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In a small, rural school, such as Hawkesdale P12 College, the ability to access resources from outside our remote location has been hugely beneficial. As well as communicating with students in all parts of the globe, teachers are able to form personal learning networks across continents and oceans. Teachers, students and community members can feel somewhat isolated from city life, without the great range of choice (shops, libraries, learning options, hobbies, medical and sporting opportunities) that are available in metropolitan areas. Through blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other online social networking platforms our community members have the ability to seek out others with similar interests, that they would otherwise never have the opportunity to contact.
In my school we have a Maths and Science faculty of just five teachers. We get on well and very quickly get to know each others preferred strategies and teaching philosophies. By joining online education communities (such as #vicpln on Twitter or the “Guide to Innovation” Ning) I am able to draw on – and contribute to – a much greater diversity of teaching experience. I certainly believe that effective professional development can occur as collective online learning – this has been consistently demonstrated by the Classroom2.0 forum, Anne Mirtschin’s “Tech Talk Tuesday” and “eLe@rning” on Wednesdays, as well as the Ultranet “Share and Tell” sessions. Each of these platforms operates on the premise that we all have something to contribute – everyone has different skills and experiences that others can learn from. By allowing different guests to present their own ideas and reflections, participants gain a wide range of perspectives.
Time and distance can prevent students from visiting museums, galleries, gardens, zoos and other places of interest. Many rarely have the opportunity for attending live theatre, dance or concerts. However, they can connect with like-minded people through gaming and other various special-interest forums. An example is the 365 project, which is a site where participants upload a photo each day for every day of the year and comment on photos of others. Several teachers at our school started the project this year and encouraged some of our students to join. As keen photographers they are able to share their work with others, view images from other beginners and experts, critique photos, ask for advice and contribute to discussions. This experience has allowed them to explore an interest and improve their skills outside school. Together the 365 community have built a resource of incredible images, together with information about cameras and how to create amazing photographs. These students have been able to take photos for the school magazine and enter photography competitions.
Another example of online collective learning has been the VCE Environmental Science Online course. This course has enabled students from four different schools to enroll in the subject, who would not otherwise been able to, due to lack of a willing and/or experienced teacher or due to too few students wishing to study the subject. We spend 90 minutes each week on Blackboard Collaborate (formerly Elluminate) and communicate via my blog, email, Facebook and Skype. These students are passionate about the subject – willing to take the risk on a trial in 2011 – and contacted me through my blog to request an online course. Ubiquitous access to technology has enabled them to connect with students of similar interests and support each other throughout the course.
Other students have taught themselves to play guitar using YouTube clips, create and upload animations and identify invertebrates, frogs and birds found on their farms. This ability to personalize their learning is motivating and increases the opportunities for students to develop skills for life-long learning. They are able to ask their own questions, contact experts and investigate answers. They can, as Sir Ken Robinson would say, find their “Element”. Teachers need to be very strategic and imaginative to be able to incorporate these types of learning within the scope of the VELS framework. I only hope that the new Australian curriculum will be flexible and open enough to allow teachers to facilitate online collective learning that matches the passions of our students.