Social Bookmarking

imagesSocial bookmarking sites provide a secure online environment for saving and managing web pages and other teaching and learning resources.  Saved pages are typically tagged by personally created metadata, which provides an easy way to identify and share them with others.  Over 200 social bookmarking applications are listed on the FeedMyApp website.These serve different purposes for a wide range of audiences. is one of the better known bookmarking applications and is used widely in educational institutions. Features include the facility to create networks and bundles. Networks are created by setting up reciprocal links to other people’s Delicious accounts. This provides all concerned with a wider and richer variety of informtion.  Bundles provide an easy way to manage tags which deal with a similar topic. For example, the tags ‘education’, ‘learning’, ‘teaching’, ‘universities’, ‘schools’ and ‘e-learning’ could be bundled under an ‘Education’ label. Clicking on the bundle name will cause all the articles in the bundle to list.Tags can be managed in a number of ways and are easily edited or deleted.

Why use Delicious?

One of the strengths of social bookmarking applications like Delicious is the ability to create identifying tags in one’s own way. There is no such thing as an incorrect tag – tags make sense to the tagger and provide him or her with an easy to remember set of ‘personalised’ references with which to work. The activity of tagging website addresses according to one’s own criteria is known as  folksonomy – coming from the words ‘folk’ and ‘taxonomy’.  Mathes (2004) warns that personal metadata can be weak, given that informal identifiers are not necessarily understood by everyone in the same way.  Others however, have suggested that the ability to freely index web content in this way offers a “partial solution to the semantic web” (Grosseck, G. 2007:6).

The two most useful features of social bookmarking for teachers are:

  • the facility to bookmark and collate a large number of electronic resources which are available from anywhere at any time
  • the ease with which these can be shared with others, be they colleagues or pupils. However, it should be noted that the process of looking at resources, evaluating them and choosing relevant tags provides  a very powerful learning experience for children. This being the case, it is probably worthwhile having a class bookmarking site, especially when doing project and other work involving the collection and evaluation of information sources.

As mentioned above, there are many bookmarking applications. More and more web pages are beginning to provide direct links to these. The graphic below, providing access to Delicious, Digg, reddit, Facebook and StumbleUpon,  is copied from the BBC News site. It also provides a quick share link via email.


Diigo, is a good alternative to Delicious. It has a number useful extra features, including  electronic sticky notes and highlighting.

How to set up a Delicious account.
How to set up a Diigo account.

More information on social bookmarking, metadata and folksonomies

Grosseck, G.- Slideshare presentation |:| Innova Junior College – Slideshare presentation |:| James, K. EduGuru blog |:| Information Age Education blog.

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Malcolm Gladwell – Outliers

What is the essence of genius?

Persistence, practice and hard work – the 10 thousand hour rule.

When you give people the opportunity to experiment and engage in trial and error you are capable of solving problems which would otherwise remain unsolved…

Being a good teacher is not something that simply happens or emerges or that is… comes out of an investment on my part and an investment on the part of the organisations and communities I am a part of…

If you don’t write every day your technique suffers. You have to be willing to do 20 drafts…

Do we encourage this level of persistence in our schools? Does teaching to the test allow for this?

Outliers. The story of success :

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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, freedomemancipation 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, managed by the teacher, works well in primary 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 children.


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 children 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 children 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, and Spotify, which are quite different from one another. I use 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, 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, 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. 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 the Downs School podcast here and the Sandaig School podcast here. 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 |

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Music sharing, learning, education

blipMore and more teachers are realising that social networking software has the potential to support childrens’ learning. I am at last seeing blogs being used in primary classrooms, together with applications like Googlemaps, Google Earth and Flickr. However, the use of social software remains limited to a relatively narrow selection of older applications, with many teachers remaining dubious about what they see as ‘recreational’ applications.

There are a number of music sharing applications about, including, Spotify and I have used for over a year, but not to its full potential as a social networking tool. I have added a few events and have a small number of friends with similar music tastes and access to a number of playlists generated automatically by Last, which I listen to from time to time. However, most of the music I listen to is on iTunes and consists of mp3s which have been ripped from my own collection of CDs going back over a decade. I tend to look at the database which reflects my listening more that anything else.

However, I recently started to use, an application which allows you to be your own DJ. These can be shared in a number of ways, with play lists going to and to other social networking applications like Twitter and Facebook.

One could be forgiven for seeing this as essentially self-indulgent. However, it lends itself well to a wide range of learning opportunities, not necessarily musical. When one is presented with a tool of this sort, one is confronted by the decision of what to play. As a somewhat sad old man, I find it difficult to pull random numbers out of a hat. This got me thinking about themes, such a folk, metal, rock, blues, jazz and protest. I am reasonably familiar with these genres, but found that it was difficult to create a coherent programme without having to do some research on the matter. This of course, leads to looking at a number of websites which deal with  specific musical genres and others which comment on them and the leading musicians involved in them.

