Friday, July 28, 2006

The Moodle Muddle - a message from DfES

This post is pretty much a word-for-word reprint of what's just arrived in the Naace Members' Newsletter... written by Colin Hurd, quotes from whom appear elsewhere in this blog (find them yourself!)

DfES colleague Colin Hurd writes:

"The Moodle Muddle
It's been suggested by some that the DfES is against Moodle. This is most definitely not the case. Let's start with the big picture. UK Government studies have previously suggested that the use of open source software (OSS) within the UK public sector can provide a viable and credible alternative to propriety software and lead to significant cost savings. The Cabinet Office eGovernment Unit took the lead on OSS from October 2004. Further information can be found on its website at . In particular you will find the policy for OSS available in a pdf document. Key points are that the:

  • UK government will consider OSS solutions alongside proprietary ones in IT procurements. Contracts will be awarded on value for money basis
  • UK government will only use products for interoperability that support open standards and specifications in all future IT developments

So Moodle is fine provided that it's the right and value for money solution taking into account the total cost of ownership (TCO) e.g. the software might be free but support isn't. You can find out more about TCO and OSS in schools on Becta's website at

DfES recognises that there is a strong following for OSS and for Moodle in particular, supported in its development by both the Open University and the University of Lancaster. But there is an issue around the development of the learning platforms framework agreement, due to be announced by Becta in early January 2007, and OSS. Since OSS products do not originate from an industry supplier's product they are unlikely to be included on the framework.

The framework agreement covers a set of quality assured functions including, for example, training and reliable first-line telephone support that conform to agreed functional and technical specifications and standards. Together these create a full service that will enable coherence across education, allowing mobility of learners and their data, as well as a stable and consistent arena for content developers and providers. Part of Becta's role is to assess suppliers and monitor their performance throughout the period of the agreement.

DfES supports fully Becta's framework strategy because schools must have a mechanism that enables them to install learning platforms that can exchange information and provide a robust, reliable and cost effective service. Without these schools will not get the full benefits.

One key aim is to reduce the technical burden on schools. Schools' self-development of any OSS product has a cost (not least time and effort) and is not, contrary to popular belief, free. The framework agreement will support interoperability and economies of scale through aggregation as provision will ideally be contracted as a fully supported (one-stop-shop) service to schools from local authority or regional broadband consortium providers. This does not preclude other collaborative groupings provided they serve strategic needs and deliver best value for money solutions.

OSS products are unlikely to be included on the framework proper. But if they meet the functional and technical specifications requirements and are selected as the tool of delivery by any fully supported service provider, then a school is free to choose an OSS, including Moodle-based, service."

Colin Hurd []
DfES Head of Strategic Technologies
27 July 2006

Thanks Colin! Can I say a few things?

  • To my knowledge there isn't a popular belief that open source means free in terms of Learning Platforms - if you have read carefully what the Open Source movement says about "free" then anyone who can appreciate the difference between free beer and free speech will get this straight away. People who think it's free (in cash money terms) need to look up the difference between gratis and libre - which is the same difference between freeware and free software - I know that they look the same, but they aren't
  • As far as I know the only proponents of the view of "it's free (gratis) software/freeware" are those who use this position as a straw man which they use purely so they can knock it down with the "the price will bite you" (and then quote ludicrous figures in terms of projects involving Open Source software, in which the numbers (if they're true) say more about the management of the projects rather than the license of the software involved). Sorry about the number of brackets there.
  • Can I challenge the DfES and Becta to do something? If it's recognised that there's a strong following for Moodle (and not just Moodle but viable Open Source Software in general across education) - then why not take it seriously, and guide and inform the development and adoption of it so that it becomes a viable option without being demonised (as has happened in a number of situations recently). Why not ask people who are using it strategically to work together with Becta (some with considerable recognised success), so that schools / LAs / anyone who's considering using OSS has an authoritative source of information rather than the (mis?)information, fear, uncertainty & doubt and disparaging comments that have been doing the rounds recently (and admit that there have been times when the DfES angle has been at best inconsistent, and at worst hostile, to the idea of Open Source - and even if it wasn't that's how it's been interpreted by a number of authorities, which probably says something). Some advice or guidance from Becta about using OSS with specific reference to the arena of Learning Platforms would be invaluable - it would serve the purpose of both the advocates of something like Moodle and its detractors - namely allowing people to make informed, authoritative decisions based on case studies, experience and fact rather than simply reading blog posts or increasingly polarised discussions on mailing lists and forums. Knowing when not to use Moodle is as important as knowing that you might be able to use it at all - I'm sure that it'd be possible for Becta to furnish their audience with this information, or at least the resources to make an informed decision, in a very short space of time.

