Safe Social Learning Communities


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Robert and Carole Hart-Fletcher were invited by the Family Online Safety Institute to write about their experience with social learning communities:

Carole writes, "We’ve come a long way in our journey into educational social networking and we’ve learned a great deal (mostly from the children) but we’ve really only just begun."

Online social learning is no longer a bright new invention for early adopting heroes. It’s a mature approach to learning and technology with proven value, and central to education.

To enable our children around the world to communicate safely in a rich and rewarding online environment we offer our experience and understanding of social networking to many groups around the world, through consultancy and customized development.

You can exhort children to behave safely. Tell them the rules and why they need them for their protection and what they will lose if they break them. For some children that’s as effective as the warning on a pack of cigarettes that says “Smoking Kills”.

We’ve found that children need to learn experientially and to be rewarded for what you want them to do far more than they are sanctioned for what you don’t want them to do.

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Safe Social Learning Communities

  1. 1. Robert & Carole Hart-Fletcher: Safe Social Learning Communities Expert Commentary for Family Online Safety InstituteRobert and Carole Hart-Fletcher create online learning communities for children, young peopleand adults. Over the past twenty years they have provided rich learning experiences for over twomillion school children aged 6 to 19, and their teachers, in 44 countries. They were the inventors ofpioneering learning communities including SchoolNet Global – the world’s first and largestchildren’s publishing community, which became the centerpiece of the Learning Zone of theMillennium Dome. They provided the ground-breaking GridClub Community (sponsored by the UKGovernment) and they created SuperClubsPLUS and GoldStar Cafe. They have won 13 majorawards for online education and Internet safety, including the Bafta. They now run KidsOKOnlinewhich provides specialist consultancy, design and development services to those who wish tocreate safe social learning spaces for children and adults. - FOSI Editor Safe Social Learning Communities Robert & Carole Hart-FletcherGiving children a voiceIn January 2006, Myspace announced its launch in the UK and on September 26, 2006, Facebookwas opened to everyone over 13 with a valid email address. But long before the terms “socialnetwork” or “social media” came into use, we started on a journey that led us to launch the firstsignificant online social learning community as part of the UK’s celebration of the new Millennium.Tesco SchoolNet2000 was a children’s publishing community, started in 1998 for children acrossthe UK. For the first time young children were able to publish web pages with pictures and storiesabout their lives, their interests, their communities, without using any HTML code. It grew to include120,000 teachers and children from over half of UK schools. It was awarded a Guinness WorldRecord as the world’s biggest children’s publishing community and became the centerpiece of theTesco-sponsored Learn Zone in the Millennium Dome.SchoolNet2000 gave children a voice and a huge community of peers and family to see their work.It allowed children to say what they thought about their lives and to share their interests. It honoredthem as experts - since only they knew what they thought and felt about the world around themand plenty of people wanted to know.Global Education© Copyright Robert & Carole Hart-Fletcher, 2011 1
  2. 2. Robert & Carole Hart-Fletcher: Safe Social Learning CommunitiesWe had always been committed to global education as an influence towards world peace. Asteachers back in the eighties we opened a new primary school on a social housing estate in ruralHertfordshire. Although the children had all moved from homes in cosmopolitan North London, onlywhite English families had been allowed on the estate, so we had an enforced monoculture. Toexpose the children to other cultures, we started a Friends Around the World project and invitedthe mature students from a local international college to visit the school, bringing their families withthem, to meet and befriend our children. It was a great success and changed the children’sattitudes, increased their understanding of and empathy for people of varied cultures and origins.So, when the opportunity arose, we turned SchoolNet2000 into SchoolNetGlobal and extended thecommunity’s reach around the world. In its heyday we had around 200,000 children and teachersfrom 32 countries sharing their interests and collaborating on creating online magazines together.Communicate and CorporateWhen we saw how enthusiastic the SchoolNetGlobal children were to make friends around theworld, we started to invent ways to facilitate communication and corporative working. We’d beenrunning Apple Global Education for a while, which was based on email exchange and thenAppleLink, but we thought that children should be able to communicate and publish in the sameonline space.The UK Government-sponsored GridClub project gave us that opportunity. Around the GridClublearning games produced by Channel 4, we created SuperClubs, a rich media community wherechildren could publish their own web pages, e-mail each other and take part in forum discussions.We learned quickly how children’s capacity for learning and teaching each other rocketed in asocial environment. Now they were talking about their learning, showing off their achievements:enjoying the encouragement and praise of their peers all across the UK.Once again, when the project funding ended and we were able to spin off the community, weopened it up to children and teachers around the world. In April 2003, three years before Myspaceand Facebook, SuperClubsPLUS was launched for primary school children and a little later welaunched its big sister, GoldStar Cafe, for younger secondary children.We wanted to give children a great platform for communication and collaborating, so we improvedthe community e-mail with attachments and smileys, created a huge media library with images,sounds and animations the children could use and contribute to, and we created hot seat forumswhere children could interview invited authors, artists and astronauts. Each child had a wholewebsite where they could build pages and share their interests with the whole community and theycould collaborate on a huge range of learning projects.User-Led Development© Copyright Robert & Carole Hart-Fletcher, 2011 2
