Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Switching users, and Primary French

This morning I had two school visits squeezed into the space before lunch. First up was a visit to Buckingham School (in Buckingham). This was the first school in Buckinghamshire to have a public Moodle - it was the school's keenness which was one of the factors to start us on the Moodle route in the first place.
Things have come a long way since then, however due to a few issues the school's Moodle username system has remained a reflection of the internal school usernames. When Buckingham started (two and a half years ago) we didn't have single sign-on with the main BucksGfL username system, so the school simply adopted a series of usernames which reflected their internal school logins. By the end of 2004 Atomwide had set up things to that all of a school's users could be synchronised with that school's Moodle (which happens about every 30 minutes by default) - but (and this is a critical lesson for any school to learn) the person leading the use of Moodle had left and had taken with them most of the knowledge and momentum to pursue online learning.
This situation has been the same since then - and meanwhile other schools have started, caught up and overtaken the school and we (as a Local Authority) have been liasing with West Sussex and other LAs in pursuing a common approach to setting up Moodles. This means that (understandably) the situation is markedly different to that of thirty months ago. Meanwhile the school's Moodle is on v1.4.3, rather than v1.6.5+ which I hope all of the school Moodles will be upgraded to over the coming Easter break, so there's been a need for a while to bring things up to date.
Recently, Geoff Lambrechts (Aylesbury Vale ICT Consultant) and I have been into the school and have agreed a way to bring things into line with the approach taken by other schools. As Buckingham is fed by some primary schools who are using Moodle effectively, this will mean that year 6 pupils leaving places like Winslow and Buckingham Primary schools going to Buckingham should be able to use the same BucksGfL username they were using at primary school. Geoff and I are going into the school to do a number of training sessions over next term and we hope to share the developed resources with other Bucks schools through the central BucksGfL site.
Straight from Buckingham I went down the road to Winslow CE Combined School, our longest-serving primary Moodlers. I was there to meet with Chris Shaw, a primary MFL Advanced Skills Teacher (AST) who's currently developing a French for Year 3 course which will be shared with other schools in Bucks (a function of her role as an AST). I've never sat down with her and seen what she's doing before, but it's fantastic. There's an excellent use of quizzes (which we spent some time today starting to add audio to), and a really comprehensive listening, reading and speaking approach to lots of elements - I'm going to support Chris in developing the Moodle side of things, and hopefully she'll be able to concentrate on thinking about how teachers and pupils can use this to support learning, both inside the classroom and outside.
We introduced quizzes at the final Chiltern & South Bucks / Wycombe primary Moodle session yesterday, but Chris's use goes way beyond the basics. Working with other staff in other schools (who will provide the audio files) we are hoping to generate a complete Year 3 course for use by staff and pupils in any primary school in Bucks.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Server specs - my kingdom for a 13amp socket

Warning: this might be quite a technical post.
One of the things we've been wondering about since we started offering schools Moodles is:

How many school Moodles can we expect to fit on a server?
Our current server configuration is specified as follows:
Web server:
Processor: Dual Intel Xeon 2.8GHz, RAM: 2GB , Storage: 4 x 72GB drives in Raid 5 configuration, OS: Windows 2000 Web server: IIS5
MySQL server:
Same as above without a web server.
this contains all of our 80 current school Moodles at learning.[schoolname].bucks.sch.uk - we have 20 more to go in soon.
With the increased takeup of Moodles by schools - particularly primaries but also secondaries coming on board, we've a need to move to a bigger number of servers to spread the load and provide enough capacity and space for growth - occasionally things are starting to creak on the servers. There are no clear guidelines for space and capacity - since by definition all schools will use their learning environments in different ways which will have different space and processing requirements. Does one secondary Moodle equal ten primary Moodles? Probably not, but no-one really knows - nor should they really. Atomwide's plan is to go with a 3 to 1 ratio of web servers to MySQL servers, with 50 Moodles on each server. However, as the guys at Atomwide point out, it's not the number of Moodles, it's the level of usage that makes the difference. Oh, and I think that Atomwide might be the company referred to in this letter in last week's Guardian Link E-Learning supplement.
When we started this project most Atomwide servers were Windows, which was understandable since the user database which underpins everything - our Moodles, email, videoconferencing, etc. - is an MS-SQL database. I'm not sure, but it might be significant that when the new Moodle servers go in they'll be running Debian Linux using the Apache web servers, due to Hewlett Packard fully supporting Debian on their servers now, something that wouldn't have happened a few years ago. For those of you who like these things, here are the specs of the new servers:
Web server:
Processor: Dual Intel Xeon 3.6GHz, RAM: 3GB , Storage: 6 x 300GB drives in Raid 5 configuration, OS: Debian/Linux Sarge Web server: Apache 2
MySQL server:
Same as above except 4GB RAM,2 x 300GB drives in Raid 1 configuration and without a web server.
I'll be interested (though not many other people will be) to see if the performance of the new servers is faster - and whether that's due to one or more of a number of variables:
  1. running Apache rather than Microsoft's IIS;
  2. running Linux rather than Windows 2003 Server;
  3. running a slightly newer version of Moodle;
  4. running all of the above on newer hardware.