There are a whole group of people that would love to hear from you, but thanks for saying what you've said, it's very timely.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

MoodleMoot - Day 1, Part 1

On what's not actually The Hottest Day Of The Year but feels like it might be, I'm at the Open University for the MoodleMoot 2006. There are nearly 250 people here - it's almost unrecognisable from the first one I went to two years ago, and significantly bigger than last year's effort. Martin Dougiamas is here and will be speaking tomorrow morning.
First up this morning was Niall Sclater - VLE director of the OU. His was a very interesting presentation about the OU's investment in Moodle both in terms of time, organisational and financial resources. It was really interesting and my overall impression was that it put all of the other commercial "buy our product and you won't worry" Learning Platform / VLE providers in perspective - seriously, there's nothing compared to this, it's going to be far bigger and far more significant than anything else, and that's before hearing about the OU's Open Content Initiative. Looking at my notes, significant input in these areas:

  • Custom roles - any number of customisable roles including the potential for a role of Parent, which users having certain rights to participate in certain modules, rather than having a course-wide or site-wide 'right'
  • Accessibility - improving the functionality of Moodle with a screen reader such as Jaws
  • Asynchronous communication tools - improvements to wikis, blogs, forums
  • Synchronous tools - including FlashMeeting and BuddySpace
  • Calendar tools - including sync with wireless / mobile devices
  • Mobile Learning - including an announcement that Intel are going to investigate the development of an offline browser which would synchronise with Moodle, both for mobile and desktop clients
  • ePortfolio - an integrated tool within Moodle which should be available in (I think) early to mid-2006

After this session we hurried what seemed like a mile across the campus to a very warm room where Ray Le Couteur talked about his experience of Moodle in a secondary school. He's very much come from an enthusiast's position which has spread throughout the school, which was interesting. Greg Hodson and Katie Bownes are here (we're presenting this afternoon) and Greg and I weren't sure about Ray's assertion that activities weren't really appropriate for secondary level education (and presumably wouldn't apply to primary level as well) - and there was quite a bit of evidence from people in the room that they've found activities are effective and a core part of using Moodle in school. I think Greg will mention that this afternoon as part of what we're doing.

Right now I'm listening to Miles Berry's reflections on being asked by Naace to develop a CPD Toolkit around Learning Platforms. The man has a depth of reading that I probably couldn't manage if I gave up my day job. There are reflections from FutureLab, the Schools White Paper and all over the shop.

Next up in the Schools Track is Steve Hyndman and three colleagues from the Model Laboratory School in Kentucky. It's worth coming just for Steve's accent (do you think he thinks the same about British accents? probably not). Melissa Lindsey (4th grade teacher - 9 & 10 year old kids) is demonstrating a really nice and simple use of a course. Liese Rhodus teachers 7th & 8th grade (middle school) and has her own class page, but currently without student enrolments, so it's more like static resources with details of homework rather than active assignments. Finally Susan Neumann teaches at a High School and uses a wide range of Moodle units in her class.

Right, lunch!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Questions (and answers) about Elgg

If you're ever in Oxford and the relatively heavy weight of all that technology in your oh-so-stylish computer bag begins to mock your aching back with a cry of you brought me all this way and didn't use me? then I can recommend Green's Cafe in St Giles - just north of the City Centre. Fairly traded everything, although I can't be sure how the electricity that powers their free wifi access is generated, it's a fairly good bet that it comes from a green energy supplier or something.
I met Ben Werdmuller upstairs after he cycled in and I fought the roadworks near the Thornhill Park & Ride. Ben is one half of the core team behind the rather wonderful Elgg and we spent a few hours talking about ePortfolios in general and using Elgg at a school level in particular - much like Miles Berry has done at St Ives in Haslemere which has generated a few articles in the media.
So I had lots of questions answered - Elgg is much more configurable than the test installation we've got on the Atomwide servers would appear to be - most stuff is held in a config file which isn't currently manipulated through a form, but rather by direct editing of the file. This will apparently be changed in the next release or so, and it also looks like it's possible to tweak the Elgg code so that certain individuals (we call them nominated contacts for each school in Bucks) can see the data (i.e. file storage) of other non-privileged users from their institution (aka 'students') in the Elgg world. This probably all seems to be a little abstract (it makes sense in my head, so that's OK for me thank you), so maybe my next post should be about how I think a learning landscape like Elgg fits in with what we're doing with Moodle across a local authority and what's coming down the pipe (careful) from the DfES and Becta. However, it's too hot to post that today, and I've a presentation to co-write for the MoodleMoot on Tuesday. Maybe the two could be essentially the same? Hmm...

