Wingate Seminar explores the virtual frontier


13 January 2010 Wingate Seminar explores the virtual frontier It is an exciting time for education and this years World ORT International Wingate Seminar is taking teachers straight to where the action is Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs). The technology behind VLEs is well established but developing rapidly and the variety of on-line spaces which fall into this category is wide anything from learning platforms to content delivery systems, and management of information systems and their exploitation by schools is patchy. However, their potential to supplement and extend traditional face-to-face classroom activities, to provide remote access to curriculum material, and to create tools for the assessment and marking of students work is enormous. This week, World ORT, with the generous support of the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation, has brought 19 educators from 12 countries to ORT House, London for a timely exploration into how VLEs can be used by their school communities. Opening the World ORT International Wingate Seminar. From left, World ORT Director General Robert Singer, Harold Hyam Wingate Charitable Foundation Trustee Professor David Wingate, World ORT Chief Programme Officer Vladimir Dribinskiy and the Head of World ORT’s Education Department, Daniel Tysman. I think were looking towards a future where there will be more parental access and more remote access, said ICT Education Consultant Ray Tolley, who has led Seminar participants through a history of the evolution of VLEs. Theres a lot going to happen in the next couple of years as teachers realise the potential of what they have got. Its exciting times ahead. For those of us still grappling with the Internet-connected white boards now common in Western schools (as well as in World ORT-supported schools in other parts of the world), the world of VLEs can seem daunting. But they need not be, Mr Tolley said. At one time a child would come home and the parent would ask him what he had done at school and the reply would be not a lot. Now a child comes home and logs on and shows his parents what he has done. And with the remote access of VLEs, parents will have already seen their childs work and can welcome him home with a well done, he said. The ramifications for World ORT of the developmental strides in VLE technology underway could also be massive. We strongly believe that we can develop a common learning space for all our educational institutions throughout the world and so give us another tool for sharing educational expertise, said World ORTs Chief Programme Officer, Vladimir Dribinskiy. The challenges are immense language and cultural barriers, different curricula and standards from country to country and the conservative nature of the education sector generally. But the technology emerging now would make this concept much more available and affordable. For a global organisation like World ORT it is the time to think how to bring a synergy of know-how through this know-how, Mr Dribinskiy said. Which is why this, the 11th annual Seminar is taking place in January rather than the traditional spring time calendar slot: to incorporate a visit to the BETT Show, the worlds largest educational technology event, where Seminar participants will be able to sample the range of products that could make what they are learning a reality in their schools. However, the technology is only one part of progress; the critical factor is the attitude of the teachers themselves. Mr Tolley was particularly impressed by ORT Argentinas Virtual Campus but not just for the technological achievement. We saw some absolutely excellent work from Argentina; it was the first time I had seen the Virtual Campus and it was impressive, he said. But most impressive was the attitude of the teachers because they could see the value of creating their own material. Its not the tools, its the didactics that have got to change; the tools can help. Daniel Needlestone, eLearning Coordinator at Rickmansworth School just north of London, has a similar point of view. Mr Needlestone, who is Chair of the Jewish Teachers Association, gave Seminar participants insights into the practical aspects of managing a VLE. The VLE is not an end in itself, its just a part of the process of learning; its an extra tool to engage students, he said. It is changing the way that people teach. And it is definitely motivational for students. VLEs reflect the changes in the way that children learn. Children have technology and its not something that we can turn off in the classroom. One of the beauties of VLEs was that teachers can use them in ways that suit them. Theres no set way to do things; theres room for each teacher to adapt this technology to their own needs and styles, he said. Among the Seminar participants was ORT Chile National Director Marcelo Lewkow who was enthusiastic about using VLEs for international collaboration. We want to see the possibilities for the two ORT-supported schools in Chile to link with ORT Argentinas Virtual Campus, Mr Lewkow said. This would have two advantages: we would not have to buy or develop our own virtual tool and we could use Argentinas material because we share the same language, have similar cultures and a similar core curriculum. I hope that this would be something that could eventually extend to other Latin American countries. For fellow participant Riki Segal-Cohen a high point of the Seminar had been a visit to the Camden School for Girls to see how teachers and students were using the technology to prepare a virtual tour of the school for the benefit of prospective pupils. Ms Segal-Cohen is Pedagogical Coordinator and Website Manager for the Kadima Mada Kav-Or project, which brings educational opportunities to hundreds of thousands of hospitalised children in Israel each year. While the project provides synchronous distance learning with a teacher in Jerusalem linked live to children around the country VLEs could be important to allow children remote access to material and undertake collaborative work. We need to reach them wherever they are and connect them to whatever they want so we use everything we can that involves computers, she said. World ORT Director General and CEO Robert Singer said the Seminar, which has also drawn participants from Argentina, France, Lithuania, Italy, Moldova, Mexico, Poland, Russia, South Africa and Uruguay, was proving to be a fruitful experience. Educating for life is our ethos but the pace of modern life is speeding up and students expect much more from their teachers and their education, Mr Singer said. Social groups, collaborations and almost all communications have extended their reach through digital technology and students expect to be able to extend the compass of the conventional classroom and to have access to teachers and learning at locations and times that were previously unavailable. Enlarging the teaching zone in this way offers challenges and opportunities that require new educational strategies and methodologies, but can yield stimulating learning experiences and often surprising results.