However, whatever hardware you're using, it all has one thing in common - the need for power. So, you can understand my frustration when, with Atomwide having commissioned the servers, all ready to go, there's now a "slight issue" at County Hall on the corporate side of things which is preventing them being put in. Somewhere in the bowels of County Hall is a machine room (actually, I think it's in the Old County Offices across the road) where the servers sit and... there aren't enough power sockets to plug the UPSs for the servers in. Really. That's it. Apparently various BCC electricians have been called and the responses are Hmmmm, not sure, we'll do it as soon as we can... a week Friday? (not a direct quote but you get the idea). I imagine if it was something important like - ooh, email for council employees - then it'd be done quick smart, but we (or schools, anyway) aren't that close to the top of the food chain - yet.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Educational TK-Maxx

Today I dashed up the M40 to the NEC for The Education Show. It's always the proverbial curate's egg - to me it's TK Maxx compared to BETT's PC World - random booths offering random things. Where else could you see the the suits of Specialist Schools' Trust next to the perma-smiling blonde Innocent Smoothies people?
I went for a number of reasons, but ended up having far more useful conversations with people I hadn't anticipated meeting. For those used to the mothership-sized stands at BETT it's odd to see companies like RM squeezed on to a small-ish booth.
People I spoke to:

  • 2Simple - I got a few of their primary titles at the Naace Conference and have been working out what schools who purchase their titles could use on their Moodles. At the moment there's not much SCORM material, but lots of the titles are made from the usual suspects of Flash, Flash Video, MPEG and other common file formats, which could be uploaded into Moodle. Like a stuck record, I kept on about the idea that teachers need to use software & content in a way that suits them, which isn't always the way the companies selling the stuff imagine. One idea for someone like 2Simple would be allowing schools to pay a fixed figure (say a couple of hundred pounds) and be allowed to choose "any five from fifteen" items / sections / themes of the 2Simple products. This would mean:

    1. Schools could get exactly what they wanted rather than the vendor's chosen set of tools to teach (say) KS1 literacy. They wouldn't have significant bits of purchased software unused. Schools could also purchase exactly what they needed to support the nature of their ethnic / gender / ability mix.
    2. Learners would get much more appropriate resources (assuming the people doing the purchasing have done proper evaluations) and wouldn't be using irrelevant (for them) bits of content just because they'd come bundled with the relevant stuff.
    3. Vendors would get a much clearer idea of which bits of their content where good / bad / ugly / just not used - as individual sections would be more or less popular - surely that's useful information for any software vendor to have?