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Phew, What A Scorcher.

title has nothing to do with the contents, it's just The World's Hottest Day today...
This morning started with a meeting in one of our local Grammar schools, who are interested in creating podcasts to give students a sense of audience (as well as a real audience) - and emulating Ricky Gervais's success in dominating iTunes would only be a spin-off, but a nice one. As the school doesn't yet have a VLE, it's really important that any use of a VLE is part of a whole-school move, hopefully documented in a development plan or strategy document... however, there's so much potential for this, probably even a podcasting-based scheme of work, that I hope we get to move on with it.
Around lunchtime I met with four Year 13 students & Greg Mr Hodgson from Chalfonts to reflect on their use of ChaCCLE for their A2 Contextual Study over the past year. We sat outside a pub, drank diet Coke, tried to avoid the sunshine and recorded the audio of the conversation on a video camera in the middle of the table. Like yesterday, here are some appropriately edited quotes...

Even if (the VLE) is there just to post work on then it’s still worth it
Some people are too lazy to use it.
I was really anti-it at first, but it was problems with having a login, when I actually started to use it it did help.
(A classmate) always did loads of research for everyone else through the VLE .
In group discussions you don’t take notes or remember what people say, so the VLE is more useful.
I’m up at 1am and can’t sleep, everyone else has gone, you can’t MSN or call them, so you have time to yourself (to work) – I could work and do a bit of research, read other people’s work and put my own comments up. I probably wouldn’t have read a book at that time.
Having deadlines was good – it made everyone post stuff and that helped, you have a framework to work in. Otherwise we would have done it, but it would have dragged more.
Try and get the teachers to go on it more.
It helped putting up chapters ‘cos then you could read everyone else’s work.
You could see other people’s writing styles – you wouldn’t have read other people’s work if it were handed out to you on a piece of paper.
It was good to see how other people laid out their work.
I can’t think of many subjects that it wouldn’t be useful in.
They tried to start it in (another subject) but we got no feedback so it was pointless.
In Psychology you could use it to learn each other’s essays – we normally put them on our own areas (on the network) so you only see your own.
There are teachers who would take to this, but teachers in (another department) wouldn’t be ready for it.
Not every student would do this – not everyone has computer access.
99% of them do – and the others can use it in school.

Thanks to Ellie, Lauren, Michael, Jenny and Mr Hodgson...

My final school visit this afternoon was to a school which isn't on the BucksGfL but still wants to do Moodle. There are a number of schools like this across the Authority and it's always a difficult balancing act between ensuring that everyone gets to use the tools and insisting that they're involved in the collaborative / corporate infrastructure. There's no point in dismissing a school's reasons for going their own way but at the same time I'd be doing them a disservice not to point out that the government's vision (actually, "vision" sounds a little too grand, let's say "idea") and targets are based around schools working with one another rather than creating islands of practice (both bad and good) in isolation.

Anyway, we left it that we'd pilot using Moodle in the school in a few curriculum areas, with a view to demonstrating it to other staff once a few groups of students and staff had got used to the idea.

Tomorrow I'm going to Oxford to meet Ben Werdmuller, he of Elgg and all things ePortfolio, with a view to... well, I don't know, let's see!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

New York, Paris, London, er... Leicester?

There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about. (Oscar Wilde)

If that's a measure of anything, then what's it like have people warned about you? A good thing? In the past few months a couple of large organisations have published a couple of odd documents which come down pretty heavily on anyone thinking of using Open Source to attempt to provide the more significant elements of a Learning Platform.
First up were Leicestershire LA, who published a document which stated that:

"The DfES does not support the idea of schools using ‘Open Source’ software such as Moodle as these systems rely too heavily on local technical skill and the systems do not aid collaboration between schools."