  3. 3. Robert & Carole Hart-Fletcher: Safe Social Learning CommunitiesTo a great extent the children led the community development. They would ask for a new featureand wed build it. If they underused a feature wed drop it, so the community evolved with thechanging needs of the users. It was never a perfect fit, but it was close and the children loved it -so did their parents and their school teachers who appreciated how much their children werelearning while having fun and staying safe.The children loved it so much that more than half of our members visited the site every day. Sixtypercent of access was from home. Theyd arrive home from school and log on to talk to the friendstheyd just left at the school gate and to work on their home pages or one of the projects.Keeping Children SafeSince the early days of SchoolNet2000, we’ve learned a great deal about keeping children safeonline. The first consideration is how to verify age and identity so that predators cannot get into thecommunity. We did this by promoting the community to teachers, who would apply online toregister. We would then telephone their schools to check they were bona fide. (We encounteredjust a few who were not!) The teacher would then nominate their students and enter their names,ages and gender. It was a simple, but of course time consuming and labor intensive system,although nothing less would have ensured a truly safe community.We have found that animation is very important to ensure a community is lively and safe. Childrenneed to be motivated to participate in highly engaging learning and social activities. If they areengaged they don’t have time to be naughty. It’s when they are bored that they get into mischief.There were always lots of fun things to do, and the children’s enthusiasm was phenomenal: 6000children submitted substantial stories for the Young Author of the Year Competition; 30,000children completed an Animal Welfare project sponsored by the RSPCA and 70,000 children tookpart in an NSPCC ChildLine project.We also had hundreds of thousands of responses to the Government-sponsored surveys we’dpublish in the communities to learn what the children thought and did about recycling, their readinghabits or how they learned within the family. The results of the research were fed back toGovernment and were a real influence in the development of policy.It is difficult to animate children into creative participation if they fear criticism or ridicule or if theyfeel unsafe, so it was important to moderate their communications. We’ve found that children willbe as good as you expect them to be and as bad as you let them be. All e-mails, forum posts andhome page edits were automatically scanned for potential abusive language and, of course, forany signs of grooming. Unambiguously abusive or obscene language was blocked and messageswith suspicious language were diverted to the team of highly trained Moderators, who would judgeit in the context of the conversation and intervene if it was an attempt to abuse.© Copyright Robert & Carole Hart-Fletcher, 2011 3
  4. 4. Robert & Carole Hart-Fletcher: Safe Social Learning CommunitiesExperiential LearningYou can exhort children to behave safely. Tell them the rules and why they need them for theirprotection and what they will lose if they break them. For some children that’s as effective as thewarning on a pack of cigarettes that says “Smoking Kills”. We’ve found that children need to learnexperientially and to be rewarded for what you want them to do far more than they are sanctionedfor what you don’t want them to do. We created a Star Awards system, whereby children whobehaved safely were automatically rewarded with a star emblem on their home pages and if theydemonstrated their understanding they won a CyberSafety badge.This was so successful and influential, we extended it to reward children with home page badgesfor their competences (safe use of communication tools, multimedia use on home pages, usingcodes to animate their pages etc.) and for their contributions (such as publishing a story in anonline magazine or completing the Animal Welfare project). The older children in GoldStar Cafewere rewarded with Credits that they could swap for extra privileges on the site, such as: creatingtheir own forum, additional home pages or new animation codes. We found that children love tofeel they are becoming more competent and trustworthy. They wore their home page badges withthe same pride as the scouts and guides wear their sleeve badges for fire-lighting and camp craft.The combination of rigorous user validation, sophisticated moderation, effective animation anddesirable rewards for positive behavior created and maintained an overall ethos of mutual respect.As a result of these measures, not one of the two million children we have served in ourcommunities has been bullied, abused or hurt.Online and Physical WorldsResearch by Suzanne Barr in Australia has shown that children who had spent above six monthsin the