Monday, March 27, 2006

Content with the Content?

If you read Miles Berry's report on using a VLE in Primary Education then fairly early on you'll see a quote which says:

“A fully integrated VLE [may] not be appropriate for a primary school at this stage in VLE development” (Becta 2003)
This is taken from a 2003 Becta report which comes to what, at the time, were probably fairly safe conclusions. But what about now? The Learning Platform money will shortly be sloshing around and is surely going to change things. What other reason could there be for Espresso buying Netmedia? First of all it was funding for laptops, then whiteboards (neither of which are bad in themselves of course), now it's "Learning Platforms" - a phrase which, in certain hands, can be so vague as to cover just-about-any-piece-of-software-that-lets-you-login-to-a-web-site. Where do primaries fit into this? Following a few conversations with schools and vendors of "content", here are some thoughts...


Many software vendors want to sell schools a curriculum-in-a-box - that way it's an easier life (which everyone wants, so that's understandable) for the vendors and they get to offer Inset / training / further resources / licence upgrades to schools - a guaranteed revenue stream as long as the schools keep subscribing.

But what do schools want and how do they want to use the digital learning resources that their E-Learning Credits can buy? I heard this best articulated by Gerry Graham of Learning Teaching Scotland at a Becta Expert Technology Seminar on Content Creation and Management (watch his presentation if you've got Flash - jump to slide 10 to get a quick overview, but the whole presentation's worth watching and listening to, or you could just dowload the transcript, audio or slides). His title was The Scissors, Pritt-Stick and Paper approach to digital content creation - essentially saying that nobody uses stuff wholesale - they magpie stuff from everywhere - the internet, their old work, their colleagues' work and create their own content.

All of this makes the vendors' approach at odds with what teachers want - so the conversations I've been having recently with a few vendors are about disaggregating their content - breaking it down into the smallest possible chunks which can be used individually as appropriate. Some vendors seem to think that this means breaking their "mothership"-sized content into individual lessons - but it should go further than that. Rather than an entire lesson on maths or numeracy, if your content contains a good interactive protractor object then, as a teacher, shouldn't I be able to use that (and only that if I want to) to support my teaching and the children's learning - rather than have to swallow the whole of your lesson? Come to think of it, can I just buy that from you please?

Ask any teacher about the curriculum-in-a-box offerings from some vendors and they'll tell you that they are good in parts - but not everything's to a constant standard and/or the teacher's own individual taste. The way I see Moodle (and any learning environment) being used in conjunction with the sort of things that E-Learning Credits can buy in a primary school (actually, secondary schools as well) is taking the best of everything in appropriately sized chunks - one chunk from RM here, one from Granada Learning there, one from Pearson here, one from Nelson Thornes there, one I made myself, one someone in the school down the road made and one from Learn Premium (other software vendors are available, but you get the idea...).

So when the Espresso and NedMedia thing settles down - will they become inextricably linked? Will buying one saddle you with the other whether you like it or not? The quote at the top of this posting speculated (three years ago) whether VLEs were appropriate for primary schools - to my mind the bigger issues is whether the content vendors are selling their wares in a way that's useable by the schools who know what and how they want to use a VLE to support teaching - and it might not fit with the curriculum in a box model that's available everywhere...

Tomorrow's the launch of the little group of primaries based around Winslow who are (hopefully) going to explore the use of a VLE in primary teaching and learning. It's very exciting, I can't wait and we hope to replicate it in the south of the county soon after Easter...

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Roadshow comes to... Maidenhead

Ah, my teenage years... always wanting to go on the Radio 1 Roadshow when it came to Brighton, enter the Bits and Pieces quiz and win the mysterious Goodie Bag.
Well, that never happened and so the the South-East Grid for Learning Learning Platforms Roadshow Conference will have to do. Mike Woods and I were invited to give an overview workshop of what we've been up to in Buckinghamshire. There were about a hundred (or so) people there, mainly Headteachers / Senior Management, some LEA people and lots of 'learning platform vendors'. When I was asked to prepare something I thought it would be "one workshop to choose from many" - on seeing the programme it turned out there were only three. Oops.
The day began with a presentation from Barry Kruger from Becta (who I've just this received an email from about Moodle) on Becta's approach to learning platforms.
Next up was Greg Hill from SEGfL outlining what's happened in the region - a fairly simple answer might be "not much".
Most interestingly from my point of view was Steve Snowball from West Sussex, who we've been working closely with in the development of a common approach to Moodle with the folks at Atomwide. It was very interesting to see how they got to where they are - and very encouraging as well. It makes me think how much I could do with some support in working in schools in the area of learning platforms. My notes on Steve's presentation were the most extensive - talking to some Headteachers from Buckinghamshire afterwards they found it easily the most interesting of the first five presentations. There were presentations from Bill Gibbon of the DfES and the NCSL - the latter of which featured a clip from Teachers TV, including a clip of a I Survey Nit rep giving an vendor's vox pop on what a learning platform was - "a classroom without walls".
The view from the front of our workshopAfter coffee Mike and I were due to present in parallel with the other two workshops, so the large room was divided into three and after setting up I looked up to see our section of the room full to overflowing - extra chairs being put out, some people standing at the side, etc. Everyone was very pleasant despite my best attempts to send them to sleep by explaining about Moodle, Breeze, single sign-on, etc. As befits a Regional Broadband Consortium's meeting there was no access to the internet, so everything was done via a PPT of screenshots & video and the copy of Moodle running on my laptop. Most people were very positive afterwards and so many people wanted to ask questions that I nearly missed my lunch...
Lots of the questions were about using learning platforms in special schools - something that I'd love to explore, also a couple of people from Buckinghamshire and other L(E)As bordering it were interested on hearing about Learning Platforms - it's definitely something that's lacking awareness in primary schools. Also some people from within London asking about how to use Moodle in a grassroots effort which runs alongside (or under the radar of) the Dilating a Rib service that's the standard "VLE" in the capital.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