The document labours under the same misapprehension as a number of communications from the DfES that "open source" and "Regional Broadband Consortia / Local Authorities" cannot co-exist in the same sentence - but I can't really blame Leicester when there are inconsistent messages coming from the DfES. The document kicked off a bit of a storm on Miles Berry's blog - but it couldn't be that simple, could it? I emailed the advisory team at Leicester and got a response from them which outlined their mostly reasonable take on things, including:

  • some of the Leicester team use Moodle within their RBC
  • they are not anti Open Source in general or anti-Moodle in particular
  • there's one "Moodle" school in Leics and several have "Moodling" departments
  • they don't want schools going down a "relying on one expert to run their VLE" route

However, there were a few misunderstandings, chief of which were:

  • the idea that Moodle didn't meet the for interoperability, shibboleth, SSO (that's Single Sign-On), MIS integration from multiple sources or scalability
  • the idea that they needed to employ Moodle developers (refer to the Top 10 Moodle Myths)

Well, I emailed back sharing our experience in Buckinghamshire - that the scaleability, interoperability, SSO and Shibboleth integration were all sorted as far as we're concerned. As for MIS integration - well, once Becta or the DfES or anyone decides what sort of things will be integrated, then we'll have something to measure against. Until then... well, there must be a reason that Capita are using Moodle, surely?

This whole area reared its ugly but strangely recognisable head over the last week or so, when the London Grid for Learning (VLE/LP software of choice: Dilating a Rib) published a document so full of statements intended to provoke Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt that it was mentioned in NaaceTalk, done to death at EduGeek and again generated a long tail of comments at Miles's blog. I could burble on about the inconsistencies of the document, but Miles has already done a thorough job on that, so go read!

My take on it is - the document spends an inordinate amount of time trying to discredit the option of Open Source (using numbers pulled seemingly from thin air - I See No References), while admitting that constructivism might actually be not a bad way to learn stuff all things considered (though I don't personally feel that using Moodle forces you down the route of any particular learning style - it's just that it supports social constructivism very well). Actually, the more I read the document the less well-written it appears - apologies to Mr Stirrup who wrote it, but that's just what it appears to me, something written to sow doubt rather than inform. Of course I'm biased, but I've used DigitalBrain and have to laugh out loud when an (unsurprisingly) anonymous comment on Miles's blog post (search down the page for "geek") says that Moodle is far harder to use than DB and that only geeks would use it. Try telling that to the primary school kids I interviewed today - and their teachers, who would recoil at the notion of being "geeks". Also, if I'd invested that much in a large scale supplier of anything, I'd be nervous too if it looked like I hadn't made the best decision. Let's be honest, here in Buckinghamshire we've invested time (but not that much money) in offering Moodle as an integrated, scaleable, interoperable VLE solution as part of a modular learning framework for our schools, so if something better comes along then of course I'll be concerned - but more concerned that we're not offering our schools best value, appropriate functionality and support, and if we can do it better than we are now then we will (if I have anything to do with it). However, taking a head-in-the-sand approach and using what seems like misinformation to maintain a status quo that might mean that many, many schools and learners aren't being offered an appropriate alternative can't be the way to go, can it? Or am I missing a trick here.

Tomorrow will be spent looking at podcasting at one of our Grammar schools, interviewing chatting to some Year 13 students about their use of Moodle, and visiting another grammar school where the Business Studies and ICT staff can't wait to get started on their Moodle over the summer. All this on the hottest day of the year - pass the wet towel please...

Discupulus Vox

Today I called in at Winslow to (partially) plan what Katie Bownes, Greg Hodgson and I will present at next week's MoodleMoot. While I was there I mentioned how I was meeting some of Year 13 from Chalfonts tomorrow and how it would have been great to get chat to some of the Winslow pupils who'd been among the first to use Moodle through WinsLE. Well, what with it being the last few days of term... ten minutes later I was chatting with half a dozen Year 5 and 6 pupils, recording what they said using Audacity.
Here are some (edited for clarity) quotes from them about their use of the VLE. I particularly like the last three.

