendium is a new project by one of the founders of Wikipedia, Larry Sanger.
This paper concentrates on the use of wikis in educational settings, where their features offer the facility for them to be used to set up interactive environments to scaffold collaborative learning (Wheeler, Yeomans and Wheeler, 2008). However, while wikis are designed for working collaboratively, they are not necessarily used as such, be it in education or other fields. Wheeler (2009:4) makes the point that “wikis can be exactly what their masses of users wishes them to be”,  so we see them used as e-portfolios, content delivery platforms as well as collaborative learning platforms in education and other fields.

From early on, social software has been regarded as having great potential for active learning. Wheeler (2009:5) highlights a strength of  wiki applications as the ease with which students can work together to create content – “generate, mix, edit and synthesize subject specific knowledge” – and share it within a “openly accessible digital space” . Grant (2006:2) describes social software as having “the potential to support and structure communities where individuals can come together to share, learn, create and collaborate” and believes that “wikis offer enormous potential to learning.” Boulos, Maramba and Wheeler (2006) highlight the strengths of the anytime, anyplace nature of Web 2.0 applications  for supporting ubiquitous learning and, according to Ebersbach, Glaser and Heigl (2006 – in Wheeler, Yeomans and Wheeler (2008:987)) “social networking and social software are proving to be fertile terrain within which communities of learning coalesce.”

A major feature of Web 2.0 is that of user generated content, sometimes described as the wisdom of the crowd, at others as the ignorance of the masses. Attitudes to this vary and Wheeler (2009:5) points out that the idea “sits a little uncomfortably in the minds of some teachers.” This was clearly illustrated in April 2007 when the then Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, was criticised by Larry Sanger, the co-founder of Wikipedia, for praising the site which he regarded as broken beyond repair. This notwithstanding, it has been pointed out that Wikipedia, for all its faults, ” is at least as accurate as Encyclopaedia Britannica” (Wheeler, 2009:6).

What should also be noted is that information posted on blogs and wikis is known by the creators to be viewable by the millions of people who have access to the web. This awareness of their membership of and social presence on the web leads to a greater sense of responsibility with respect to what is posted, and how it is presented. Wheeler, Yeomans and Wheeler (2008:987) refer to the work of Jacobs (2003) which suggests that applications like blogs and wikis “encourage “deeper engagement with learning through the act of authoring, simply because the awareness of an audience, no matter how virtual and tentative, encourages more thoughtful construction of writing.”

Early contributors to the debate identified wikis as providing a space for ‘communities of practice’ to, inter alia, develop solutions to common issues and shared problems and to expand knowledge and improve practice. (Godwin-Jones, 2003). Usability issues were also discussed early on. Desilets, Pacquet & Vinson (2005) showed that even young children could make effective use of the platform to author stories collaboratively. Not surprisingly, the biggest challenges for children were hypertext and link creation management issues.

Grant (2006) analysed collaborative group writing at secondary school level in the context of what Bereiter and Scardamalia (2003) say about the need for communities of practice to have intentional goals of learning if they are to produce new knowledge. The knowledge building networks model emphasises “collaborative activity” in which “learners take responsibility for their own learning goals, identifying the problems and gaps in their understanding” and making decisions about how to solve problems which arise by developing and sharing explanations and ideas publicly with peers and by offering critiques and alternative explanations. (Grant, 2006:3)

Grant’s findings suggest that the students do not automatically understand the nature of collaboration and the kinds of things they needed to do when co-authoring stories. Thus, Bereiter and Scardamalia’s criteria for knowledge building networks were absent. Students did not take responsibility for their own learning goals, review each other’s work, identify gaps in their knowledge of a topic or find ways of making the different topics relevant to each other. The main reason for this was that they ‘imported’ existing school practices in which ‘discourse’ was seen as individualised written assessment. Grant’s recommendations are that students be inducted into new social working practices by introducing them to an existing wiki as new members, providing an environment in which they can learn about the affordances of the platform and about the existing culture of sharing, collaboration and negotiating meaning.

These findings are not uncommon, given the traditional individualistic values which students have grown up with. A classic example is the reluctance to have others edit one’s work, or to critique and edit the work of others as members of an online community of practice. Only one member of the Grant’s group edited the work of another member and was maligned for doing so.

Wheeler, Yeomens and Wheeler (2008) and Wheeler and Wheeler (2009) found a similar reluctance, with students tending to protect their ideas as their own work, and although happy to post their contributions to a wiki for other members to read, were resistant to having their contributions altered or deleted by other group members, or to edit the work of others. It seems clear that accepting that one’s work is not sacrosanct and that others have the right to edit and improve it is a big step. Clearly, sites like Wikipedia would be much poorer without this understanding.