It's a long way to...

...Birmingham. However, it was sunny, which in my experience of the city is remarkable.
Today's event was Becta's Transforming Schools - which was intended to inform our vision for 21st Century Learning. Despite Buckinghamshire not being involved in any wave of the BSF (Building Schools for the Future) programme (except maybe the last one). There were lots of delegates - at events such as this and the Naace conference it's always informative to go through the delegate list and count the number of LA / schools people compared to the number of 'vendors'. The count? Well, obviously not all the listed delegates came, but from the list it was 95 LEA / schools people out of approx 158 on the list. Not bad - there were a few comments at the Naace conference about the lack of a delegate list.
The day consisted of a few keynotes and optional workshops. One of the keynotes was described to me as "a walkthrough of the MS Learning Gateway" - and for me the interesting thing was that, as far as people who've never seen anything better are concerned, the phrase "learning platform" is being replaced by "learning gateway" - either a slip of the tongue or a clever way of Microsoft trying to achieve a similar effect to "hoover" replacing the phrase "vaccum cleaner". It's not the first event where I've heard people talking about a "learning gateway" as if it was a common term. The amounts of money put into some of the ICT Test-Bed schools is staggering. £2.4m into one school? Of course they can afford multiple MS licences. Another LEA delegate speculated that the heads who presented about their Learning Gateway experiences had neglected to mention the cost and licensing issues - which are clearly significant.
The workshops I intended were interesting in parts but didn't show anything remarkable for the amount of investment involved.
The thing that really looked good was the Aqua Browser as part of the Dudley Live2Learn Learning Journey A cross between a mind map / interactive data cloud, a previewable search engine and a catalogue of resources, it's really something to behold - see a different library-based demo here. It would appear that the aim is to make this available to all schools - if so this would be a really useful alternative to Google et al...
In other news, got back from Birmingham to find out that the video interview that I'd done on the Help Us Get To BETT stand ended up being published... here's the overview video and here's the Moodle-specific one.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A Wimba Way

Not Moodle related - actually, that's not true, the content is Moodle related, but the technology is far removed in that it didn't work very well...
This evening on the Naace list was a post from Drew Buddie, saying that he was doing a presentation ("Riding the Moodle Wave - using Moodle to enhance teaching & learning") about Moodle online. It's based in yet another "virtual classroom" system called Horizon Wimba. It worked OK (eventually), but the setup process was very very laborious - lots of installing of Java applications and the only way I could get the audio working was to disable my firewall - something that didn't engender a lot of confidence in me.
Something like Breeze is (to my mind) far easier to use (as well as being less clunky), but Drew's (audio and slides) presentation came across well. The system worked, but it was a very geeky environment - lots of new windows popping up, particularly for application sharing. For anyone who doesn't like playing around with technology but would rather watch a presentation, Breeze is (in my opinion) a far better bet, mainly as it's all done through Flash, which streamlines the "getting access to the lecture / presentation" stage much more smooth. Should you want to view it (it's about an hour) here's the archive (Quicktime required, apparently). Partially it's clearly a marketing thing for HW (understandably) who also make CourseGenie, which is a tool to make Office documents etc. into learning objects.
Tomorrow is a day in Birmingham at a Becta seminar on Transforming Schools - which appears to take cues from the BSF (Building Schools of the Future) programme. I'll be interested to see how the technology angle is pitched, and hope to talk to some people from Becta as a follow-up to some enquiries I made at Naace.
On Thursday is the Buckinghamshire ICT Conference, where I'll give some information on the learning platform we're offering to schools in Buckinghamshire - two of the major components of which are Moodle and Breeze.
Then finally, next week is the local SEGfL (South-East Grid for Learning) Learning Platforms Roadshow in Maidenhead on the 22nd March. Mike Woods and I will be leading (or contributing to, I'm not sure) a session described as "Local Authorities and schools outline their experiences from the introduction of Learning Platforms in their establishments. These workshops will demonstrate the benefits and pitfalls in an informal setting". Right, better get writing then...