I like the fact that we do more ICT.
It makes us feel more grown up... my older brothers and sisters are always doing work using ICT...
It's not like numeracy where we have it every day.
Our teacher could see who's done what.
We have to do things in proper grammar.
I'm not allowed to go on the computer at home to do homework 'cos we have loads of books on virtually every subject, I have to read those first.
My Mum thinks the VLE's clever because she's never set foot on a computer.
It took the whole car journey home
(to explain the VLE to Mum)
My Mum doesn't really know much about the work we do on there other than the work that I've shown her.
It doesn't underline spelling errors like Word does.
I type
(my homework)
up in Word and then paste it into the VLE.
I type my homework straight into the VLE then copy & paste it into Word to print it.
I want to do more of this next year.
Year 4 could use this...
I think we should have done more work on the VLE.... I think we should have had stuff that we
to do on it
If we did
(a particular "mystery" project)
on the VLE then you wouldn't have to give out sheets of paper, and the teachers could send us clues, and you don't lose the sheets of paper.
One of the people
(who doesn't have home internet access)
in my class goes to the Library 'cos you get half an hour free.
I hope that when we get up to secondary school that the VLE gets put in, 'cos I really like it.
Is it going to carry on next year?
I really hope that it goes in the secondary school.
Next year you should include more people in the VLE.
Year 3 and 4 should have a go as well.
I showed it to my
(younger) brother (in Year 2)
and he said it was cool.
I think there should be a special, easy-to-use VLE for younger children...
...possibly an after-school club.
Year 4s have to make a nursery book... when they show it to Reception they could go into the ICT room and show them on the VLE.
I think Year 3s would be really interested in it...
You could put things on there to help them with their Literacy and Maths.
The teachers could show them the VLE in Year 3 but I don't think they should start it until Year 4.
My Dad went on the VLE each time and printed out a copy (of the success criteria) to help me with my homework.
My Mum & Dad said it was really useful and that we were really lucky to have it as a primary school.
We'll be able to tell our grandchildren when they're using it that we were the first people to use a VLE...
...and they'll say "Shut up, it's so boring and old-fashioned"...
...and they'll prod you with your walking stick...

Thanks to Miss Bownes and the Year 5 and 6 pupils from Winslow! Tomorrow I'm meeting some Year 13s from Chalfont - who do you think will be more talkative?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Twenty or so schools in a room

A long day starts with my successfully vacuuming my own car (see previous posting) and ends with a list of twenty schools on a piece of paper.
I collected Tony Richardson from High Wycombe Station and we drove to Chalfonts Community College to meet with Greg Hodgson (Leader for Art at CCC) and Dan China (County Adviser for Art) to show Tony what's been done at the school through the use of the Chalfonts VLE. It was interesting to sit out on the terrace that's rather cunningly built-in to the Art block and reflect on where the school's got to in two years.
Chalfonts run an unendorsed GCSE in Digital Art (moderated by Edexcel)and also run a wide variety of other Art courses that are fully supported by the VLE. I sat back, listened and munched my lunch as the others discussed the use of this sort of technology in teaching art, the fact that the Digital Art courses are packed with boys wanting to do something creative, how the art they create is more "them" - i.e. derived from short videos taken on a mobile than the skull and bowl of fruit they might be expected to draw in a traditional art course, and how the progression from year to year is frightening. As an illustration of this, towards the end of our lunch break we looked at some examples of the VLE work in the digital art room (a room in the Art block equipped with a decent number and spec of computers) - at the end of this we were joined by a Year 7 group who have not long started using Flash after using PhotoShop for a year. They have already been rotoscoping using Flash over digital video - something that the previous Year 10 GCSE students have been doing - so what on earth will these students be doing in Year 10? I can't wait...
After Chalfonts we travelled to Disraeli School for the High Wycombe / Beaconsfield Primary VLE Meeting - something that's been long in the planning and late in the execution (down to me, that one...). I supplied the strawberries and bite-sized cakes and the school provided the conference room, tea and coffee and an excellent impromptu demonstration of Doodle (think Disraeli crossed with Moodle...) by Roz Burch, the ICT co-ordinator. We had about thirty people - as well as sixteen primary schools, representatives from four local secondaries were there, which I hope was useful in some way. Most people took copies of the DfES Learning Platforms - Making IT Personal booklet. I think everyone liked the idea of sharing resources and I think a number of the primaries will join together in a group and work together with the schools in the Aylesbury Vale group - I've already had a couple of emails this evening saying "yes please". The suggestion was made for a monthly afternoon Inset rather than the fortnightly after school Inset sessions that I floated - and that we should pay supply cover. Well, I'm always saying that if SLT in a school are committed to the idea of online learning then they should fund / release staff during the day - so why don't I take my own medicine? Let's see what we can do about funding something like that... (oh, and I forgot to take any decent pictures. That's what happens when you're at the front all the time). I hope the day was useful for everyone - Tony said it was nice to back into the real world of schools - it's also clear he's the World's Busiest Man. You'd be busy too if you were in charge of implementing the e-Strategy for Becta...
In other news, I'm having an email exchange about a system to support the sharing / rating / recommending of Moodle courses on a regional / national level... might just be pie in the sky, but it could be a great tool if we can implement it.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Modern Poddin' Languages

