Thursday, October 18, 2007

Help! We’ve got a new learning platform

Doing the rounds of many staff rooms at the moment is Secondary Teacher, the Teachernet magazine. Normally this would pass me by, but there’s an excellent article in there which (with one reservation) I’d recommend to any secondary school (and some primaries) who are thinking about starting out with a VLE.

As easy as VLE

The article ("As Easy as V.L.E.") is on the Teachers Magazine site, but isn’t reproduced in full cartoon form (random thought: how long before someone develops a Manga theme for Moodle?) and importantly doesn’t include the main pitfalls of the process, but its main points are. Don’t rely on the electronic version, try getting hold of the original and (if necessary) photocopy the cartoon for whatever group of people is responsible for leading the VLE in your school. I’ve seen copies kicking around in most of the secondary staff rooms I’ve been in over the last couple of weeks, so there should be one near you if you’re in a secondary school.

The one reservation I have is for Buckinghamshire schools, who shouldn't follow the link to a company which offers Moodle services for schools (mentioned previously in these posts, who have blanket emailed our schools offering to sell them Moodle...) but should instead contact the ICT team at the Teaching & Learning Centre in Aylesbury.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Learning From Rainbows

I've just driven back from Tylers Green Middle School where we've had the second session (first hands-on session) of training for a group of primary schools. They were keen to get on and the first thing we did was downloading a shared course from the central BucksGfL Moodle help section, and then use this as a basis for simple operations - moving, hiding and editing items, moving and hiding sections, how to navigate around a Moodle course, how to view activity reports, etc.
Naturally, with it being the 10th October, my soundtrack to driving to Tylers Green and back was In Rainbows, the release of which has made it into mainstream media and beyond the world of the muso by (in case you've been living under a rock) being an album by a major artist which is (potentially) free. On completing your order for the download you are asked to specify how much you would like to pay - anything between £0.00 and £99.99. Of course, Radiohead can afford to do this (as can The Charlatans), as they've already made their money, but the word from the heads on the radio this morning was that this wasn't a viable strategy for anyone coming into the music business for the first time.
This week on the Naacetalk advisory list there's a message from the Chief Executive of the North-West Learning Grid, Gary Clawson. NWLG have already got a track record of sharing free resources, whether it be DiDA courses in Moodle form, or all sorts of other free resources. This email was a rewording of something that came out in a Naace Newsletter the other week and is essentially a call for a national repository of free learning resources, many from Local Authorities and RBC, which would be available to all. The suggested format is SCORM (which, to use a phrase beloved of my colleague Geoff, is seen by many vocal contributors to the Naacelist as about as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike as far as learning goes) and could (on one level) be seen as a viable alternative to resources available via eLCs through Curriculum Online. Go and find out more (and sign up) from the NWLG site.
I've always maintained that to exhibit joined-up thinking in this area Becta need to sort a few things out, something like...

  • we want people to use Learning Platforms / VLEs;
  • we are funding schools (for the moment) with eLCs;
  • eLCs are frequently used to purchase resources which languish somewhere or are underused;
  • many eLCs are used to provide access to web sites which add yet another set up usernames and passwords to the already vast constellation of such which schools have.

However, we have a couple of (vague) standards in this area: Shibboleth (for authentication & access management) and SCORM (for learning resources).

So why not insist that, before an "online resource" can be badged with the Curriculum Online Seal of Approval:

  • if it's a resource which involves logging in to a vendor's web site, the resource should be Shibboleth compliant so that existing school usernames can be used;
  • if it's an online resource then it must be available in a SCORM-compliant version, so it can be used by the Learning Platforms which schools are expected to use.

We're already trying to encourage schools to ask questions of their software suppliers as regards their use in Moodle, particularly in the area of licensing, SCORM-like issues and the whole breaking the resources down into useable chunks thing. However, until someone (like Becta) mandates this, they will be just individual schools with little influence. No change there then.

Back to Radiohead. As we were doing the course today, and some of the schools were getting excited about downloading other courses (shared by other schools) from the main BucksGfL site, I couldn't help but wonder: If we gave schools to opportunity to pay for these resources (or to pay in kind by committing to sharing their own) if they wanted to, would they? Should they? Or should (as the NWLG (and I) believe) the outcome of so much Government investment, so much time and effort, so much intelligence, crafty and creativity be a wealth of resources which are available, for free, to anyone who wants to use them? Come to think of it, won't the commercial VLE companies just incorporate the content (even if it's licensed under Creative Commons) into their own systems ("at no extra cost - so we're not using it for commercial gain...")? Hmmm...

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Moodle training - and some tools to help

At the moment I'm in the middle of I don't know how many sets of training in schools... The Royal Latin School in Buckingham, about ten primary schools in Aylesbury Vale, about eight around Wycombe, plus we've just finished training in The Amersham School, Dr Challoner's High School and are in the process of doing follow-up support visits at The Grange, The Cottesloe School and Buckingham School.
Primaries are done in regional groups, with up to two staff from each school coming to a series of four sessions in their locality which aim to introduce them to Moodle and put them in charge of their school's own VLE. We also try and run termly workshops for those who've been through the training and want to share what they've done or bring any issues along to have them solved.