  • The DfES Publications team asking if they could improve the RSS feeds which their site offers. At the moment there are only two, but surely it makes sense (and since the information's coming from a database) to be able to see (for example) all publications related to English and Literacy, rather than "all publications". People in schools are busy - I'm not sure people in government offices (both local and national) realise this sometimes - a little vision I've had for a while is of leaders in schools using a friendly RSS reader to find out the information they really need, rather than just guessing or stumbling across it with a browser. Anyway, more specific feeds should be on the way soon.
  • Teachers' TV asking questions about embedding content YouTube or Google Video style using embed tags. The response was that "this is coming" - at the moment you need to log in, download the video and then do whatever it is you want, normally involving sizeable media files. My vision for this is that schools could embed appropriate Teachers' TV videos in their Moodles for NQT areas, pupil areas and (for example) teaching assistants, using the Roles sections. In Bucks we could also embed them in our central Moodle pages to support subject and other areas. So, hopefully TTV resources might end up as Flash video and then will be oh-so-much easier to use elsewhere - and I'm pretty sure TTV want to disseminate their content as far and wide as possible.
    I was asking about RSS feeds as well and was shown that, since the site's been restructured, there are individual feeds for each area, right down to specifics (for example Subjects > MFL > Language Skills has its own feed of videos).
  • Channel 4 regarding their ClipBank service - gigabytes and gigabytes of video which currently isn't browser-based or SCORM compliant. Their estimate is that this would
    be SCORM compliant "by BETT next year" but in the meantime I'm interested in teachers being able to take this content and use it how they want to. The response was that since they have commissioned content creators to create the material then schools changing it would infringe the creators' copyright. I think that somewhere there's the need for the recognition that good teachers will enhance material like this by placing it in interesting and diverse contexts - obviously it's important to respect copyright, but there are other ways of licensing content, I don't think I've seen many commercial educational content companies using Creative Commons... anyone know of any? Anyway, the C4 people said they'd recently agreed some sort of deal with Espresso (Mr Bronze was around the stand) - does this mean that it'll be easier to disaggregate content or more difficult? Bizarrely the History MPEG example of Clipbank content isn't available from the Channel 4 web site due to copyright reasons. Eh?
  • Nelson Thornes - getting some examples of their VLE content to give examples to schools of what's possible. Eventually these will live in a restricted-access resource on the BucksGfL Moodle, with individuals from schools being able to see samples of content (from NT, 2Simple, Learn.co.uk and others... I hope). This should enable schools to make more informed software purchases, so that rather than thinking "can I use this in my school?" they might start to think "can I use this on my Moodle?".

Friday, March 16, 2007

Local Authorities who use Becta framework may breach European Procurement Regulations

Ah, I thought that that post title would get your attention...
Well, the Becta Learning Platform procurement thing rumbles on. Brought to my attention this morning were a series of documents on the Alpha Learning web site. You may know that Alpha Learning are asking the European Commission to investigate Becta's Learning Platform Procurement for a breach of European regulations. The documents on the site expand on that a bit - including a press release which looks like it's trying to sow plenty of fear, uncertainty and doubt among local authorities.
First of all, let's get some obvious but important things out of the way. You won't be surprised to learn that Alpha Learning's learning platform offering didn't make it to the final list of Becta approved providers. There's no way to be sure, but I don't think it's a completely unreasonable assumption to say that had they been on the final list, they wouldn't be going after Becta's rules like this. (I've also heard that when the original Becta list came out there were only 9 suppliers on the list, with a significant omission which couldn't really be left out, so when the final list came out, there were 10... now bear in mind that this May Or May Not Be True.) Secondly, the documents are written from a particular point of view and can hardly be described as "neutral" - understandable, if as a company you believe in your product you will defend it to the hilt.
OK, so here's Alpha Learning's Critique of Becta's Policy on Learning Platforms. Ignoring the usual collection of typos, there are a number of interesting points and a fair few which don't seem consistent. In particular some of the points are so subjective to make the reader question the validity of the rest of the document. When understandable phrases such as 'a collaborative approach to personalised learning activities', 'curriculum entitlement' and 'transforming teaching, learning and child development' are dismissed out of hand as "pure gobbledegook" (p4) I can't help but be tempted to read the rest of the document with one eyebrow desperate to raise itself. There are good points about interoperability - though I'd refer the reader to a presentation by Steve Jeyes of CETIS if you want a clearer view of what interoperability might and might not mean...

The more I read this document the clearer it becomes that it is a very personal work - even down to the style. There are some odd assertions about certain things - "BBC Jam is not compatible with leading VLEs" - that's a very loaded statement, since Jam comes (or came) in SCORM packages which by all accounts worked well. Also, the Alpha Learning web site proudly trumpets "Unlimited access to free content on the Engage repository. This includes content such as BBC Jam materials..." Eh? Personally I think that the Becta framework does need refining, that it might benefit from being challenged, but I'm not sure this is the document to do it. The footnotes in particular are littered with statements which would allow the critique to be dismissed out of hand - phrases like "rigged market" don't breed confidence in the objectivity of this assessment of the state of the learning platform world.
The Local Authority press release is a very odd read. In Buckinghamshire we're not going down the Becta route, but I can imagine a number of other LAs getting jumpy and re-thinking their procurement processes. I'm not sure why this document has been released - is it intended to try and call Becta's bluff by scaring local authorities into not going down the "rest assured - it's Becta procured" rhyming couplet route? If so (a) what's the irony in that giving the recent activity around BBC Jam and legal challenges from Europe and (b) what is Alpha Learning's desired outcome from taking this position? Are they hoping that those they scare out of the Becta boat will jump willingly into their interoperative arms? I don't think that would happen - any more than those people who have been using Jam would start to eagerly consume educational software from the commercial educational suppliers who brought the Jam service to a premature end. Bear in mind it was the threat of legal action which was the reason given for the withdrawal of Jam - will the threat of similar action cause Becta to change tack? Let's see...