Today was spent with Ruth Wilkes (Buckinghamshire's MFL Adviser) and Geoff Roberts (MFL Consultant) and seven secondary MFL teachers on a course about Enabling Independent Learning in French - the bulk of which was using Audacity to prepare MP3 files for use in speaking and listening in French. Ruth and Geoff are launching the Primary MFL Scheme of Work this week, and it's anticipated that we'll be using a lot of the features of the main BucksGfL Moodle site to support this. As Moodle handles multimedia files really well (with the multimedia plugins filter turned on) it will be very easy to create a whole raft of resources for each part of the SoW - especially useful for non-specialist primary teachers who are having to teach aspects of MFL. Some of the staff there have used third party blogging services to create pupil blogs - with the advent of configurable blogs in 1.6 this will mean that students can have a much clearer idea of the audience their blog could potentially be seen by - just them, their group, their class, their school or the world...
Today's thing about Moodle 1.6 that I didn't know: you don't need the optional Ipodcast module in order to create podcasts in Moodle. Simply attaching a media file to a forum will deliver the file (audio and video? Now that would be nice) as a podcast in the forum's RSS feed. Ooh, I've just looked at the documentation... looks like it is true.
Tomorrow's main activity is meeting with a whole host of people - including Tony Richardson from Becta. We'll be going to Chalfonts Community College to look at some of the work under way there and then off to Disraeli School in High Wycombe in the afternoon for the first meeting of a group of primary schools in High Wycombe and Beaconsfield who will (I hope) start to use Moodle to work together in the Autumn Term. There will also be some local secondary schools there - so they'll have an idea of what's going to hit them soon (by which I mean Year 7 students who've been doing online learning for two or three years...).
My main concern about tomorrow? Not the required PowerPoint (check), nor the cakes and fruit for the meeting (check - will buy those from Tesco) - my car's a tip inside and I need to pick Tony Richardson up from High Wycombe station and drive him between the schools. Looks like a swift visit to my local "we'll hoover your car for a fiver" merchants beckons first thing tomorrow...

Thursday, July 06, 2006

So, did someone use a ruler to invent the centimetre?

Today I'm at Atomwide in a room full of LA and school users... I have the agenda in front of me and some of the interesting bits are...

  • Phil Chapman *is* a weatherman for a dayLive video feeds from birdboxes (warning: no birds yet...) and networked weather stations (neither strategic but both fun)
  • VLE/MLE/Portal/e-Portfolios/Blogging/Moodle/elgg (this wasn't really covered in the end, but Mark Granger from West Sussex and I came up with some plans for over the summer and the deployment of Moodle 1.6)
  • Moodle training courses and support
  • m-Learning, a report from the SEGfL study on mobile applications (again, not strategic but very cool)

The weather data is something that (at the risk of sounding like a thirtysomething going on twelve) is crying out for a Google Maps mashup - the ability to track an event (a cold front, any other climate event) over an area, initially in London but potentially over a wider area from data held in schools wouldn't be a new thing, but would still be good.

Which came firstOver lunch I had an interesting discussion with a couple of people and the question was posed - how were all of the tests for the Learning Platform framework specification drawn up? Assuming that all of the tests have been successfully completed by a learning platform at some point... what does that mean? Was it one learning platform in particular, or did a number of learning platforms achieve different tasks and hence the completion of these tasks were aggregated into the specification as tests? It seems that no-one knows, or at least no-one will tell. So are systems being measured against an existing (mythical?) system - but what was that system measured against? Which came first?