communities behaved more safely on the wild un-moderated web. Their good behaviorhabits had transferred outside the protected community.We also found that children make no distinction (as adults do) between their online world and theirphysical world. To the children they are both just part of life. It’s interesting to note that theirbehavior in the online communities spilled over into their physical world behavior. Research with aLondon school in a deprived area of the city revealed that children’s classroom and playgroundbehavior improved as they learned to be respectful online citizens.We also found the communities were enabling for children with special needs. We barred childrenfrom uploading photographs of themselves. This was partly for child-safety reasons, but alsobecause we learned with SchoolNetGlobal, that children will make judgments on other childrenfrom their looks, physique and clothes. With no image to judge by, the children can only judge eachother by what they write and publish. The good news for a child with special needs is that it is© Copyright Robert & Carole Hart-Fletcher, 2011 4
  5. 5. Robert & Carole Hart-Fletcher: Safe Social Learning Communitiesimpossible for his readers to tell whether the story he published took him ten minutes to write orthree days. So the story and the author are judged purely on their merits.Isolated ChildrenFor isolated children the online community was a boon. One of our schools in Papa Westray inScotland has just a handful of pupils, but those children can choose online friends from thousandsaround the world and each can find a child who shares their passion and interests whatever theymight be.Another group of potentially isolated children are those with severe disabilities which might restrictthem physically to their homes, or limit their speech, sight or hearing and their abilities tocommunicate. These children can, with the help of their specialist communication devices, interactwith the laptop and find themselves “talking” to other kids on an equal basis. This is an area wewant to develop more. (See below).Emotional & Social ConnectionThe communities allow for emotional connection and mutual support. When the bush fires raged inVictoria, Australia, our children, who were living with trauma, loss and fear at the time were able tocommunicate with kids in the UK, Poland and Estonia, to tell their stories to emphatic ears.Conversely the listeners had the opportunity to learn first-hand from the children in the midst of thedisaster and to make a real and valuable emotional contribution. Psychologists on hand at the timesaid that this emotional bond was an important factor in the Australian children’s recovery.It seems that we have achieved our dream of global education; of thousands of children makingfriends around the world and connecting in understanding and empathy, and that was thanks to thefabulous support of colleagues in the Department for International Development, the BritishCouncil and BBC World Class who encouraged and sponsored some of our international activities,including visits to our schools in Estonia, Poland and even war-torn Kenya.We know that thousands of children have now had an intensive, educationally and sociallyvaluable experience they could not have had any other way.Next Generation CommunitiesWe now want to bring safe social learning to some of the groups of children and adults we havenot yet served to our satisfaction. We are working on a variety of new communities that will servevery specific needs, including:© Copyright Robert & Carole Hart-Fletcher, 2011 5
  6. 6. Robert & Carole Hart-Fletcher: Safe Social Learning Communities • With Barnardos, the UK leading children’s charity, we are piloting highly accessible communities for vulnerable children who may feel isolated and wish to connect to others who share similar issues - giving them a voice. • With KidsandMedia, we’re building a social network for parents who want guidance and peer support on how to guide their children through the fast-moving digital world. • A network for medics who want to keep up with the latest medical advances. • Advice to media companies that want to safely and ethically engage children.Social Media technology has been maturing and so have the users. Millions of parents andchildren are now involved with Facebook, Twitter and other social media. They now understandwhat a social network is. When we started, we didn’t even know what we were inventing weresocial networks and our children and parents certainly had no prior experience of using one. Whenwe started there was nowhere remotely safe for children to go online and communicate, so wecreated a “safe haven” for them. Now we know that even very young children are (illegally) onFacebook, so we can’t protect them from un-mediated spaces anymore. So as well as providingspecialist closed communities where they can relax and feel safe, we need to help them to safelynavigate such spaces, to handle the risks, nudge them towards the skills, tools and attitudes theyneed to help them be resilient online adventurers. So, for example in our new communities we givechildren more capability and responsibility to self-protect and peer-moderate.We’ve come a long way and we’ve learned a great deal (mostly from the children) but we’ve reallyonly just begun. Online social learning is no longer a bright new invention for early adoptingheroes. It’s a mature approach to learning and technology with proven value, and central toeducation. To enable our children around the world to communicate safely in a rich and rewardingonline environment we offer our experience and understanding of social networking to manygroups around the world, through consultancy and customized development.Links (SchoolNetGlobal is currently unavailable while we develop its successor.)© Copyright Robert & Carole Hart-Fletcher, 2011 6