In this way one finds oneself engaging in a journey involving research, critical listening, decision making, reflection and further research – the essential constituents of learning activity.

It might be useful to provide a contextualised example of a recent session in which I revisited the protest music genre which was an important part of my life in the late 1960s.  It is easy to select a few favourites like Dylan’s classic Masters of War, Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction and Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Now that the Buffalo’s Gone (unfortunately not available on Blip), but I soon found that I had run out of ideas so started googling ‘top protest songs’ and the like to get some ideas. The most interesting thing was that I suddenly saw songs I had never heard of, and others which I did not even think of as protest songs. Further research enabled me to find protest songs going back well before the 1960s, like Strange Fruit, a song based on poem written by Abel Meeropol about the lynching of two black men in the south. The song was made famous by Billie Holiday in 1939 and inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978.

Other protest songs which I did not know about included Biko, by Peter Gabriel, which to my shame, I had not heard before, notwithstanding the fact that I know a great deal about the man and his politics, even having met him briefly in 1968. The song was first performed at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday bash at Wembley in 1988. In defence, I can state that at that time such programmes would not have been broadcast in South Africa, due to a BBC ban.

One might well point out that this kind of learning was not really dependent on my using and that I could easily have done the research independent of it. However, the point is that in this specific case the application and the way I decided to use it led me directly to the research which enabled me to further my understanding of protest music further in a contextualised and relevant way.

On a personal level, the use of the application has enabled me not only to explore music that I do not personally own, but also to share it in a variety of ways with friends and many people I do not know. More importantly, like many other social applications, it challenges me to think carefully about what I share, how I share it and to ensure that I have a considered understanding of the content and context of the material.

I would suggest that social software facilitates this kind of learning very well, providing an interesting, easy to use medium which drives learning in a context which is relevant, engaging and fun to use – far more so than the traditional classroom tools found in our schools.

There are a range of ways in which an application like could be used. By a music class exploring a music genre, a class developing a play list of its favourites songs, groups from China and the USA researching and sharing and exchanging aspects of their respective cultures in song, musicologists developing easy to make and share play lists for students to engage with and critique, or students researching and developing a resource which could be consist of music analysed from a range of perspectives. Most easily, it is a tool for one’s own personal  use, allowing one to engage with a variety of musical styles and performers as one engages and shares ‘props’ with fellow DJs.

What we often forget is that most learning happens outside of the school and that this learning, while ‘informal’, is extremely powerful. Developments in social software and social networking are providing an ever increasing number of ‘informal’ tools which drive this kind of learning. As teachers, we need to recognise this and take advantage of them in the classroom.

Billie Holliday – Strange Fruit

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Children writing history…

Information and communications technologies provide imaginative teachers with the opportunity to revolutionise the learning and teaching of history by enabling children to become real historians in their own right. I have already looked at children collecting and querying graveyard data using database software. In this post I will look at tapping into a powerful but rapidly disappearing historical resource – our senior citizens, especially those who were involved in fighting in one of the mankind’s greatest conflicts, WW2.


AB L.M. Paul HMS Illustrious

As a boy I would sit entranced as my father, his brothers and other war comrades spoke about their wartime experiences. My father joined the Royal Navy aged seventeen in 1941, seeing action in the North Atlantic, Indian Ocean and the Far East. I became an avid reader of books on WW2 – especially those involving the navy and air force, at an early age. The  number of servicemen who served in WW2 is diminishing rapidly, and as they die off we lose their untold stories, a rich source of history for anyone prepared to go out and collect it.

Involving senior citizens in the life of schools has the potential to build strong community links. Old soldiers love telling their stories and showing off their uniforms and medals. This provides a great opportunity to involve children in researching and writing history, using information and communication technologies to hone both their interviewing and story writing skills. Digital still cameras, audio and video recorders can be used to capture images and stories. Reworking these by editing provides opportunities to engage with technology to develop both technological and story telling skills while creating unique historical resources based on primary data. This is history as it should be, rather than the dry-as-dust rote learning of uncontextualised and largely irrelevant facts which constituted history when I was at school.

Senior citizens have more than memories of old wars at their disposal. These including ‘old’ skills such as soap and butter making and resources in the form of old photographs of their communities. These also provide opportunities for history making, be they in the form of video clips, photographs or History Days at school in which senior citizens are guested and encouraged to share their experiences.

