Developing a Networked School Community
A guide to realising the vision
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Effective schools not only are in touch with their community, especially the homes and families of their students, but also take deliberate steps to reach out beyond their local area into the world at large to provide the best possible educational opportunities for the young people in their care. A key element of the thinking of these effective schools is the concept of the ‘network’—what it is, how it works and how it can be used to best advantage for students. In this book, Mal Lee and Glenn Finger and their contributing authors have taken the concept of the network and explored how it applies to the challenge of providing teaching and learning in ways that are relevant and engaging to twenty-first century educational settings. Growing appreciation of the value of networks is presenting some interesting challenges for school communities. While networks have always been seen as means to build and share knowledge, and as avenues for expressing one’s identity and interests, for providing social support and for developing communities, accelerating developments in digital technologies are raising new questions about networks and their influence on the structure and operation of schools. Importantly, these technologies are providing greater breadth, depth and meaning to the term ‘network’. In an age where communication is becoming faster and information is becoming more accessible, and where the technologies are becoming cheaper and more reliable, many of the cherished assumptions and distinctive characteristics of schooling are changing. In fact, the increasing sophistication of digital technologies is expanding the networking capabilities of schools to a point where common terms like ‘school community’ and familiar concerns like ‘how might the school best relate to its community’ are taking on new and exciting meanings and possibilities. This book is focused on assisting educational leaders in understanding these new meanings and the possibilities they hold. In the Industrial Age the concept of the school community was fairly straightforward. It was defined simply in terms of local demography (who are our students? who are their parents?) and local geography (where do they live? what are our school’s enrolment boundaries?). Schools were basically ‘stand-alone’ neighbourhood or regional entities that operated between 8.30 am and 3.30 pm, five days per week for up to 44 weeks per year. They were there to provide an educational service, which relied on assumptions that young people were ready to learn and that they developed this readiness from the home, from their parents. As we move further into the post-Industrial Age, this cosy image of ‘school community’ is becoming more anachronistic. Not as many young people come to school ready to learn and, increasingly, schools are doing things that used to be done by parents. At the same time, some parents—as ‘purchasers of educational services’ for their children—are becoming increasingly demanding. Other parents, perhaps as a consequence of their own school experience and life circumstances, are less engaged though remain hopeful that their children’s interests and needs are being well catered for. And there are still others who may feel disengaged from their children’s education and are quite unsupportive of the school’s efforts. In other words, the relationships that a school has with parents and the home have always been and remain key element of its success. Mal, Glenn and their contributing authors provide a range of fresh insights on this theme, and argue that building and sustaining a strong connection between the home and the school is fundamental to young people’s learning. But this book goes further. It argues that the developments in digital technologies are such that the possibilities for strengthening the nexus are more urgent and more promising than ever before. The urgency comes from the need to engage young people in their learning. Continuing with the industrial models and mindsets for the development and delivery of curriculum is just not an option. In the Industrial Age, young people went to school to learn things they could not learn at home. That was the whole point: to prepare them to work and live in an industrial society. And for much of the past 150 years schools have been outstandingly successful in performing that service. But things are different now. Postindustrial society with its increasing use and reliance on digital technologies is having profound effects on the ways people—and especially young people—access knowledge and learn. The tables have turned! Through their access and use of digital technologies young people are now able ‘to learn things’ at home that they cannot learn (or are not allowed to learn) at school. Schools need to recognise this and use it to their advantage. The authors make this point tellingly. They rightly argue that schools, educational leaders and bureaucrats need to overcome their fear of digital technologies and the potential pitfalls and sensationalist dangers to privacy and wellbeing, and wisely embrace the concept of digital citizenship as an outcome for all young people. Such approaches care less about fruitless banning and filtering charades, and more about informing, critiquing and building knowledge, skills, understandings and values to the point where our young people are able to confidently ask questions and find solutions that are life giving for themselves and for others. Clearly, moves by schools to embrace this challenge must involve parents and the home in new and engaging ways if a meaningful nexus is to be achieved. Allied with these possibilities is the fact that many schools are currently developing the capacity for staff, students and parents to communicate with each other like never before. Email, websites, wikis and blogs are being increasingly used as vehicles to engage and connect local communities. But it does not stop there. The capacity of these technologies to connect with individuals, groups and organisations beyond the school, in other schools, across town, regionally, nationally and internationally is bringing new insights and meanings to the term ‘school community’. Those school communities that are beginning to take advantage of digital technologies in building these connections for valued educational purposes might appropriately be labelled as ‘networked school communities’. Leading these networked school communities is one of the key emerging educational challenges of our time. I am confident that this book will assist them in meeting this challenge.