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

No Jam tomorrow

There were inklings of this a while ago, but now it's finally happened... at lunchtime today I saw on the BBC News site that the BBC is suspending its Jam service (see also the press release) - online teaching resources which pretty much removed the need for teachers to support them or schools to deliver them. The announcement was made today by the BBC Trust - the service will remain open until the 20th March 2007.

It comes about after complaints from BESA, the British Educational Software Assocation, that the BBC was parking its publicly funded tanks on their commercial lawn by offering this content for free. The service has been live for 14 months since Jan 2006 and the BBC was planning on investing £150m over five years - half of the this has already been spent.
Well, I for one am a little gutted... we were hoping to host the SCORM versions of what is excellent content centrally in Bucks so schools could use them if they wanted to - actually, as the Jam stuff is very learner-centred, I'd say that BESA has inadvertantly kicked the learner in the teeth here. It would have been great to put things in the hands of learners (as part of our ePortfolio developments) which let them control their learning, instead we're left with the same old same old...
The interesting thing about the Jam materials was that they weren't controlled by schools, mediated by teachers, or anything like that. The learner registered, gave their age and where they were from, and then controlled their own learning. Crumbs, that almost sounds like personalisation - but maybe what BESA is on about is a world where personalisation is mediated through staff armed with eLCs... that's one method of personalisation, but is it the only one? Ker-ching...
My mind goes back to a Naace conference in 2002, at which Lewis Bronze and a representative from BESA started this whole process off with a presentation entitled "Choice for Schools" - it was a very odd moment, and one which at the time felt like the Naace platform had been hijacked to project a certain view of the world - it was very campaigning and not very neutral. I can't find any Naace history about it, but The Register has a relevant post about the general feel... (more here) some of the quotes there make very interesting reading given the passing of five (five!) years.
Has it come to pass? Last time I looked Espresso had a huge stand at BETT, BETT itself felt like it had more people in corporate clothing (primary coloured polo shirts, mainly) and more shedloads of cash being splurged than ever before - something which increases every year. Are these really the death throes of a struggling software industry? It seems to me that the BBC has taken a different approach to personalising things to the "don't let the learners personalise it" method favoured by most people at BETT (there's a reason kids aren't allowed in, and I don't think it's 'cos they'd miss school). Maybe people are just jealous of the money being in public service coffers when it could be elsewhere...
Interesting that last week I heard Russell Prue highlighting Jam as an example of enlightened forward thinking, and this week it's been taken down by what purports to be a creative, innovative industry. Ah well...

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Forward Planning at Amersham

This afternoon I went to The Amersham School at the Head's invitation to share the idea of a learning platform with the school's Extended Senior Leadership Team. Amersham doesn't yet use the main elements of our learning platform offering, but this was very much a planning meeting. Anyone who's seen presentations on change management, introducing a VLE or Learning Platform will have probably come across this image (click on it to see it larger):
Essentially this is a matrix which predicts likely outcomes if any of the five dark blue elements are missing, or if they're all present. To take Amersham as a case in point, what might these be for a typical school which hasn't yet started to use a VLE or Learning Platform across the whole school? Here are some suggestions (not just for Amersham!) - they're by no means exhaustive:

  • Vision - How do we hope this will affect learning & teaching within the school and the school's overall culture? Do we know what we'd like learning and teaching to look like when it's supported by something like this?
  • Skills - What are the skills required to achieve this? Are they technical or pedagogical? Who currently has them in the school? Who else needs them? Who doesn't at the moment?
  • Incentives - What are the benefits for staff undertaking this? Are the benefits immediate or do they only become apparent after a while? What are the benefits for students and those who support them? How could our work with other schools benefit from this?
  • Resources - How much time, CPD and technology is required to enable this to happen? Can we invest time and training wisely so that it has other outcomes across the school?
  • Action Plan - Where are we now and where do we want to be (and by when)? Do we have measurable milestones ("...by the autumn term we will have one course in each faculty supported by online learning elements and being used by students...")? How do we involve learners in planning and evaluating what happens?