Sunday, March 12, 2006

TES gets both barrels

On the TES site, Leon Cych writes:

...a different angle on the we're not top-down enough answer from Doug Brown at this year's Naace conference forum

and also

addresses the whole "Moodle and the learning platforms" things. Stop hanging about here and go read 'em!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Jason speaks! The Guardian writes!

Leon Cych has a podcast of Jason Cole of the Open University, ├╝berMoodler and author of the O'Reilly Moodle book.
Lots of news about blogs, new features, how to get yourself asked to write an O'Reilly book - plus useful information about what to expect from the relationship between Moodle and the OU.
Some really interesting news about groups of Moodle sites working together, using the concept of a Moodle 'hub' - so that teachers across an LEA could share courses so that they can easily be discovered and downloaded by other teachers, within the LEA, RBC or the entire nation?
There's a teaser near the end of the podcast that Jason doesn't expand on... my guess (and that's all it is) is that it's to do with a videoconferencing / collaboration tool - after all the OU did the I-really-like-this-it's-cool HexChat.
In other news, I came across a Moodle-themed cartoon in today's Guardian - which turned out to be accompanying a brief note about some of what Greg and Katie are doing at Chalfonts and Winslow... hurray for them!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Google as an ePortfolio

Seeing Andrew Flowerdew's presentation at the Naace conference on The Learner, the School and the Wider Community reinforced some things I'd been thinking around recently. There are a number of discussions between us here in Buckinghamshire and Atomwide (and similar issues in West Sussex) around ePortfolio storage solutions - should the LEA stump up for portfolio storage space or should individual schools cover this aspect of a VLE...
Anyway, this got me to thinking about GMail (or GoogleMail as it must now be known in the UK). Google are offering a raft of services which could easily form aspects of an online portfolio...

  • GMail - 2Gb of storage plus email (!) and chat facilities
  • Could setting up GMail for domains mean that it would be possible to control aspects of access and sharing?
  • Google Pages - the oh my gosh you really can do that online web page creation tools (bundled with 100Mb of storage space) - here are my Google Pages set up as a very simple online portfolio.
  • Google Reader to amalgamate feeds from wherever - most of these are other people's information sources, but there's no need why they couldn't be my Flickr pictures, my 43 Things, my current playlist / reading list / wishlist, etc. etc.
  • an anticipation that the the long-coming GDrive will soon arrive in a world of infinite storage - here's an interesting quote:
    ...As we move toward the "Store 100%" reality, the online copy of your data will become your Golden Copy and your local-machine copy serves more like a cache. An important implication of this theme is that we can make your online copy more secure than it would be on your own machine...

Sound like a very useful portfolio anyone? Let's face it, children are going to be entering schools with existing rafts of online information - should we expect them to incorporate this into our systems, or simply tap in to what's already there. It's a similar argument to the portable devices such as PSPs, iPods, phones, etc. - should we supply children with restricted versions of PDAs or instead make our systems flexible so that they can use their technology to effectively aid learning? Of course, Google's not the only provider of these services, but using them helps me refine my thinking - others are of course available...

[Alternatively, if you don't want to wait for the GDrive and have a GMail account, you could always use another third party application to use your GMail account storage as an effective network drive. Above is how it looks on your (XP-based computer), below is how it appears in your GMail Inbox]


Ultimately what I'd love to see what be the Moodle profile page linking with all sorts of external data sources... but maybe that's a job for Elgg, which we're looking at using for a first step into the world of online portfolios. It looks like Elgg requires Apache though, which might make things interesting at Atomwide...

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Moodle-on-Sea Part 3b

This afternoon has been filled with discussions with publishers - looking at incorporating some of the widely available digital learning materials into school Moodles to see how learners and teachers can use them. I've got some SCORM-compliant material for KS3 Maths (mainly Acrobat - teachers' notes - and Flash - interative activities) from Nelson Thornes and am looking to get some content, or at least ideas on how to use existing content resources, from Pearson. This avenue will probably be most useful for the series of small groups of primary schools which we hope will soon start using Moodle based on some practice around.
Currently speaking is Keri Facer from Nesta Futurelab about games - her take on Machinima - digital art in the realm of the Red vs Blue stuff which
screeshot of Kampus Learning Environment report cardI've seen at one of the Becta Expert Technology seminars before...
Part of it is all about learning environments - the work that Drew Buddie and I did with Kampus for Design Challenge Ms. Facer's own Futurelab - reminds me that a long time ago we speculated that Moodle could be modified to support:

    Screenshot of Kampus interface and classroom
  • avatars - possibly one or more per student/pupil
  • a visual environment which could be built in a modular fashion - a series of Moodle 'courses' represented as isometric Sims-style 'rooms'

So is that it for another year? I've seen more of Moodle, heard more discussions about it and been asked more about it then I have at any other Naace event - which is to be expected I guess, but it's welcome nonetheless... there's a rumour (?) that next year we'll be in London, so it's au revior to Torquay...