Wikis provide a unique opportunity for communities to share information. I have aired the idea of a Community History wiki in a number of schools I visit, but have not had any response as yet. The essential idea is for a school to set up and manage a community history wiki in which community members are invited to share their stories and artifacts in digital form. I have been encouraged to see older people using computers in local libraries and suggest that there are enough older people in our communities with computer skills who would be prepared to take on the duty of speaking to their friends and recording their stories of the community as it was in days gone by. Many of our communities have changed radically over the last fifty years or so. The spirit of these communities can be recaptured by old pictures, old movies and first hand stories about the past. Any year six class willing to coordinate such a project would be creating  a unique and valuable resource as well as developing their own ict and story telling skills.

On another level, we tend to undervalue the potential of getting into the community to look at historical sites within our communities. The UK has a long and rich history and we are surrounded by historical buildings and artefacts. Walking around our communities armed with mobile camera phones and other digital recording equipment enables us to capture these resources and to discuss them back in classrooms, reworking and upload them to websites including wikis, class blogs and photo sharing sites like Flickr. Rather than blocking sites like Flickr, we should be using them as tools for sharing resources and ideas and as relevant, context-rich locales for training young people in the art of safe  Internet use.

Schools interested in taking on this kind of work are welcome to contact me.

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ICT as a tool for facilitating graveyard research

I looked at the various ways in which ICT can support children’s learning of history this week. This paper describes one of several ventures in a graveyard research project I ran while teaching in the Albany area of South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province.

Do women live longer than men?
Using computers to investigate graveyard data

James R.M. Paul

Department of Education, Rhodes University

Colette Kaiser

Victoria Primary School
Grahamstown, 6140, Republic of South Africa

Published in Learning and Leading with Technology (The ISTE Journal of Educational Technology Practice and Policy) May 1996
Republished in Micromath,  Summer 2005


Using computers for interrogating data can play a major part in facilitating the kinds of educational change that constructivists are calling for, empowering teachers and pupils by providing them with the information handling skills required by the Information Age. The Schools Graveyard Research Project, run by the Education Department at Rhodes University, South Africa, provides teachers and senior primary pupils at schools in Grahamstown with the opportunity to use computers as research tools. The groups involved visit regional graveyards, where they capture headstone data. This data is entered into an electronic database provided by the university and investigated using the various query tools that databases provide. This is followed up by work with an electronic spreadsheet, which provides children with the opportunity to tabulate and graph their results to develop new insights from original historical data. The exercise has three main objectives:

  • to provide the children involved with an opportunity to study history in a new way, with emphasis on active learning
  • to provide an opportunity to use computerised database and spreadsheet software as investigative tools
  • the development of an electronic database of graveyard information from graveyards in the Albany area of the Eastern Province, South Africa.

While the project has involved a wide cross section of learners, this paper will concentrate on the findings of the research as it has related to the 66 standard five (12 year old) pupils from Victoria Primary who researched three local graveyards. The Albany area was settled by several thousand British immigrants in an immigration scheme funded by the British government in 1820. Local inhabitants are proud of their settler roots, and many are able to trace their lineage back to these early times. This made the exercise particularly relevant to the girls involved.

Data Collection.

00-stone2The children worked in pairs and were allocated to specific rows of graves so that the data could be collected systematically. A data collection sheet was used and data collected in the categories indicated. This part of the exercise was relatively straight forward but did require the pupils to use their mathematical skills to check ages at death or to work them out for graves where this information was lacking.

Data Input.

Once the data had been collected the children were divided into three groups, each of which spent three two hour sessions using the computers at the university’s Education Department. The first session involved entering the data into the database. The database had already been set up and mirrored the data sheet, so the activity involved a simple transfer of the data into the relevant data fields. The children had recently started computer literacy lessons at school and had a fair knowledge of the key board. Even though this exercise did not require high order thinking it was valuable as it consolidated these basic computer skills. Children who had more regular access to computers at home were able to complete this task with very little difficulty. For those who had not had exposure the exercise provided opportunities for hands on keyboard experience and sufficient repetition to build up their confidence.

