“Small Schools” is a project aimed to analyse and promote experiences of distance learning using ICT in geographically isolated scholastic institutes hindered by dwindling student numbers. In order to achieve this result “Small Schools Grow” sets out to analyse and promote a national network of small schools. This means around 300 thousand students from about 200 schools on the islands and 3,500 mountain communities.
In these contexts, the potential offered by digital technology, which can overcome spatial and temporal limits, along with the construction of school networks, can offer solutions to support the school population nationwide, making studying and lifelong learning easier. Setting up a distance school means transforming isolation, due to geographical location, into a learning opportunity for both students and teachers.
“Small schools” intends to support the permanence of schools in geographically disadvantaged territories, combatting depopulation. Some schools in the small islands and in Italian mountain areas have begun to experience the use of the Internet and videoconferencing systems to create networks to overcome isolation, connect small classes and develop educational paths based on the use of ICT.
The problem is mainly isolation and the fact that in a small social environment, educational outcomes tend inevitably to generate poor results, due to the lack of external inputs, exchange of views among peers and limited social relations. The leading idea is to build a network of educational relations and an opportunity to work with other people. The creation of a national network, that allows to establish relationships and educational activities, connecting distant places and social realities, is a value in itself. The teaching model enhances this value, as well as the use of ICT, to motivate students and improve the educational intervention.
However, which is the teaching model for small schools, geographically isolated and risking territorial depopulation? Considering that in these cases the multi-age classroom dimension does not seem to guarantee basic quality educational standards. How to support social relations, education and peer to peer comparison in a broad educational community that allows experiences exchanges and new stimulations?
Two models/scenarios, have been identified, for secondary schools. They are based on cooperation, adaptable to different territorial needs, and allow to enhance communication and writing skills through asynchronous and synchronous communication tools: the shared teaching and the expanded learning environment.
In the first scenario, two or more classes belonging to different schools are connected to each other, through the daily use of videoconferencing. In small schools, children are grouped into multi-age classrooms due to the low number of students, in this context, the shared lesson fosters the exchange of experiences and ensures the teaching of all subjects. ICT is the basis to restructure teaching methods and assessment systems. It is possible to connect students of different schools and students who, for various reasons, can’t be in the classroom, and have remote meetings with disciplinary experts and/or tutors, etc.
In the second scenario one or more classes work on a common project and organise periodic meetings between teachers, students and/or experts who can use video conferences as well as other technological settings according to the type of project. In this case, the distance learning is not intended to replace the standard teaching practice, it becomes rather a complementary methodology for ‘traditional’ teaching that offers the advantage of optimising resources and professional services, as well as allowing greater opportunities for interaction between teachers, students and their families.
The project foresees support actions mainly focused on school staff training and functional technology set to try out the new teaching models. Our goal is to systematise a national network of small schools.