As mentioned in an earlier post, we are taking a slightly different approach to our Scholarship Mentoring programme this year. We have introduced a second tier of mentoring that involves connecting students through online subject communities. These largely sit as a focal point for learning in their own right, rather than as an addition to the actual tutored hangout sessions led by a teacher. Although students can enrol in both if they want to.

I have to be honest, the potential for these communities excites me far more than the tutored sessions do (and it isn’t that these don’t have great value). This is because they place the notions of student led learning, agency, connected and community based learning, and ubiquity front and centre and these are central to my own views on what makes effective learning. They are also terms you will see mentioned in our own curriculum document and endless blogs, tweets, posts, discussions on future focused learning. While there will be some very light facilitation that will take place, it is largely about letting students have ownership of the space and letting them go for it. There may be a few teachers involved in these communities, but they are there to support and help, rather than lead. And because these communities are entirely online, it opens up some very exciting possibilities. What if we brought in some undergraduate or post-graduate students from some of the Universities as mentors? What if a University Professor made a guest appearance every now and then brought some of their insight to the table? What if the students themselves instigated some of this?

Sounds a little like utopia doesn’t it and I don’t pretend for a second student led communities just happen. When you place students online who don’t know each other you don’t invariably get a flurry of talking…unless you are very lucky with the type of student you get. Which is why we are looking at bringing some mentors in. Scale will also help – if you get plenty of students within a community you provide more chance for discussion to take place.

I am reminded of this video from a NetNZ colleague of mine (and long time collaborator) on the idea of networked schooling. So what would it like if you could place all the students entered for Scholarship History  in one room? Well we can actually do that online. What would that look like? One of the issues is these students are expecting to ‘be prepared’ for a national exam, rather than engaging with other students with a passionate interest in a particular subject. So in a way the exam gets in the way of the possibilities in terms of rich learning.

Let’s take this to the next level though – what could you do with all of the L3 History students across the country if you had them in one space? This is entirely possible online. What if you forget the subjects entirely? Many of my students belong to online communities in an interest area of theirs. They will actively discuss, engage and collaborate within those communities, because they are passionate about the focus. What if you developed online communities of students based on a particular interest and then wrapped curriculum and NCEA support around that? Make it project based perhaps. As Trevor suggests, the possibilities are endless and throw up significant questions about how we organise learning.

The key thing here is that the internet enables connections well beyond what we can do face to face and many of our learners already spend some of their time in this online world. They get to the school gates and that often stops. Why? Why does it suddenly all have to be face to face when that isn’t reflected in learners lives? Are we actually preparing them for their world if we just ignore this? Does the school have to provide all of the learning opportunities? Does one school have to provide all of the learning opportunities? Does the future of formal education rest with such a vision? The internet has enabled an age in which information is freely available and accessible at a level never seen before, where people can connect beyond their four walls, their town, regional and national boundaries, where networks and communities develop online, where anyone can publish or find a voice.

I have heard one or two educators recently mention that technology is just a tool. They are correct, but that doesn’t mean it is shunted to the side as some add on to what already exists. Just as the printing press did in the 1400s, the internet is having a significant transformative effect on all aspects of modern society – for good and ill. To pretend that that this will not or is not already having a filter through effect on education is irresponsible in my view. The question to ask ourselves, is how can we harness the enormous possibilities that this provides? One way is to look at how we can connect learners beyond local or school boundaries.

This returns me to my original discussion. How we enable something like this for Scholarship students? A networked, student led approach to learning, in which they have real ownership. What would need to happen? How can we make it happen. We can certainly get something interesting going within NetNZ schools and those who have participated in our programmes in the past. What I am suggesting is a little beyond a programme though. Can we provide a mechanism, a way for students to connect on this at a national level?