Tuesday, March 13, 2007

When you shouldn't have a Learning Platform - even if it involves Moodle

So, Learning Platforms. They're the answer to everything, right? The Solution For Personalising Learning (note the use of personalising (verb) rather than personalised (adjective) - it's a process not a tick-box). The way of Extending Your School. The (insert your achievement here). Whatever.

Well, I went to something this morning which made me think long and hard about things... more than a few months ago some schools from Slough came to Disraeli school to find out a little bit more about what we were doing in Buckinghamshire and about a month ago I was due to give a presentation to what was effectively another Learning Platforms beauty contest - RM, UniServity, Fronter, Pearson, etc. etc. in a "look at us we're lovely" competition for schools from Slough. Atomwide were there as they could supply Moodle and representatives from two of our schools were due to be there as users of the system. However, then came The Great Snow (all 3 inches of it) and travel from the north of Bucks was not possible, however Paul McKinnon from Atomwide travelled to Slough and we improvised a Breeze meeting from my house to give some examples of schools' uses of Moodle.

This meeting was effectively a selection process for "finalists" - and Atomwide were asked, along with Fronter, UniServity and eTech (the other three all being rest assured - it's Becta-procured (ooh, it rhymes!) providers) with Atomwide being the odd one out. Paul from Atomwide asked me to go along to give the user's perspective on Moodle - but we wanted to give a particular angle as, from our point of view, Slough appears to be in a particular set of circumstances...

As far as I understand it (if I'm wrong please correct me with a comment on this posting), Slough's "grid for learning" consists of a series of EasyNet broadband feeds with an Equiinet NetPilot on the end to provide filtering and edge-caching. My understanding is that there's not much centralised thinking or activity and the authority has cut down on its ICT team, so schools don't have a lot of direction in this area (again, please correct me in a comment if I'm wrong, I'm happy to hear the truth if it's different).

The Becta procurement framework is interesting - to me it appears to assume that (95% of?) schools and LAs are in the preferred position of having an underpinning, robust infrastructure around which to build a learning platform, either in a modular fashion (our approach) or by buying something off the peg. Slough isn't in that position - there's no unified sign on system for schools wanting to work together, or to support school-long, cross-phase or even cross-school learning and as far as I can tell this won't be addressed by the procurement of some sort of Learning Platform.

I see our username system and common infrastructure in Bucks as being the foundational requirements for any activity which requires more than one school to work on it - these things are the pegs anchored securely in the ground; reference points to which other activities / technologies / ideas can be attached - get these mostly right (or at least know where you're going with them) and you have a starting point for other activities - without them it's an exercise in frustration and constant false dawns.

The best analogy would be buying a house and finding that the wiring's dodgy, that there are three pin round, two pin and three pin rectangular plug sockets in there - rewiring is what you do before decorating, before you plug a kettle in, before you plug the hoover in... it can be messy but when it's done properly you know everything else works.

Hence today our presentation wasn't all about Moodle - I can (and did) show some typical VLE functions, but we wanted to ask more questions, such as... based on our experience in Bucks

  • What (if any) parts of any necessary infrastructure & support model
    • are in place?
    • don’t yet exist?
    • could never happen
  • Which of these are essential / desirable?
  • How much of this are you willing to devolve to a commercial 3rd party?
The last question asks Who do you want to define the pedagogy? - your own teachers and learners, or a commercial company whose view of online learning is (for obvious reasons) tied to the way their product facilitates learning? We didn't necessarily want Slough to use Moodle (and hence weren't there to "win" anything) but would rather they asked some fundamental questions about what will underpin whatever learning platform they end up with.
It might not be my place to say it but... if I was in Slough now, attempting to undertake a similar project to what we've done in Bucks, I'd hold my fire on a Learning Platform procurement (gulp), otherwise it would feel like installing kitchen appliances when the wiring's dodgy (see dubious analogy above...). I'd ask the final suppliers to provide me with a substantial service for the best part of a year at little or no cost and get groups of schools working in each system, with common objectives for assessing the suitability of the system for primary, secondary, transition, etc. - all while addressing the underpinning infrastructure / authentication / organisational issues. Once those are dealt with, the choice made on a learning platform (be it Moodle or anything else) will be planted in far more fertile soil. I don't often say it, but we're really fortunate to have a pretty well thought-through system of infrastructure and support, which releases us (and schools) from the technical and organisational questions which schools in Slough will probably have to address much sooner than later. Watch this space to see which way they jump... maybe.

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