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e-Help Seminars - Doug Belshaw
e-help Seminar 9
The uses of ICT for collaborative teaching and learning
Toulouse 17-19 February 2005

“I not only use all of the brains I have, but all I can borrow.”: The uses of ICT for collaborative teaching and learning.

The main point of my presentation is to recommend the elements that should be integrated into the proposed E-HELP website to make it the most collaborative environment possible. Before I do so, I intend to discuss the reasons why collaboration is a good idea in the first place, along with potential barriers and methods of doing so.

1. Reasons for collaboration

One of the main reasons for collaboration in teaching is the widening of horizons that it brings. The reason we teach is so that pupils learn: the more we know and the better we can deliver it, the more pupils are likely to learn. As with any job, you take into the workplace your own ‘toolkit’ of skills and ideas. Collaboration is one of the best ways to add to this toolkit and therefore do your best for the pupils in your charge. With collaboration, of course, comes ‘networking’ – getting to know and trust others who share similar interests. In turn, there are opportunities for both professional development and career advancement.

It’s all very well being ‘trained’ en masse by a representative of the company which is supplying your new interactive whiteboard. A one-to-one demonstration by a colleague is much better. It is this peer-learning which is an intrinsic part of collaboration: knowledge and skills are cascaded throughout the community by willing volunteers. At the end of the day, collaboration can be summed by being good practice – as Aristotle would have said, it is a good, an end-in-itself. Or as Alexander Solzehnitsyn rather succinctly put it: “Talent is always conscious of its own abundance, and does not object to sharing.”

2. Barriers to collaboration

I’m sure we’ve all experienced the situation where at a meeting everyone within the department has agreed that resources should be shared. What happens in practice is that the more conscientious members of the department keep adding to the pool of resources, whilst others simply take them without giving back. A ‘why should I?’ attitude then prevails – the sharer becomes disillusioned as they realise they are perhaps the only one putting in the extra work. The non-sharers notice the shift in opinions and think, “well if she’s not bothering, why should I?”

Of course, many teachers are reluctant to share their resources not out of selfishness but out of a sense of insecurity. It is often the case that, with a lack of feedback through informal observations, etc., teachers are often unaware as to how good the materials they produce actually are. Coupled to this is the presumption that to share something it must not only be good but that it must be complete. Given that different teachers use resources in a variety of ways this is nonsense. Something half-finished can be as good, if not better than something presented in toto. Each teacher puts a different slant on what they teach. A resource – for example a Powerpoint presentation on the causes of World War I – may be used as an introduction to the topic by one teacher. Another teacher it has been shared with may tinker with it to use it as a revision tool. There is no need for shared resources to be complete, but if they are they must be editable.

Collaboration also breeds flexibility. Imagine you’ve planned a lesson for tomorrow on interpretations regarding the execution of Charles I. You convert relevant videos to digital files and then chop them up into relevant sections. The lesson is planned: you are going to focus on how the execution is portrayed in the film ‘Cromwell’ as opposed to ‘To Kill a King’. As you’re packing up for the day a colleague drops in for a chat. During the conversation he mentions how much his pupils enjoyed watching the Blackadder version of Charles’ execution. He lends you a copy of it, you incorporate it into your lesson the following day, and not only does it add an extra dimension to your lesson but the pupils remember it and the fun they had in History. Collaboration is as much about off-the-cuff suggestions and informal ideas as it is about sharing complete and finished resources.

Sadly, there are some teachers – hopefully not many – for whom such collaboration is seen as a threat. As one of the non-sharers in the example above, the threatened teacher sees sharing and collaboration as a dilution of talent rather than an opportunity to enhance pupil learning. They see a certain resource or style of teaching as being ‘theirs’, meaning that anyone else either cannot do as good a job, or is somehow ‘stealing’ something of theirs. These teachers have to be shown that the bigger the pool of resources and ideas, the better! Intellectual property is a myth.

