How might the distributed school work?
The distributed school will be derived from a number of nodes around the UK. Each node consists of a building which is located at the heart of a rural or coastal village community with typically poor or seasonal employment and fairly obviously no school, or a closing school.
Using a model employed by commerce, ‘shop-fitters’ would build the internal fabric of the classroom quickly and with a high degree of flexibility. This is particularly important in the research phase - we may need to change things rapidly as we learn from the research. This node would cater no more than 12 pupils between the ages of 4 and 16. The choice of building is crucial to accommodate space for a rich and diverse learning environment, kitchen, toilets, outdoor space.
It is vital to ensure that the LEA in which the nodes are based, are sympathetic to innovation and those appointed have some understanding of, and interest in, flexibility of conditions of work and research. Our experience is that sometimes local teacher union groups may be an inhibitor to innovation, as may school governors and some Chief Education Officers. It is crucial that the research team are involved in the appointment of staff.
Each node is part of three and these three nodes comprise a “cluster” which is located in one LEA. We envisage three clusters nationally, to build the one initial distributed school.
A permanent live video connexion between nodes is an essential requirement; the distributed school relies on collaborative learning between, pupils, teachers, teaching assistants, parents and experts but economics prevents a teacher being present in each node all the time. Nodes share teachers and the video connexion is essential to that even with a teaching assistant present at each node at all times. It also ensures that the teacher is always present and obtainable.
Each pupil will have the latest portable computer with wireless Internet access within and around the school building. In addition, each pupil will be able to nominate other locations within their community, maybe their home, their grandparent’s home, the youth club, scout hut, etc. where broadband Internet access will be installed. The network infrastructure consists of high speed symmetrical broadband straight into the rural community and spread through a number of locations.
This helps the project to embrace the overlap between community and school based learning.
Pupils in each node will be able to converse with their peers, via a continual desktop online link. Experts will have access to key stage groups in the cluster via the synchronous live feed and the asynchronous conference link. We know from Notschool that it is possible to fulfil the needs of a broad secondary curriculum in this way.
We have assumed that the school will run from 9pm to 5pm each day, building for some flexibility in learning where a node may start between 9am and 11am and finish between 3pm and 5pm. A full time teaching assistant will be employed in each node working alongside teaching staff which totals six working days per cluster. The teacher will spend two days based in each node. Depending on the curriculum and pupil needs, the teaching staff may choose to work with all three nodes together using the live video streams, or each node individually. Working two days all three staff will overlap for half a day to allow co-ordination. There is also a cluster minibus to allow face to face between the nodes where necessary.
The school will employ three days of expert time per week for 40 weeks of the year from a variety of backgrounds. This will ensure curriculum experts are available to support teachers.
Each node will be a self contained classroom with links into the local community. The node will use resources in the community, for example the village hall or church for drama or PE, the library van or building for book requirements.
It is anticipated that the local community will also contribute specialist expertise to each node, for example accountants could aid with maths, garden centres or farms with sciences, local artists with creative arts. In this way real links with the community could be built and the curriculum could be properly “anchored”; an exchange will take place between those coming into the node and visits from the node to other centres.
Travel within the local community is regarded as a significant part of the learning experience and is costed accordingly.
We anticipate that the relationship between the three nodes develops into a strong supportive relationship. As each cluster will own its own transport travel of a key stage group or a whole node will be possible and facilitated. The open, live synchronous classroom link will enable students to see each other, to observe others in the classrooms. In addition the desktop cameras and the live desktop links will enable pupils to contact others in the cluster and work with them collaboratively.
This will ensure the node is extended beyond the immediate group of 12 pupils. Intentionally, there is a designed potential to add nodes or clusters from other countries, including the developing world.
The regional distribution of clusters will enable pupils to access a wide variety of local expertise, give them access to rich and varied experience from three different localities. Expertise can be shared via synchronous and asynchronous conferencing.
Pupils in clusters will work together within age ranges to enable specialisms. In this way a wide range of expertise is assured.
The proposal envisages, and costs, a substantial research and development component in the early stages. This will ensure that the ‘lessons learnt’ from the radical design are ‘fed back’ into the Department, to Partnership for Schools, to RIBA/CABE and relevant or interested parties regularly. This will also ensure that a continual process iterative development based on evaluation is carried out.
Those staff working in the distributed school will be part of the research team and are actively engaged in reflective practice.
Rural and coastal village communities are becoming age ghettos with the family unit disappearing. The distributed schools seeks to provide a viable, lively environment for children in isolated communities by harnessing new technologies to enable the school to extend beyond the village.
The specification uses the latest patented technology to bring broadband to those areas without suitable facilities at exchanges. The 1 MB stream into isolated communities has the potential to change the life of these communities.
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