It was quite unusual for this to be the first input I've had with a secondary school other than with the Head. In many other schools the interest comes from an individual or group within the school, what then happens is a struggle to (a) make it show up on the SLT's radar and (b) when it does, ensure that the members of the leadership team have an understanding about the significance of this and how it will both reflect and affect the way learning happens in the school - for both staff and students. I'm in touch with the person responsible for strategic use of ICT across the school and, even though the school's specialism is Business & IT, it's to be hoped that we get to start moving forward in a number of curriculum areas.

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.

Monday, March 12, 2007

3rooms, many PS3s, dozens of PSPs

Trying to log in to BloggerToday I've been at Sony's rather exclusive 3rooms venue somewhere in the City of London for the launch of the PSP (Playstation Portable, or if you're into typos and beverages, the Playstation Potable). 3rooms is basically a venue to demonstrate the Playstation 3 and today the ConnectED people, Sony people, people who'd been involved in some pilots and some invited guests got together for the PSP in education launch event. If you're interested there are some more photos on Flickr or here's a video of a previous event from the ThreeSpeech blog...

I'd quite like to see if we can get things like Breeze/Connect working on the PSP - it runs Flash fine, but the memory is quite limited and I wonder if this would be a factor which prevents us from doing so.Replying to a forum post on WinsLEOur Moodles work fine and today I went a stage further than I did in the previous post and responded to a forum posting using the PSP's browser. The HTMLEdit control didn't render so normal text and smilies done by :-) would be fine. Also, apparently the PSP's browser doesn't allow File: controls on web pages (the sort of control by which you attach a file to a webmail message, for example) to access the device's file system, which is a shame. The Sony VP responsible for PS was there today and said that there will be further iterations of the PSP (lighter, smaller, faster, etc.) and no doubt the software will improve too. Apparently it's possible to embed code on a web page which allows the browser to access local files, but until it's in the browser there'll be not much uploading of files...
Delegates I recognised today: Irene Krechowiecka from The Guardian and previous MoodleMoots, Merlin John (of postings passim) and Doug Brown of the DfES, who addressed an audience sat on a mixture of enormous sofas, bean bags, bar stools and stools shaped like mushrooms...

Thursday, March 08, 2007

BSF Leadership Phase 3 Pilot

I'm in Oxford to present an oh my goodness how early in the morning? (8.25am since you asked) session for the NCSL Building Schools for/of the Future) BSF Leadership programme - mainly to representatives from schools in Wolverhampton and other LA representatives involved in the BSF. Last night's speaker (at the end of a day of activities) was Russell Prue who was (as usual) very entertaining and engaging, a cross between an end of the pier barker, pantomime dame and ICT evangelist. He presented lots of evidence to support the position that kids are doing it for themselves - where "it" is learning, discovering, creating and dealing with new sorts of information, literacies and competencies, such as:

  • Sony PSP language tools
  • Wikipedia text speak dictionary - highlighting the fact that there's a whole hidden language for when your parent is watching you on your computer
  • GigaJam (hurray for the BucksGfL GigaJam project!)
  • The oh-so lovely Sony Mylo (if anyone's going to the US, could you buy me one please?)

He makes some very interesting points, including the fact that something like BBC Jam will enable learners to learn without needing teachers, schools, formal curricula... home teaching (and learning) will soon be achievable without a parent (or someone the parent knows well) being formally or informally qualified as a teacher. How many challenges for schools are there there - and do they even realise it? With the OU's OpenLearn, MIT's OpenCourseware initiatives and Wikiversity reshaping the way learning could be done in the future, who's to say that something similar isn't around the corner for school-aged education?

I think that 8.25 in the morning was a teensy bit early for a presentation on the truly gripping subject of A Modular E-Learning Framework rather than a Monolithic Platform (the title I was given - or did I supply it?) and it showed in the fact that lots of people weren't all there (understandable, I think if I had to listen to me speak then I'd lose the will to live too...). I mentioned Macromedia Breeze Adobe Connect a few times and gave some examples of relevant content and video meetings - at the end someone from WMNet told everyone that they too had a Breeze server available to them (again, for free) so they might want to get on and use it. This afternoon I'm going to the Teaching & Learning Centre in Aylesbury to work with a group of primary schools in the second session introducing them to their Moodles - almost a replication of yesterday's work at Iver Heath Junior, but with only one (larger) group.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Iver Heath Robinson idea?