There is one thing which I must take issue with regarding collaboration. Some teachers feel that if they share resources their name must be plastered all over it so that they receive due recognition. As Brian Tracy, the management guru, once wrote, “the more credit you give away, the more will come back to you.” If the aim is the development of pupil understanding and knowledge, why must the person who put together the resource attempt to turn themselves into a minor celebrity? I have heard some argue that it makes pupils aware that their teacher is in touch with others who share both resources and good practice. Seeing as the majority of pupils half-believe that I live in the History Office at our school, I find this hard to swallow. As Edgar Quinet stated, “what we share with another ceases to be our own.” It’s better than being your own – it now belongs to the community of which you are a part!

So much for reluctant sharers. Imagine that we are now dealing with an individual who recognizes the benefits of collaboration and is looking to share with teachers other than those in her department. She turns to the Internet but runs into a problem: in order to share resources and ideas, our potential sharer must get to grips with both technology and ICT jargon. There is a crucial moment, a delicate balance, in all this. As sharing over the Internet is a purely voluntary exercise, if it becomes too difficult or time-consuming then the potential collaborator is put off – perhaps never to try again. Even if she is successful in ‘posting’ something on the Internet, there is no guarantee that she will be either correctly understood or interpreted. It is crucial that the E-HELP website addresses these issues through necessary guides and explanations.

3. Methods of collaboration

Communities only exist in terms of relationships between their members. To build a virtual community requires a structured way of allowing relations to develop, and one of the best ways of doing this is through online discussion forums. Two of the most successful I have come across to do with education are The Education Forum and the Schoolhistory Forum. These are havens of advice, ideas and resources, mixing both formal and informal elements to create a forward-thinking, safe, and friendly atmosphere. It is the virtual equivalent of the quick chat over a cup of coffee in the faculty staff room – except that your staff room is now infinitely larger and you can ‘eavesdrop’ on other people’s conversations by searching through previous threads! It is the little things which often make an average lesson into a great one, and such forums are repositories of small but effective ideas. The E-HELP website should certainly have an online discussion forum to add a sense of community and to make it an interactive and ever-changing destination. This will give it a great deal of user-ownership.

Discussion forums are great for linking to other websites and for describing things in words. Sometimes, however, you want a resource you can quickly adapt for a particular class. This is where resource exchanges come in – the online equivalent of photocopying each others’ resources folder. A few years ago the NGFL set up the Teacher Resource Exchange, a highly-organized and categorized place where teachers can share resources and ideas. Although unfinished resources can be uploaded and comments made upon what is shared, there is a sense of a lack of user ownership. I have tried to remedy this with the recent launch of mrbelshaw.co.uk/shareforum, which attempts to be a cross between a discussion forum and resource exchange. It is a simple concept: registered users create a new thread for each resource they wish to share, adding a short description of what it is and how it can be used. Whilst anyone can download shared files, only registered users can add comments, ask questions of the original sharer, etc. The original posting with the downloadable file will always be at the top of the thread. If the E-HELP website has a facility such as this it would be a very attractive feature.

Some may be wondering why all this is necessary – what about good old email? Well, there are advantages and disadvantages of this method. One major disadvantage, of course, is the number of people who can access what is being shared. When resources are posted on a website they are of a ‘pull’ nature – you can access what you want when you need it. Email, on the other hand, is ‘push’ oriented – you can only access what someone has sent you and you have stored somewhere. However, one major advantage of email and other one-to-one methods of collaboration (such as burning CDs/DVDs) is getting round draconian copyright legislation. (It baffles me why, as teachers, we are subject to the same rigid laws as ‘pirates’ who run off thousands of copies of a DVD for ill-gotten gain.) Sharing a video clip on a website it likely to get you into trouble; sharing it by email, by post or in person makes it less likely. It is for this reason that the ‘personal message’ (PM) functions of message boards are so useful. Things can be said and suggested which, whilst useful for teaching and learning, may fall foul of out-of-date legislation. I recommend that the E-HELP website includes such a feature.