Cole (2009) describes an interesting action research project involving third year information systems students. Cole attempted to promote student engagement by getting students to use a wiki as a platform to create a “module level knowledge repository” consisting of “meaningful course content suitable for assessment” (page 143). Half way through the course, no work had been posted. An open-ended questionnaire revealed four main constraints – pressure from other courses (29%), issues about ease of use (37%), self confidence (19%) and lack of interest (20%).

Cole’s findings were that:

  • so-called digital natives do not know everything about information technology and a good level of ‘instructional scaffolding’ is required when working with applications like wikis
  • a significant number (19%) of students are reluctant to publish web-based material for peer-group review
  • There must be a balance between cost (time invested in learning and using new technology) and benefits (engagement, interest and improved learning.)
  • it is not enough to add a wiki into a course with traditional content. Course content needs to be explicitly redesigned around wiki use
  • student motivation for using social technologies appears to be linked to their perception of fun (active postings with friends) and consumption (individual browser behaviour)
  • Technology needs to support pre-existing educational behaviour rather than attempt to import behaviour from other domains. Essentially, education exists in a consumer culture where altruistic acts are devalued and individual efforts rewarded.
  • While technology may be fun, fun is determined by the user and students do not appear to view popular social technologies in an educational context as enjoyable or useful.

In a study at Plymouth university by Wheeler, Yeomans and Wheeler (2008), four groups of volunteers from the 1st, 2nd and 3rd year cohorts of the Bachelor of Education course used wikis during classroom sessions to store and edit work from their research exercises and as a forum for discussion. Students posted their views about the use of the wiki during sessions and also completed a post module questionnaire via email.

The researchers report that, while comments were generally positive, the wiki activity did not suit the learning preferences of all students and that effective use of the wiki was limited. However, “apportioning responsibilities to each individual” (page 992) provided a structure which enabled all to contribute to the so-called knowledge repository. However, as each was contributing to a separate section of the repository (thus avoiding conflict between contributors), it was difficult to ensure that students read any of the content contributed by others and, as reported above, there was a decided reluctance to edit the work of others of have their own work scruitinised. In a separate paper covering the same research, Wheeler and Wheeler (2009:1) point out that students “appreciated the shared environment as a means of discussing their work” and believed that “their academic writing skills had improved through their formal participation in the wiki.”

A wiki project designed for pre-service teachers students (n=150) to create and coordinate a collaborative resource consisting of teaching and learning resources at Southampton University in 2005 provided other useful insight into how students work with wikis.

  • While the students were initially enthusiastic about the possibility of co-authoring a resource which would be to the benefit to them all, by the end of the course a good number (55%) had either contributed very little towards the project or nothing at all.
  • Of this group, most (60%) admitted that they made liberal use of the contribution of others.
  • When questioned more closely as to why they had contributed little, most (60%) stated that the process of finding a resource, then having to log in to the wiki, find the relevant page, open it, provide a hyperlink with a descriptor and then save, was too time consuming, especially when they were in schools. Others (20%) stated that they preferred to work by themselves, using browser bookmarks on their own computers, or in small groups using other methods to share resources.
  • A good number (20%) said that they had forgotten how to use the wiki (hyperlinking was the main issue) and some claimed to have lost their passwords.

Wiki are perhaps a little ‘clunky’ compared to other social networking applications.  However, the biggest issue was probably that the wiki was set up by someone else (myself) and ‘marketed’ to the group  as a public entity (this is our wiki, not mine).  In spite of initial training in how to use the wiki,  a good level of moderation and constant reminders to participate, a majority of the students never really embraced the resource, or felt that it was really theirs. Essentially, the resource was seen as useful while the process of participating actively was regarded as extra and non-essential work.

Wheeler (2009:7) has stated that it is inevitable that some students contribute more than others and that there will always be  social loafers. Furthermore, “in wiki and other online activity, it (social loafing) is sometimes easier to perpetuate.” Another useful point made is that wikis are group specific and are unlikely to be valued by future groups who “perceive no clear ownership” (page 7). I would suggest that group size also has an impact on participation. It is far easier for social loafers to hide in a large group than a small one and it is also more difficult to embrace a true sense of ownership in a large group.

Some reports reflect more positive results, with students using wikis in imaginative ways. Parker and Chao (2007:65) give details of a pilot study in which wikis were used as a platform for student project development in a software engineering course. While students in the course were initially required only to maintain a diary of individual and team activities, “they soon began to devise innovative ways of using wikis for project activities that were unanticipated by the instructor.” In addition to group diaries, wikis were used successfully for project planning, requirements management, ptoject tracking/progress reports, test case management, defect tracking and client notes.