Here's how our secondary training works: I work with one of our ICT Consultants and we arrange a series of dates -typically with about a week between them but this varies depending on availability. We will pay supply cover for six members of staff to attend four sessions of three(ish) hours, always in the morning if possible. The school can also send up to six other people, but will have to cover them itself. We try and insist on a member of SLT/SMT being involved, to provide the leadership mentioned yesterday, and if possible someone in charge of the school's specialism. The best example of this working was where the Headteacher (a) attended and (b) hand-picked staff who were keen and capable - and also where the use of the VLE is an overall school target.
This is rooted in a firm belief that we're better off spending our money on investing in people rather than investing in software licenses. I don't know of any piece of software which can, by itself, magically transform teaching and learning, but I'm willing to bet whatever professional reputation I have that what will transform teaching and learning are staff who are capable of thinking creatively about how tools such as those found in a VLE can be used, and also have transferable skills to use those tools. That's why we fund the schools to cover staff to be released - it sends out a message that it's important (twilight training sessions are rarely well-received and send out a signal that this is only for the keen ones or those who don't have a life) and (hopefully) it highlights to school leaders that resourcing this sort of development (whether in time or funding) is a crucial enabler for it. After the four sessions we'll book in an after school training session for any staff who are using the VLE to bring along issues or problems they're having, which we'll solve during the 60-90 minute-long support session.
We try and work the sessions as alternating between brief demonstrations at the front, followed by worked through examples of whatever it was that was demonstrated, then some time to practice and discuss how thec tool in question might be used. As ever, training people in something new isn't always that straightforward, so here are a couple of tools which might come in useful:
  • Mousepos√© is a slick little tool (for Macs only, US$14.95) which allows you to spotlight part of the screen while dimming the rest - useful for higlighting certain areas. There's a PC version called MouseLight (Windows, £10.17) but I was looking around for a free tool which would do the same - I came across MouseShade (Windows, free), written by someone on the message boards at DonationCoder. It's not as snazzy as Mousepos√© or MouseLight, but does the job. A really useful tool which mimics some of the functionality of interactive whiteboard software without needing a 100MB download.
  • The next tool is something which is really quite fabulous for something so small (well I think so anyway). ZoomIt (Windows, free) is a tiny download from the Microsoft web site which has many useful functions - and for me it seems that the zoom function (using the mouse scroll wheel or the up and down arrow keys once the program is enabled) is the least of them. It's a very simple program for annotating a screen (these annotations aren't persistent, so hide the tool and they are lost) but it's a simple tool which could be very useful when you just have a projector and a wireless mouse, rather than an interactive whiteboard. Pressing w or k gets a white or black screen to write on and there's also a timer which will run on the screen if you want to give people a set time for discussing something, or simply a break from what you're saying!

Friday, October 05, 2007

Learning Platforms - are Ofsted bovvered?

A couple of weeks ago there was a (relatively) interesting discussion on the Naacetalk Advisory list about what it would take to get most schools to think seriously about Learning Platforms. A few people wondered aloud if schools might be more motivated if Ofsted included effective (or I'd imagine at least appropriate) use of a VLE/Learning Platform in their inspection framework. After all, a fair amount of money is being invested in this area and, depending on your point of view, LPs could be a fundamental part of the school-focused side of the E-Strategy.
This became more relevant today when I had a conversation with a member of the Senior Leadership Team of a secondary school which has been using a VLE for over eighteen months, and has been mentioned in previous posts around here. The school was inspected by Ofsted this week and the staff member in question spent some time preparing lots of evidence from across the VLE - reflections by students, examples of work, comments from parents, etc.
So, was the Ofsted inspector interested in this?
What do you think?
Apparently, the interest went as far as "give me a paragraph which summarises its impact on achievement". C'est ca.
When I worked in Hertfordshire some colleagues used to half joke that inspected schools would sometimes prepare a CD of evidence and information to give to their Ofsed inspector, safe in the knowledge that the inspector wouldn't know what to do with it. We're encouraging schools to look at their VLEs and think how they might give access to an inspector (including - off the top of my head - creating a generic Inspector username for each school which they could share with the inspector and give them non-editing & hidden access to representative courses) through the VLE. However, do you think that the inspector would use it? How many inspectors would know how to assess effective online teaching and learning anyway?
For what it's worth, the paragraph which was given to the inspector talked about significant rises in predicted A*-C grades in the GCSE courses where the VLE was effectively used to support classroom teaching, and similar effects at A-level. I'm hoping to get some more data from the school as the year progresses - and don't think that it's all down to the VLE, it's clearly not, but there is a marked difference there, and I'll be interested to see the figures...