Today was the second meeting (here's a brief account of the first) for the two cohorts of primary schools from the High Wycombe / Chiltern & South Bucks areas of the County to meet at Iver Heath Junior school and continue to learn how to use their Moodles. Essentially, as with last time, we ran the same session twice in one day (more palatable than a whole day, withsmaller groups to allow more one to one or one to a couple working).
In the previous sessions we'd imported a course for them to download and install (a "Games Room" consisting of some Flash files) - today we started off by covering the use of RSS feeds in Moodle. RSS is obviously the way forward for all sorts of information sharing and I hope to explore this and do some (more) Captivate movies to help set up RSS resources in Moodle (and possibly start to build an ePortfolio using the technology) in the near future.
We then moved on to creating a course from scratch - the groups varied significantly in whether they had a definite subject or theme for their first "home grown" course - but wherever they were, we looked at creating a series of simple web links (and in some cases uploading their own files) and structuring a course, adding teachers and generally giving them some skills to get going if they want to do some more between now and about three weeks' time when we meet for the final time. A lot of the work to do with web links was skills about how to get the most out of an online resource, whether it's linking directly to a full screen version of a Flash movie on the BBC web site or being able to title web links appropriate to engage children.
Finally we looked at customisation (including the Chameleon theme) and will meet again on the 27th of March (I think, my calendar is a foreign country to me sometimes...)

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Heads up for secondary Moodles?

This afternoon Mike Woods (County Adviser), Geoff Lambrechts (ICT Consultant) and I hosted a meeting for representatives from secondary schools at Missenden Abbey to share our vision for a learning platform / ePortfolio / I think you know the sort of thing I mean system for Buckinghamshire. We started off with lunch and afterwards spent over a couple of hours going through some relevant issues. Mike started off with an overview of how we came to be where we are and then I did a presentation on what a learning platform in Bucks might look like - the different elements, how they might fit together and how secondaries might work in this framework.
There were a fair few secondary heads there and a number of strategic ICT people as well, so it was quite a well balanced group (I thought). A number of people there already had Moodle in their schools, but most of the discussion centred around the management of the project and how secondaries might get involved effectively.
One of the big issues facing us is funding - the money from the DfES for this is "drawdown funding" - i.e. the Local Authority has to put up a certain amount of money for the DfES to give us more. I won't give the exact figures, but say (for example) that the DfES is offering us £1.40. Well, to get that £1.40 then the LA has to stump up 60 pence - otherwise nothing is given. We're really hoping that the LA will find 60 pence - as the resulting £2 will go a long long way to achieving the vision of what we want to achieve in Bucks.
The main issues to come out of the meeting were (in my view):

  • sharing is possible and desired by schools, but intellectual property is an issue for many of them
  • specialist schools should lead the development of shared resources based around their specialisms
  • the E-Learning co-ordinator should co-ordinate the work of subject advisers and consultants in developing shared resources
  • who is responsible for the content of a learner's ePortfolio (i.e. "what about dodgy material?") - the learner, the learner's school, the learner's LA?

Personally the session was tempered a little by a mild hypoglycaemic episode which meant I had to leave the room to get some biscuits and tea down me (that's the last time I miss a tea break...) - and of course it was just at that point that the "what about the Becta framework?" question came - drat!

It was a useful session - particularly at the end when Geoff L logged into the MLD Schools online monthly Breeze meeting that he was going to miss due to the fact we ran on a little. As a result of the meeting I'm going in to a number of secondaries to talk to SLT-type meetings and hope to support one school migrating its resources from another E-Learning platform into a Moodle. The impetus to do this came from the fact that the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust which is undertaking a Moodle pilot in certain areas, plus the fact that Bucks is supporting Moodle at a county level. We'll see how the secondary sharing comes along... this will almost certainly be a pump which needs to be primed.

Monday, March 05, 2007

A Tale of Two Secondaries

OK, it's not that much of a tale - today I was in two secondary schools - Mandeville Upper School and Aylesbury High School.
I went to a meeting a few weeks ago where our local MEP James Elles was visiting with a view to carrying out a videoconference between the school and Brussels using the BucksGfL Breeze videoconferencing system. As a precursor to this he's visiting the school next Friday to meet with a group of Year 10 Citizenship students to discuss the EU and what it means to them. To "prime" them for this event and to get them used to the idea of discussing things, we're going to use the Mandeville Moodle site to facilitate discussion and reflection about the EU, so yesterday I met with two Citizenship teachers who will be working with the 35 or so students and we started to build the EU section on the VLE. All I need to do now is send James E his log in and we might be getting there... one thought though: next Friday is Red Nose Day. Will everyone be in fancy dress in baths of baked beans? Uh-oh...
Then this afternoon I visited AHS to meet with the two staff who will be delivering the Year 9 Speaking & Listening Podcasting Unit which has been developed in conjunction with Lindsey Thomas, our Secondary English consultant. It was developed on the main BucksGfL Moodle site and has been backed up and then restored onto the AHS Moodle. Next Monday is the day when Year 9 will get to try it out for themselves, so we spent most of an afternoon ironing out the creases, changing the wording of instructions for wikis, forums and assignments and I'm in the middle of recording some Captivate movies on podcasting (which I hope to share here soon). All in all it's coming together well, and when the scheme of work is "finished" we hope to share it among other Buckinghamshire secondaries for refinement and improvement...