I also got to play with my own Moodle 1.6 (with Elgg integration) on the Atomwide test server - some of the new features in 1.6 are fantastic, the database module is great, blogs are useful and lots of the behind the scenes stuff are good. The Elgg integration is fairly basic, and critically Elgg itself appears not to be too configurable (as in "not enough" rather than "not too much"), but West Sussex and us will probably experiment with the integration over the summer and into next term, and may run Elgg separately from Moodle to ensure that it's what we need, and tackle the integration when Elgg is more mature (and our approach is, too). Plus, I'm meeting Ben Werdmuller next Thursday. But then, Capita use Moodle and Elgg - as someone said today, is this something that should encourage or discourage us from doing so? winkJoke!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Dear prudence

Part of this morning was spent at somewhere a world away from most larger secondary schools (up to about 2,000 pupils, extensive networks, well honed ICT development plans... well, maybe the first two). The Oaks PRU (Pupil Referral Unit) is in leafy Amersham, down the end of a long road where it looks like there are more people carriers than bikes. The staff who work in places like PRUs constantly amaze me, I visited the Wycombe Grange PRU a few times last year and the immediate feeling was of entering a family's home - one of those big, sprawling, extended, rough around the edges but likely to feature in a documentary somewhere in Liverpool type of families... (ah, that type of family)...
Anyway, the Oaks has 24 pupils. Six per day. The odd thing from a usernames and passwords standpoint is that the Oaks actually has no pupils associated with it - they're all pupils from other schools, referred to the Unit for a variety of reasons. PRUs are in an ideal situation to exploit a VLE - little access to pupils, many of whom are repelled by the idea of being in or near a school building, but dedicated staff who will invest time in supporting individual children. Fortunately with our user database it's possible to associate any pupil (or member of staff, or governor) with any number of schools (e.g regular school and a PRU), so that s/he can use her or his single BucksGfL username to access any Buckinghamshire Moodle on request, as well as webmail and videoconferencing through Breeze. Of course, that's the theory...
The reality is that usernames, an understanding of their importance and a successful implementation of them is (for my money) just about the key thing to making a learning platform or VLE workable. I've had about three conversations this week in various schools where the penny dropped after seeing how the usernames work and how important they are. Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign used a number of points internally to remind staff what was crucial to their success. Number 2 was (famously) The economy, stupid. If you're thinking of implementing any one system alongside any other then keep this mantra in mind (mainly saying it to yourself unless you want to offend people): The usernames, stupid.
As for usernames for parents? Don't even start me on that... that's for another, much longer post than this.
This afternoon was spent meeting an LA person from somewhere in London (call off the LGfL cops, we were only speaking hypothetically about using Moodle, but it's not the first time I've had a conversation like that with someone from inside the M25). Tomorrow I'm off to an LA meeting at Atomwide in Orpington. We'll talk Moodle, Elgg, upgrading to 1.6, server capacity... it's a long way and we start at 10, so I think I need to catch up on my sleep, and fast...

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Back to the secondaries via the starship Enterprise

This morning, along with a couple of colleagues who work for the Buckinghamshire Education Business Partnership, I was in a grammar school in High Wycombe. They are looking at carrying out an Enterprise Skills audit, and using a VLE to allow the students to record a journal, fill in a series of forms about how they're doing and for the teachers to be able to view what the students are saying and moderate it, which seems like a good thing. Not long into my explanation of what the system was and how it might support the audit, the Deputy Head asked "how is this different from a VLE?" (evidently I wasn't doing that good a job of explaining) and "how does this compare to Moodle?" (answer: it is Moodle)... so as part of their ICT development plan I'll be going in to support their development of this across the school, but starting with Enterprise. It also looks a useful way of using some of the functions of Breeze as well.
Later on I was sat in the Learning Resources Centre in Beaconsfield High School this afternoon, and after we'd finished meeting stepped out into the entrance hall and wished we hadn't. It was a hot, oppressive day and the busyness of having next year's Year 7 pupils/students in was nearly over. I climbed/staggered back to my car and as I drove across the road to The Beaconsfield School the temperature in the car's display read 32°C. I stopped briefly to talk to the Head at TBS, who I'm seeing next week, and drove back to Aylesbury.
On the way back I drove past a couple of the primary schools who will be attending the Wycombe/Beaconsfield Primary VLE meeting a week today, and started to wonder what it would take to change things so that (as someone commented earlier) doing this sort of thing is seen as something you do for life, not just the current spending round. I think I should at least invite as many secondary Heads as possible to either attend next week's meeting or at least send representation - because the kids who have experience of a VLE/Learning Platform for a couple of years who arrive at their schools in a couple of years are going to radically alter the way they see the use of technologies like this across the curriculum. Secondaries need to be aware of this - perhaps this change will be the tipping point, the event or circumstance that makes things happen.
On the way back it looked like the heat of the past few days might break, and for a while it did - a temperature drop of 11°C over a few short miles.