Data Query.

lab1A facilitatory approach was taken throughout this process, putting the responsibility for learning where it belongs – with the pupil. The pupils were asked to consider the data that they had captured, and to suggest what kinds of useful information they thought the data might provide. The basic key strokes for ordering and selecting data were demonstrated, and the pupils were encouraged to scroll through the data so as to get an overall ‘feel’ for it. The data was looked at as a whole to begin with, and sorted alphabetically by surname to get an idea of the families represented. Attempts were made to draw up family trees from the data, but it was found that the information required to do this was too scanty. The children were then asked to suggest other ways of looking at the data, and encouraged to form hypothesis and then test them. Common hypotheses were that women live longer than men, that people live longer in the 20th century than the 19th century and that most people today die in their 70’s. The data was then sorted by date of death and by age at death. This allowed the children to make a physical count of occurrences within specific age or year categories, and to draw up tables and graphs representing their findings. The select feature was then used to look at the data in more detail. 19th century data was selected and analysed and then compared to similar 20th century data. The same was done with the data as it referred to men and women, and to those records with an age of death less than 10. The information was entered into tables  for analysis and then graphed (see accompanying graphs). This was done manually to begin with, with the girls working in pairs or small groups to generate their own pie, bar or line graphs. Being able to categorise and graph the data made the information much easier to understand. Victoria Primary uses an integrated curriculum approach and the exercise reinforced the connectedness of school subjects, particularly the way in which history and mathematics is linked.

Once the pupils had drawn their graphs, they compared and discussed their findings in a larger group. The variety of graphs drawn was an indication that the data was a valuable information source which could be examined, compared and interpreted in a great variety of ways. It also became clear that some of the data was difficult to compare. The reason for this was that the sample sizes were very different, and this led to discussion about ways to compare information fairly, and the need to convert raw data to percentages. It is particularly interesting to look at the difference between the number of deaths of children under the age of 10 in this light. While there were 22 deaths in this category during the 19th century and 35 during the 20th century, the corresponding percentages are 25.6 percent and 2.8 percent. Graphing raw data in this instance did little to bring out the real meaning of the data. Understanding this resulted in the data being re-examined and new questions being formulated.

The child death question resulted in one child suggesting that the high 19th century mortality rates were the direct result of poor medical knowledge during the 19th century. This provided an ideal chance for a discussion that brought other factors into the question – particularly those relating to modes of transport, road conditions and communications in general. The most valuable lesson here were that while the data could be used to support or refute the hypotheses that the children had made, it had to examined in the light of other factors (which may or may not be obvious), worked with carefully and examined critically.

The value of the task.

1. The collection of the data required co-operation with their class mates and an organised approach.

2. The girls’ computer literacy skills were improved and knowledge of the keyboard consolidated.

3. The group graph activity resulted in the discussion of their findings where they made comparisons and tried to work out the reasons for the differences.

4. Working with primary evidence meant that the pupils could draw their own conclusions from the questions which they had formulated.

5. Primary level children do not get many chances to work with statistical data and find it difficult to formulate questions based on it. The nature of this data, and especially the fact that it was their own, made it easier for them to pose questions which could be investigated and to make hypotheses that could be proved or rejected.

6. The interpretation of the data required higher order thinking linking statistics and history.

7. Mathematics is often taught as a subject isolated from other disciplines. At a school where the cross-curricular approach has been used for a number of years this study initiated new links for the pupils between mathematics, history and computer studies.

8. The task resulted in a thirst for further reading and research, particularly where individual graves provided points of interest. A poem and a bird bath on the grave of a young nature conservation officer, the names of various battles in which soldiers had lost their lives and references to a local train disaster in which several score of people had lost their lives provided much interest and areas of focus for further reading.

9. ‘Research’ at primary school level usually involves regurgitating facts from reference books or electronic encyclopaedias. This project involved the children actively and provided them with a chance to work like real historians, collecting and interpreting their own primary data.


Current literature on educational change emphasises the need for teachers to provide learning experiences which are “student centred” and which place “increased responsibility for learning on the learner” (Thomas and Knezek, 1991. 49). David (1991, 40) has noted the need for educational systems which enable students “… to apply skills, to understand concepts and solve problems… to work collaboratively… to take responsibility for learning.” We are moving, suggests Spender (1995:1) “from a system based on answers to one where questions are the norm; from being able to recall to being able to retrieve… from knowing to doing.” The graveyard research project is structured to meet these criteria and goes some of the way towards empowering children to use computers in a powerful, relevant and research oriented way.


David, J.L. (1991). Restructuring and technology: Partners in change. Phi Delta Kappan, 73(1).

Spender, D. (1995). From knowing to doing: An educational policy for the computer age. International confederation of Principals, second world convention, Darling Harbour, Australia.

Thomas, L.G., & Knezek, D. (1991). Facilitating restructured learning experiences with technology. The Computing Teacher, 18(6).


The graphs selected below reflect the analysis of a bigger data set than the three graveyards mentioned above. However, the trends reflected were common to all  graveyards investigated. The date set exceeds six thousand records from 15 graveyards in the Albany area.


Graph showing distribution of ages of death


Graph comparing distribution of ages of death by century


Graph comparing distribution of ages of death by gender


Family tree of the Claytons of Cuylerville, Eastern Cape, South Africa.

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Constructivism. Putting the social into 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.


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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

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