Friday, March 02, 2007

Reflections on Naace in the rain

I'm sat overlooking the sea in Torquay as the impending rain does its best to wash away the memories of a sunny day yesterday (hello Dr Johnson). The Naace Strategic Conference is over for another year and it was slightly different, though as ever I probably missed out on some things - often in the parallel sessions when (for example) at any one time there were nine options - three in each of the three themes. At the risk of repeating myself, it would be interesting to allow personalisation of every element of the programme - not a free-for-all, but a slight re-jigging of those elements which are perceived as more important (the lead presentations?) than others (the parallel ones?).
The themes worked quite well (for me, anyway), giving a much clearer sense of purpose than the previous format of little or no structure, which sometimes gave a pot-luck supper feel to the proceedings.
Anyway, with most CPD there are supposed to be outcomes / action points / etc., so here are some of mine:

  • explore how to get my Chief Education Officer blogging (thanks Mark)
  • start to share examples of commercial content on the BucksGfL (thanks 2Simple)
  • explore some interesting accessibility tools and start to integrate them with Moodle (tba)
  • push on with our ePortfolio project and get some early versions in schools asap
  • begin to write up some of the work we've been doing as papers - anyone know the best place to share this? Answers in a comment please...
  • do some more How To Captivate movies, share them within Bucks and beyond. Two movies a week? Maybe...

In other news (though it barely counts as such), the piece of filming I did last week for the Naace CPD How To guides is on the Naace Future Learning web site. I should apologise for the pasty appearance, I was still quite ill when I did it! Mind you, at the time of writing none of the videos appear to work (ahem)... possibly due to blip.tv currently being unavailable.

BeebTube - Broadcast Your Licence Fee.

YouTube - Broadcast Yourself - or the BBC broadcasts themselves. Or gets someone else to do it for them.
Today the BBC, BBC News and BBC Worldwide launched channels on YouTube to broadcast clips of programmes. Very nice - but of course, this is a (paranoid? Your call) broadcaster, so embedding of clips anywhere else is prohibited (understandable, but not the real leap into Web 2.0 the Beeb must have been imagining this to be). I'd love to be able to see (useful) BBC clips embedded in assignments, forums, quizzes in Moodle to really distribute content, but looks like that won't happen (legally) under this model.
It's almost like the Beeb wants to embrace YouTube in a Web 1.0 way - it's publishing content, rather than allowing other people to decontextualise it and use it for their own purposes. Maybe it'll be a sign of maturity when that happens and the BBC is confident enough in its own image to allow people to mess with the clips it chooses to release in the wild...
Family viewing? Watch the Russell Brand video diary and wait for the Daily Mail backlash. "Our licence fee" etc...

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Mark Berthelemy - online social networking and teacher CPD

Mark's running an interesting session on CPD, mentioning the CPD Connections site (in Elgg) and why it's folded. He's emphasing that the reason it failed was the capacity of people involved (on the Capita side) to stimulate the network and make it work - enablers I guess - and that the software worked fine as a tool. Mark's now talking about his own CPD and how various Web 2.0 tools enable it - people he learns from like Stephen Downes, Miles Berry, etc. Oooh, now there's a screen shot of this blog on there (blush).
This is an interesting session - it might not appear on first listen / view to be the most stimulating one when compared with the keynote from the first evening but (as an ex-colleague from Hertfordshire said to me afterwards) it's the sort of session that can inspire and encourage you to go and do something which makes a difference to the way you work. The first night's session on ICT culture is changing children's brains was stimulating, thought provoking and very theoretically challenging, but Mark's session was simply practical (and practically simple? Don't think I could get away with saying that...) and offered someone who hadn't yet dipped their toe in the Web 2.0 world (as a producer of content) ways in and a challenge to get going.
His most pertinent question - what if your Chief Education Officer kept a blog? Right, my mission this term is to try and make that happen in Bucks. Note I didn't say make it happen, the emphasis is on the word try...
Appropriately, all of Mark's bookmarks from the presentation are on Diigo under the naace2007 tag. Here's a video he used to give a brief overview of a blog... in case you don't know. Watch this and think what these words would mean if applied to a headteacher, chief education officer, Ofsted inspector... etc.

