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Traditionally, the selection and development of settings for compulsory schooling has been the responsibility of educators rather than of pupils. Research in Second Life demonstrates that young people are well able to take an active role in developing their learning environment. Applying these findings to a real-world setting provides a means of empowering pupils to make their school experience more attractive, inclusive and enjoyable.
There has been a gradual move towards learner consultation in relation to their learning experiences. This can be seen as developing from a rights perspective in which learners, particularly young people, have a right to be involved in decisions affecting their lives (Morgan, Gibbs, Maxwell, & Britten, 2002). That their voices should be heard is enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. More recently, in the UK, the importance of gaining young people’s perspectives in this context has been formalised in government publications such as ‘Every Child Matters’.
However, the status and power of young people in schools is circumscribed by the roles associated with the label ‘pupil’. People, irrespective of age or educational background, have difficulty in breaking free of expectations set up by the current school system (Sheehy & Bucknall, 2008).
The Internet provides new spaces for the investigation of ways in which young people can be empowered to take more control of their learning environments. This was one of the intentions of the Schome Park Programme, which involved teenagers from across the UK and US taking a leading role in constructing their own learning environments on the Teen Grid of Second Life (Sheehy, Ferguson, & Clough, 2010). Detailed discussion of the project took place in associated forums. The contributions of seven young learners – those who posted between 100 and 500 times in the forum – were analysed thematically with a focus on the ways in which their contributions suggested or evidenced ways of breaking down the barriers between teachers and learners.
Given the chance to develop their environment, each of these seven learners thought deeply about it from a variety of perspectives and built on their experience as learners in order to develop their virtual island. They proved to be very aware of the practicalities, the aesthetics and the ethos of the project, and they considered in a detailed way not only how the island could be used to support learning but also how they could make best use of their resources. These seven teenagers were clearly capable of taking an active part in developing their educational environment. They viewed that environment as a whole; they were concerned with overcoming problems and with improving the situation for everyone, while taking into account practical problems and resourcing issues.
These skills are equally relevant in a ‘real-world’ context, where this type of discussion is typically associated with the role of senior teachers and managers. The forum debate showed that numerous benefits are associated with engaging meaningfully in these discussions. Not only did the young people propose solutions to problems that were inhibiting the development of community and of learning, they also reflected deeply on what they and those around them were trying to achieve together. The interaction of young people in an environment mediated by the Internet thus demonstrated that young people are both interested in, and capable of, taking an active role in the evaluation and development of their learning environment.
The researcher took the findings of this project to a local school, where pupils, parents and staff were involved in the creation of a future vision of the school. The focus of adult input was on learning and teaching resources and on clear markers of attainment such as success in examinations, sport, competitions and musical performance. The children added a new perspective to the debate – they w
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