Two cans of lager and a well-managed VLE please

Over the last few weeks Geoff L and I have been working in a number of our secondary schools, both re-visiting some who we offered training to last term and visiting some other schools for the first time. It's been an interesting experience and some common threads have started to emerge.

  • it's clear that (as we always knew and as applies to most things in school) effective and involved leadership at a senior level is essential if a school's virtual learning environment/learning platform is to be used effectively by more than just a few keen teachers. In particular, in a couple of schools where senior leaders said they were very keen but only turned up for the first training session (to ensure that everyone else came? who knows...) then nothing really moved on. Why bother doing this if it's not part of your school's overall development plan, if your senior team don't seem bothered (even if they really are)?
  • the role of ICT support staff is crucial in many ways - both as enablers for keen but relatively untechnical senior leaders and limiters for keen staff who really want to get going. At last week's Becta conference on Harnessing Technology Niel McLean made the observation that there's no way a school would allow its caretaking / facilities staff to dictate how teaching was done in the classroom, or even what was taught, but that's effectively what happens if a network manager pulls the strings concerning what can and cannot be used in the classroom - even down to the implementation of a VLE.
  • school staff should do what they're employed to do - in the case of a VLE I would surmise that this means:
    • Senior Leaders providing much of the vision, leadership and resourcing for the use of a Learning Platform - without necessarily having the technical know-how of how to run the thing, although they should be aware of what it can do;
    • ICT Support Staff ensuring that everyone in school has an account and can access the system;
    • Administrative Staff ensuring (where necessary) that class lists, year groups etc, are up to date and accurate;
    • Learning Resource/Library Staff (where the school is enlightened enough to include them in its planning) being involved in planning, organising the management of and encouraging students and staff to use the VLE;
    • Teachers using the VLE to support their teaching - they shouldn't be responsible for knowing who's in which year or class, or ensuring that all students and fellow staff have accounts, or anything. They should use it to enhance, extend and challenge their students and teaching;
    • Students having the (optional) role of challenging all of the above to see how things could be better... maybe.
  • if the above isn't in place to a greater extent, any learning platform implementation will not succeed, at least not on a whole-school, embedded basis. It makes me smile when vendors of Learning Platforms market things to schools as if they are a magic bullet which will transform a school at the flick of a switch - when in reality nothing can be further from the truth.
  • as has been written elsewhere around here, primary schools will drive practice in secondary schools. An approximate quote from one person who's leading the use of Moodle in one of our schools:
    "we started teaching our Year 7s how to use the VLE and they said "We've been doing this for a year in Primary School so we already know what to do thanks..." - that really gave us a kick up the backside..."
    ...and this is only going to increase...

And finally... the picture at the top? Well, at the end of one of our current rounds of training one of the participants presented Geoff and I with a can of Carling each. Cheers!

Monday, October 01, 2007

An informal survey of Naace members on ePortfolios

A few weeks ago I sent a message to the Naacetalk Advisory list - the general mailing list for members of Naace. The message went something like this...

If you're in a Local Authority or RBC and are considering implementing or have already implemented an ePortfolio system, I'd really appreciate it if you could follow the link below and complete a brief survey (consisting of 10 questions) about your approach. I'm interested in the various parameters that might affect how an ePortfolio is deployed on a medium- to large-scale...
This used a fairly simple online survey to ask the following questions:

  • Who would be the intended users of an ePortfolio system across your LA/RBC?
  • How many potential users (both staff and pupils) would use an ePortfolio system in your LA / RBC at any one point (i.e. the total number of staff, pupils and LA employees if you are counting these)?
  • If you are planning on offering ePortfolio functionality to both primary and secondary age pupils, are you planning on using different ePortfolio systems for each of these groups?
  • What potential online storage capacity you would consider making available to an individual user in the following categories: primary staff, primary pupils, secondary staff, secondary pupils, LA/RBC staff?
  • Would you supplement this storage capacity by allowing your ePortfolio to access existing resources on the internet (such as Flickr, Bebo, Box.net and other online storage services)?
  • Have you selected or implemented one or more ePortfolio systems to offer to your schools?

Thirty six people filled in the survey to some extent, although only about 19 filled in the majority of the survey to count as what I'd call "complete responses". I asked the questions as a result of a previous post entitled Thinking about MyStuff which asked (among other things) How much storage space should each user (staff and pupils) be offered? Some quick points from the responses are (all links are to a Google Spreadsheet summary of the responses):

While this questionnaire was closing, it's all kicked off on Naacetalk about ePortfolios, with the usual cycle of statement-opinion-counter-opinion-misunderstanding-clarification which accounts for many of the 97 unread messages in that folder in my mailbox - possibly why an ex-colleague of mine referred to it as the "Naace will eat itself" list before they unsubscribed. However, there are some good points on the list, maybe when I get a second I'll think about them.

It's worth pointing out that these issues of storage, capacity and availability aren't all I am / we are thinking about as regards ePortfolios, however they're critical so that we can enable things, hence my interest in the answers to the above questions.