Miles Berry - extending the primary school through learning platforms

Sat at the front in Miles's session which I'd plugged during my presentation. Appropriately for a primary school, I sat on the carpet at the front as it was so full. I've seen Miles present a number of times before and this is slightly different - perhaps bearing in mind the audience it was based much more around government policies and reports (the 2020 Vision Gilbert Review, Harnessing Technology, a fair few others which will be in his presentation when it's on the Naace web site) then the one for an audience at, say, MoodleMoot might be.
He's very up front about the main issue which could dissuade a lot of state primaries from taking what he's got to say seriously - namely that St Ives is a prep school, slightly smaller than average classes, a broadly similar socio-economic class (Surrey stockbroker belt) - but deals with this very well by emphasising the elements of good teaching which no-one can really object to:

...taking the best parts of what happens in the classroom and putting them online.
He's a very engaging presenter and backs a lot of his work up with statistical analysis & surveys (something I'd like to do more of) - done by himself and the kids, which is good to see.
Miles is an example of the sort of person who I believe should be doing the main sessions in the learning platforms theme - he's out there, "doing the stuff" and it provides a lot more "meat" for other sessions to take from. At this conference the Lead Presentations (non-parallel sessions) were the 'biggies' - Prof. Steve Molyneux on "Are LPs up to it?" and Andy Tyerman & Robin Ball from Becta on the Learning Platforms Framework. These are obviously relevant, but it feels (and it's just my feeling) that these were the non-parallel essential ones because they were a Professor and Becta - but to stimulate debate and inform other parallel sessions, someone like Miles would have given people real food for thought - plus he would have had more time to expand and develop his ideas - many of the parallel sessions felt really rushed (mine included, ahem...).
Informal feedback from other delegates showed that they didn't feel the main sessions told them anything they didn't already know - a feeling I recognise from previous conferences. Miles or someone in his position would have given specific, worked examples from the real world rather than just speculation (something I think the Lead Presentation was guilty of) or policy statements which have been heard many times before. The thing with general overview presentations is that most people at Naace are well aware of the issues - it's their job to be. Some specific, worked examples give one more to get to grips with and which would inform the more generic ones which could be offered as parallel ones. If this was a gathering of headteachers I'd make the Becta one essential as they all need to hear it - here at Naace it could easily be parallel so that people who didn't know enough about the framework could go - or is there a worry that it wouldn't be well attended?
Miles is now headteacher at Alton Preparatory school and is slightly less hands-on, but it was good to hear his experiences from St Ives being shared with a wider, more influential audience.

Ian Usher - Using Moodle as a core component of a Local Authority learning platform

Warning: this may not be an objective account. Proceed with caution.
Ian Usher, the E-Learning Co-ordinator from Buckinghamshire County Council, gave a presentation on using Moodle as the authority's VLE. The presentation was in the Belgrave Hotel - fortunately sunny weather meant delegates didn't huddle in the Riveria Centre due to the previous days' inclement conditions. About 60 people attended including three colleagues from Buckinghamshire and one from Atomwide (presumably just to check up on him).
The presentation didn't aim to be a "how to" about Moodle but more of a "what and why" about why Bucks had adopted it instead of the many available commercial solutions available. Only a couple of people in the room didn't know what Moodle was and more about half of the people there were using it in some form or another. This presentation was intended to be significantly different to the one given at the Naace All Members Annual Conference in September
The only live demonstration of a Moodle site was the Buckingham Primary School VLE - a delegate asked a question about the value of children sharing music they had composed in a forum ("couldn't I just type the word sh1t in there - how does that add value?") - the answer was that the pupil in question was being allowed to share something that had been done outside of school, something that was previously unknown to the school and something that made the school place the pupil on the AGT (Able, Gifted & Talented) register. (if you're interested, here's the audio of one of the songs in question - composed by an eight-year old:

Much discussion followed, including an interesting chat with the guys from Newport who are using Moodle for their schools (rough quote from them "all of South Wales could be using Moodle soon..."). There were many kind words and it's said that the speaker really appreciated the fact that Robin Ball from Becta came along - and that not many people fell asleep.