There is a way to anonymize sharing and to get round copyright legislation, although it is only really useful at present for large files which quite a lot of people access. Peer-to-peer (P2P) technology changes the way in which users on the Internet can download files. Normally, computers download the desired file directly from the ‘server’ which makes the file available. Using P2P technology, however, the computer requesting the file downloads different parts of the file from different computers. Each computer is effectively turned into a ‘mini-server’:

The whole file does not even have to have finished downloading on one machine for it to be shared with the rest of the network. Whatever has been downloaded by one computer is shared with other computers requesting the file. So long as one full copy exists somewhere in the network, all computers will eventually receive the file! At the moment it is necessary for there to be a ‘tracker’ on at least one machine in the network to co-ordinate file-sharing. In the future, however, such trackers will be built into the software each computer must be running to download the file in the first place. There will be no need for a central tracker (e.g. Exeem. Of course, this will be a great boon for people who use the Internet for nefarious purposes: if there is no central tracker which can be closed down, they are a lot less likely to be caught! However, it will also be useful to the average Internet user as it will mean both greater reliability and faster downloads.

Why is P2P an important technology in terms of the E-HELP website? Well, people who host websites charge for the amount of data which is transferred from your website to other people. In other words you pay more the more successful your website is. The problem is even greater when large filesizes are involved: it only takes a relatively small number of people to download them for it to cost the site owner a lot of money. With P2P technology this problem is lessened. The more popular the file, the less likely that most users will be downloading it directly from the originating website. Although in the past setting up trackers, etc. was a job which demanded a high degree of expertise, new systems such as Blogtorrent have made the system a lot simpler. A visual interface means that users with sufficient priviledges are able to add files to the server through their browser. Users can likewise download files from a link through their web browser. In the future I envisage P2P technology being part of the normal Internet experience. The necessary client-side software will be embedded in browsers: the user will notice no difference between downloading straight from the originating website as opposed to from ‘peers’. Many websites shy away from allowing large-filesize downloads for fear of cost implications. I believe that the E-HELP website should embrace P2P technology meaning that large-filesize downloads become part-and-parcel of the site.

4. The E-HELP website

I’m sure we’re all aware of the difference between a lesson’s content and the style of delivery. You may have the best lesson content in the world but if your delivery isn’t up to much then it counts for nothing. That’s one of the first lessons I learnt as a student teacher! It’s the same with websites: having great content means nothing nowadays, the way it is presented is paramount. Organization is the key: a successful website has a logical structure and way of organizing its elements. Traditionally this has meant employing web design consultants to look after both what you are saying on your website and how you say it. Fortunately, there is a better way…

A Content Management System (CMS) is like the most efficient and glamorous personal assistant in the world. It categorizes any information given, making relevant links between it and other elements. Everything is presented in an organised way which is easy on the eye. Creating new content therefore is not a laborious, time-consuming and technically-demanding occupation. In fact, each user becomes a content-maker – meaning that the website itself becomes a truly collaborative effort! How much does this wonderful technology cost? Nothing! In the true spirit of collaboration, many CMS’s are what is known as ‘Open Source’, meaning that not only are they free-of-charge but they can be modified and adapted as you see fit. The four which I would currently recommend, depending on how they are to be deployed, are Moodle, Drupal, Xoops and Mambo. Each of these can be previewed at opensourcecms.com.

Combining all I have said above into some semblance of a conclusion, I see the E-HELP website as being a place where collaborations can take place in an unstructured yet organized way. The collaborations will be unstructured in that the website will not prescribe what kinds of collaboration may take place; they will be organized, however, in that the products of such collaborations will be easily accessible and well-categorized. I envisage videos and other resources regarding good practice being made available for easy download via P2P technology. The website would also foster formal, semi-formal and informal partnerships, not least through the discussion forum. Hopefully, the CMS decided upon will allow for all of these elements to be coherently integrated so that the user can get on with collaborating rather than getting to grips with technology!


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