A temperature gradient can be caused by a front, or some other event - and the change in temperature in the whole area of online learning might be the funding being pumped in at the top, but it might just as well be the activity that's pestering those existing structures and ways of doing things that they might need to change or die...
Wikipedia also notes that rapid changes in temperature may cause discomfort and, in extreme cases, heat or cold stresses. Anyone out there stressed about this?

Monday, July 03, 2006

Working Smarter Together & A Different Drum

Today was Buckinghamshire's Working Smarter Together conference, held in the sun-baked atmosphere of Green Park near Aston Clinton. It was a day for primary schools in the county to come together and share good, interesting and innovative practice.
The day was based around a number of "stalls" with schools demonstrating what they'd done in things like Teaching and Learning, Networked Learning Communities and also through "learning conversations" - small seminars with schools presenting on what they'd been doing and using that as a stimulus for discussion. Katie Bownes and Emily Harris from Winslow had a stall on their use of WinSLE at Winslow and also led one of the learning conversations in the afternoon. The session was full and a number of people who are already using Moodle in their primary schools were there. I asked everyone present to guide me on the best way to proceed with the funding we have for personalised learning in the County - I've got questions around the best way to deploy CPD to support this. One comment from Paul Adams, who's currently very excited about what's happening on his school's Moodle, concerned whether or not we could fund development of good quality learning resources for Buckinghamshire schools to cover specific areas - something like KS2 Science was mentioned. If there are any providers of content out there and you could consider packaging resources that would sit well on a Moodle site (and no, I'm not talking SCORM here, that means nothing to people in schools - I'm looking along the lines of something that's more than just content, something that uses blogs, wikis, forums, assignments and uses them well) - then get in touch, it'd be nice to have a conversation. (Oh, and hello to all readers who work at RM, by the way).
A number of people in the session will be part of our Wycombe / Beaconsfield Primary VLE Group meeting a week tomorrow at Disraeli School in High Wycombe. We're hoping to have representatives from about 15 schools there and I'm hoping that Tony Richardson from Becta will be able to join us. The meeting will be a "launch meeting" - this is what a learning platform might look like in a primary school, this is what's on offer, here's what Disraeli have done, are you still interested/awake? The rules principles will include:

  • if you share what you create, you can use others' materials that they share
  • if you put the time in, then so will we (support from myself and ICT consultants where appropriate)
  • you'll be able to share resources from elsewhere (the Aylesbury Vale VLE group for example)
  • you should give read-only access to other users within the group to your VLE so they can watch your practise
  • I'll supply the cakes / biscuits / fruit when we meet (if I remember)

We already have one primary school who have encouraged a Governor to develop a Governor's section for their VLE, so that will be available as part of the group.

This all brings to mind a comment I read in what became an increasingly heated debate on VLEs on the naacetalk list, in which Moodle was mentioned a lot. Chris Stolberg (Strategic Technologies Division at DfES) was quoted by an LGfL person as having said "If anyone mentions Moodle and primaries in the same sentence I'll scream". At first I didn't think this was genuine but a certain antipathy towards anything that's not commercial is implied in the videos from the LGfL Learning Platform event... at 6m 12 secs onwards in video 1.

Well Chris, if you ever read this then please come and scream at us in Buckinghamshire - I'll buy you lunch and would love to show you a different way of doing things. I have to say that you seem to be confusing things - the nature of the Open Source licence and the assumption that an LA or RBC have to use a commercial package, while also making the assumption that someone using Open source software must also build it themselves. I wonder where you get your figures of commercial packages costing "a few hundreds or a few thousands of pounds" and Open Source as being "tens of thousands of pounds" (both at 7m 15 secs onwards in Video 1) and I guess that most people at the DfES are unaware that your employer's web site is running on Open Source software. Do you trust the DfES web site? Sorry if this is a bit of a rant, but I hope you can understand where I'm coming from... and as you've already spoken at an RBC that's using an Open Source package as a core part of its Learning Platform offering, I'm sure you know the many ways in which the wind is blowing... so please don't dismiss Open Source out of hand without thinking about it!