Parker and Chao conclude by saying (page 67)

…educational institutions can offer immense value to their students by familiarizing them with the simple technologies that make collaborative networks possible. Today’s students will not only manage business innovations of the future, but in many cases will drive them. Rather than being limited to today’s skills, students must learn the skills of the future. Educators need to teach what wikis and other social software may mean to business, not just as a phenomenon, but also as a skill (Evans, 2006). By incorporating wikis into the classroom, educators can better prepare students to make innovative uses of collaborative software tools.

It is clear that there is a distinct difference in the way that contributors to large open sites like Wikipedia and small educational sites see wikis and their respective place and nature as contributors to them. It is also clear that those who have worked with educational wikis have had a mixture of results. Wheeler, Yeomans and Wheeler (2008:992) point out that “in classroom contexts, where students are familiar with one another, ownership appears to be an issue.” Here, the issue is the one of having one’s work scrutinised and edited, something also found by Grant (2006). My own work at Southampton, using a somewhat different wiki, suggests that much of the reluctance to contribute was due to a lack of real ownership, coming out of a situation where students were urged to contribute to a wiki which had already been set up. This is likely to have made them hesitant about buying into the process of contributing to the resource.

Given the issues uncovered in recent research into students using wikis, it would seem that the applications, although offering a great deal of potential for collaborative learning, have limitations. However, these limitations probably have less to do with the application than with the social paradigms and individual values which impact on the perceptions of users. As Cole has noted, in our society altruistic acts are devalued and individual efforts rewarded. The adage about taking horses to water comes to mind, suggesting that all the conditions for success need to be present for wikis to work. Foremost amongst these is a real need by the user which is best satisfied by the use of a wiki. Much of the research reported on has been carried out using contrived situations, given that the researchers have been the ones to define the task, rather than the users. However, this does not mean that realistic situations for successful educational use do not exist. They just need to be found.

Some ideas for using wikis in primary schools.

Project work.

wikis are well suited to collaborative work, including shared writing and group projects. As such, they are excellent platforms for class, school, or inter-school project work. They support multimedia, which means that text can be supported by photographs, audio files and video. Different aspects of the project can be developed by different members and groups on different pages, which can then be cross-linked. A school wiki  could include details of the different classes, sports teams and results, examples of art work and descriptive writing and the school’s policies. The advantage over a blog is that the wiki does not have the hierarchical reversed journal type structure of a blog, making it easier to navigate.

Community projects are also well supported by wikis. A local community blog could be facilitated by a history teacher, whereby children are guided through the process of finding historical information about their community from books and the web. More importantly, members of the community can participate, by adding photographs,  movies converted to video and their memories about the way that the community has developed. The wiki could be supported by a Community Day, in which the older generation comes to the school to share their memories. Audio and video footage of these reminiscences could be captured by the children and added to the wiki.   A wiki of this kind could also be linked to local museums.

Wikis are also well suited to links with other schools, be they in the same country or abroad. This is an excellent way to share information about our cultures, using text, video, photographs or audio files.

List of References:
(Full bibliographical data is only provided for resources which are not hyperlinked.)

Boulos, M. & Wheeler, S. (2007) The emerging Web 2.0 social software: an enabling suite of sociable technologies in health and health care education.

Cole, M. (2009) Using wiki technology to support student engagement: Lessons from the trenches.

Godwin-Jones, R. (2003) Emerging Technologies.Blogs and Wikis: Environments for On-line Collaborartion.

Grant, L. (2006) Wikis in Schools.

Lamb, B. (2004) Wide open spaces: Wikis, ready or not.

Parker, K. & Chao, J. (2007) Wiki as a teaching tool.

Wheeler, S. & Wheeler, D. (2007) Evaluating Wiki as a tool to promote quality academic writing skills.

Wheeler, S. & Wheeler, D. (2009) Using wikis to promote quality learning in teacher training.

Wheeler, S., Yeomans, P. & Wheeler, D. (2008) The good, the bad and the wiki: Evaluating student-generated content for collaborative learning.

Wheeler, S.  & Boulos, K. (2008) Mashing, Burning, Mixing and the Destructive Creativity of Web 2.0: Applications for Medical Education.

Wheeler, S. (2009) Learning in Collaborative Spaces. Encouraging a culture of sharing. In Wheeler, S. (2009) (Ed.) Connected Minds, Emerging Cultures. Cybercultures in Online Learning. IAP-Information Age Publishing, Inc. ISBN 978-60752-015-3 (pbk).

Other resources.

Bruns, A. & Humphreys, S. (2005) Wikis in Teaching and Assessment. The M/Cyclopedia Project.

Wang, C. & Turner D. (2004) Extending the wiki paradigm for use in the classroom.

Wheeler, S. (2008) All Changing: The Social Web and the Future of Higher Education (a tale of two keynotes).

This article was first published on the Enhancing Learning and Teaching wiki.