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As Information and Communication Technology is becoming an integral component of the school curriculum, the internet will be used more and more as a first port of call for children researching homework and school projects. Will Robins looks at how children can use the internet to learn both safely and productively

Today’s children are developing within a fully-fledged digital environment. There is no doubt that the web is likely to be the first place they go to for information. The likes of Wikipedia seem here to stay.

But are we doing enough to prepare our children for abundant, free and instant information?

“We have to get away from this idea that children have a mystical, and mythological, ability to use new technologies in a meaningful way,” says Angela McFarlane, professor of education and director of learning technology at Bristol University: “Kids will sit and appear to be [engaged], but sit down and talk to them and it becomes clear that they are just randomly clicking on things.”

Fortunately, there are easy ways for parents to safely introduce their children to online research and learning at home. For example, SOS Children has launched a special Wikipedia for schools. Andrew Cates is chief executive the charity points out that computers still work with the broadband unplugged:

“What I do with my primary school aged children, is to help them look things up on their own PC on a copy of the Schools Wikipedia. Show the child how to open an index file in a browser and then give them free reign to explore off-line.”

The Wikipedia Selection for Schools was created in response to widespread worries about the reliability of the online encyclopaedia. Working in conjunction with Wikipedia, the charity took material from the Wikipedia site which was then double-checked by charity workers. The most up-to-date version has the content of a 20 volume encyclopaedia with articles on over 5500 topics.

“Wikipedia for Schools has millions of users, including many schools and teachers and has only ever had a couple of very minor errors pointed out,” says Cates, “It used a selection process to identify the most reliable versions of articles on Wikipedia and has been read by volunteers.”

The next challenge is to discover the best use of the information found on online sources. Leaving behind the now seemingly painstaking process of writing out from a book, a copy-paste generation is in danger of learning little from research tasks apart from an ability to research online.

So, the key perhaps is to find ways for children to do something practical with the information.

“That would be my single call,” says McFarlane. “I would like to see schools use these technologies to give kids an authentic purpose for creating something.” McFarlane believes the modernisation of primary education must not merely involve importing technologies into the classroom, but also an evolution of teaching. That means moving away from handing in lists of facts – now overly abundanton the net – and towards creative processes using those facts.

One way of fostering authentic creativity is through collaborative learning. Children will be able to create their own mini-Wikipedias or ‘wikis’. Wikis are shared files that any member of a class or project can contribute to via a school network or online from home.

“I would like to see schools use these technologies to give kids an authentic purpose for creating something”

McFarlane believes contribution to a shared project, (such as where children can work together on green projects) that extends beyond the classroom, or even the school, offsets the isolating effect computers can have.

“In a recent study there were two things that were helped children to feel they are part of a bigger project. One of these is a map which shows which other schools are participating…The other was that children could take pictures and share them online with parents and other children. Those things made the children feel they were doing something of value outside of their own front door.”

Children will grow up bombarded by information, bad and good. But online resources like Wikipedia are not the beginning nor will they be the end of the story. Children must become confident and discerning contributors themselves and the earlier we educate them, the simpler this new world will be for them … and us!


Online learning resources: – Thousands of free downloadable resources to help literacy, numeracy and other more creative topics – The Google UK Schools site offers free resources on numerous subjects – Free lesson plans and activity ideas that can be used if your child is unable to attend school – Ideas and techniques to learn French, German, Spanish

Discerning learners

Rather than shy away from the realities of the internet skills can be built up so that children know what to do when researching homework, school projects or when you want to learn about something together at home.

It is best not to rely on just one source of information. If your child can only find that particular piece of information on one online resource, it is not likely to be accurate information.

Your child can judge the authenticity of the information that they are reading by seeing if they can find the same information elsewhere e.g. in a different online encyclopedia, on a known museum or educational institution’s website or by taking a look at a book on the subject. 

Teachers are likely to have done a quick internet search on the subject themselves, so copying and pasting will be easily identified. Your child can use the information as a basis to work on and quote where they found the information.

When your child is first starting to do their own homework research, sit with them and work through the searches together, discussing with children the appropriateness and reliability.

Creative learners – Highly recommended creative computer software to inspire children to create stories, paint pictures, design animations, practice maths or languages, compose music and more… – Part of the Family Education Network, this site contains fun games, quizzes and parent support for learning numbers, words, culture, the universe…
– A range of engaging maths games – Makes telling the time fun!
– An introduction to typing for children aged 7 to 11 – Free fun (and educational) puzzles and activites for pre-school up to age 13 index.shtml
– Using characters from the Magic Key programme, activities aimed at 5 to 7 year olds assist with writing, sentences, descriptions, questions, working out new words…