Moodle-on-Sea Part 3a

First session on Thursday morning was Personalised Learning in a Secondary School done by some people from Wildern School in Hampshire. Guess what they're using? A nice implementation, with various modifications to enable interaction with MIS (inlcuding mention of a mythical open-source MIS) although in my view it's not a very sustainable model. One comment I heard was that it's a "virtual teaching environment" - lots and lots of documents uploaded, etc. etc. and the presentation talked about the use of Assessment for Learning but there was no real use of the AFL tools with Moodle, and no ad-hoc use of something like a forum for peer assessment.
Mind Map created during Wildern School VLE presentationThings that I learned or were reinforced by this session - you can also click on the mind map I did during it at right to see it in larger form - were:

  • because (most) students 'get' this much quicker than (some) staff do, any 'student voice' area of a VLE can have explosive growth and provide opportunities for students / pupils to take responsibility, have technical input, maybe evening take some editorial control. This can also permeate into other areas.
  • any successful VLE development will rely on having champions / heroes / the pathologically devoted - however the real test is what happens when they leave? The three staff from Wildern are clearly impassioned and committed, however I feel a real assessment would be obtained by asking those in the school community who aren't leading the VLE project.
  • the wider / larger / scarier national agenda on data transfer means that a school can't simply develop its own data transfer and management structures without worrying about what regional and national requirements are.
  • there's more to a VLE than simply putting everything online (the "paper behind glass" approach) - a careful consideration of how a VLE will affect or reflect classroom practice and a school's culture is really important.
  • is improved student motivation enough on its own to pronounce any ICT implementation? Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, I'm unsure...

Second session (where I'm sitting now) is Blogging in Schools with David Ford - the theme tune it starts off with the opening track from A Grand Don't Come For Free - big grins all round.
Apparently there are 8 people in the room with blogs... should you care, the FrapprMap will show you where they are. While you're there why not look at the UKMoodlers or WorldMoodlers maps as well?
Unsurpringly for this conference, where the unreliabilty of access to the internet in every location (including the conference centre), there's no or at best a "here for five seconds, gone for ten minutes" access to the internet... hmm.
David was really good and, lack of internet access notwithstanding, there were lots of good thoughts about the ethos (or the "why?") of blogging in schools As good as anything I've heard since Alan November spoke on blogs - although more impassioned and with an angle more relevant to the UK education environment.
With the advent of blogs (replacing the Journal module) in Moodle 1.6, I'll be interested in a practical, sustainable implementation of this publishing tool. David outlined classes of blogs...

  • Secret garden - within a school or class, only acccessible from there
  • Walled garden - something like Think.com
  • One way street - a blog with comments turned off
  • Automatic traffic management - moderation of comments, automatic email notification of comments, posts etc.
  • Two-way traffic - usual commenting on blogs
  • Spaghetti junction - multi-author collaborative environments

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Moodle-on-Sea Part 2

Wednesday - today is the exhibition, which as it's normally on the Thursday of the conference (isn't it?) makes it feel like things are nearly over. Anyhoo, a few things happened (both here and elsewhere):

  • Caught the end of a session on Open Source futures in education by Mike Banahan. Looked like quite a good overview, quoting savings at Sir Frederic Osborn School in my current home town of WGC of something like £120,000 by converting to a Linux desktop. A conversation with an ex-colleague at Hertfordshire would indicate that there's more to this than meets the eye though...
  • Andrew Flowerdew gave an excellent presentation on The Learner, the School and the Wider Community which went a good way to illustrating how a much more organic view of a learning platform spec might look - including inputs from 43Things, Flickr, etc. etc. The whole area of Children's Services means that this will be critical, again sets me thinking about how I want to intergrate Elgg with our Buckinghamshire Moodles, but also about the organisational thinking that'll have to happen to make this a reality.
  • Finally, almost as an aside, this little document appeared in the wild for the first time. The Learning Services Framework Agreement looks like the most dull thing in the world, but it could be one of the more critical things in the area of school implementations of learning platforms. Two criteria in section III.2.2 for companies wanting to bid appear to be:
    1. A least three years of audited accounts and
    2. A net worth of more than £700,000

This would appear to be tailor-made for [insert name of commercial provider here] and rule out something like an open source solution, but could there be an opportunity for someone who hosted an open source learning platform, or at least a solution using a number of tools including open source, to bid for that? We shall see...