Thursday, May 22, 2008

E-Pedagogy Final Presentations

It's the final day of our Masters-level course on E-Pedagogy. We're at the Chalfonts Community College with about ten people who are each about to do a presentation on the projects ("interventions") they've been doing in their schools for this course.
Chris Higgins starts off by outlining how this fits into an MA - the CAEP (this element) counts as 3 units, and could be followed by Education Research, a module on Reflective Professional Development, a further Module choice (which could include individual study) and a 20,000 word dissertation...
Everyone is split into two groups and will present to others in the group about their intervention. Here's a rough outline of some of the projects - each is intended to be a Reusable Learning Object (ReLO):

  • Year 10 English - World War One Poetry - at Sir Henry Floyd Grammar School;
  • ICT capability in Year 7 MLD students (Talking Heads & Shady Writing) at Pebble Brook MLD School;
  • Encouraging Active Learning - KS3 PSHE & Citizenship at The Amersham School;
  • An E-Anthology for Buckinghamshire - across Buckinghamshire with Year 10 students from different schools (LA secondary English consultant);
  • Using a Virtual Learning Environment to help prepare children for e-learning in the 21st century - Making a video for children who are about to join reception - Year 6 pupils at Edlesborough School;
  • Student produced digital summaries in science (replacing traditional "write ups") at Brill CE Combined School;
  • Investigating the use of the VLE on Attainment Standards (inc. work with Year 12 Economics students) at Sir Henry Floyd Grammar School;
  • Developing speaking & listening skills using Podcasting & Forums with a primary school (LA primary ICT consultant);

For each presentation there are questions about reusability - how replicable each project and/or the materials involved is across other schools or the county as a whole. There's really interesting discussion going on about how working online with pupils/students is in practice, and some of the wider issues to do with school culture, the state of ICT confidence and confidence within schools, etc. etc.

Emerging Issues & Commonality

What's come out of the presentations? We're trying to summarise common themes or issues which are cropping up in many of the pieces of work:

  • There's an emphasis on the cognitive side of the learning - a metacognitive approach i.e. "learning how to learn";
  • Wondering about how much should we allow learners autonomy, and how much scaffolding did they need?
  • Learners beginning to reflect and comment on each others work;
  • Social learning - learning how to work in teams, give feedback, take responsibility - this emerges from problem-based learning;
  • Students discovering their own methods of organising their work - this leads to a discussion on ePortfolios and the skills, understandings and higher order thinking, how Functional Skills might work and if "managing an ePortfolio" might be a functional skill;
  • It's essential to build-in the face-to-face socialisation and time in class is a critical part of this;
  • A number of groups have external "experts" or other people to give validity & authenticity;
  • There's a perception that an external practitioner will always be a good teacher - this isn't the case and in some cases learners need to be aware of this and helped (trained?) to work with/around it;

We're now about to debate (in two groups, arbitrarily divided up) the statement:

The distinction between digital natives & digital immigrants is not a helpful description of classroom e-learning dynamics.

after reading the introduction to Marc Prensky's 2001 paper. We're talking creating false and emotive dichotomies, educational theory, the nature of interactions in classrooms, the use of games and play, and much much more.

That's the end of the formal part of this course, and parting thoughts include how we might run it next year. It'd start earlier, and I'm already thinking of people across schools in Bucks who would get something out of the course. I hope we run this again next year, I can't wait!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Pupils aren't stupid / don't build us a creepy tree house

As creepy as this...Image credit: Steampunk Treehouse by AlmostJaded. Found using CompFight.

A post from Martin Weller at the OU (now in my Google Reader Shared Items list) co-incided with many thoughts I'd been having about online learning environments and how they're spun to students / pupils, some of which was due to an Education Guardian article I'll mention shortly. Much of the discussion is based around postgraduate or undergraduate students, but I think the idea of the creepy treehouse resonates with Bart Simpson's recurring Treehouse of Horror experience.
Trying to track the genealogy of the phrase "creepy treehouse" feels a bit like chasing one's tail - a post by John Krutsch refers to a conference session led by Chris Lott and these (and other) references are summarised by Jared Stein, who says:
In the field of educational technology a creepy treehouse is an institutionally controlled technology/tool that emulates or mimics pre-existing technologies or tools that may already be in use by the learners, or by learners’ peer groups. Though such systems may be seen as innovative or problem-solving to the institution, they may repulse some users who see them as infringement on the sanctity of their peer groups, or as having the potential for institutional violations of their privacy, liberty, ownership, or creativity. Some users may simply object to the influence of the institution.
The use of the word "institution" tells us that this post is primarily associated with Higher Education, but it is also worthwhile pursuing this area in the use of educational technology in schools.
I had an interesting conversation with someone who's been leading the development of Moodle in one of our schools for a couple of years now, who asked whether I saw a role for Facebook in terms of supporting teaching. My answer was essentially similar to the Guardian's Students tell universities: Get out of MySpace! article of last year - there is a social aspect to support which the students already use themselves, but in terms of using Facebook, MySpace, etc. as explicit tools for learning - kids aren't stupid. They know that being at school has an underlying purpose - it's something to do with their learning, development, etc. etc. - no matter how much they might resent this on some days. They also see things which try to pass themselves off as "A Myspace for schools" (if someone else uses that phrase near me again I might have to leave the room) and know instinctively that this is school trying to make itself cooler than it is - "like a teacher turning up at a nightclub" as my questioner put it, after sharing that of course the students said that Facebook was no place for a school to invade.
Whenever anyone asks about this my answer is always that schools who can show that they take their learning environment seriously - i.e. it may have tools which are similar to those on other socially networked sites but are clearly meant to support pupils' independence in their learning - then learners will take them equally seriously and are more likely to engage with them. If a school were to pitch its learning environment as Hey! Come and chat on this cool space about things you'd normally chat about on MyBook or FaceSpace or whatever it is you do outside of school... then the reaction from students would be predictable and probably wholly merited - and would be indicative of a "Creepy Treehouse" under construction.
However, I do think there is a slight differential between phases (i.e. primary and secondary schools). One of our primary schools used its VLE as a tool to support its programme of raising awareness about online safety:
  • ensuring that all pupils had been through the GridClub Internet Safety programme;
  • making sure they could all access their school's VLE;
  • launching the site to parents/carers as somewhere worthwhile for their children to be online, since it would support their work at school and their friends would be there.

It's no surprise to me that this has become one of the most successfuly primary VLEs in the county - and I do think that the vaguely social aspect of the VLE has an important educational function in terms of digital literacy - enabling teaching and learning about privacy, interacting online and those other elements which are deemed essential to children growing up in a digital world.

In the secondary environment, the recent Guardian Link article Alternative social networking: Overprotection or necessary control? is worth a read. I'm not sure that tools such as the Learning Landscape for Schools (which is a paid-for service based on the open source tool Elgg)will ever work if they are touted as "a safe(r) version of [insert useful social networking site here]". Students in secondary schools will already have habits, history and a wide network of online contacts and practice - and a school trying to squeeze these free-roaming individuals into its own network in place of something else will have the experience of the proverbial cat herder. As is often the way in these things, possibly the most enlightening comment comes in the final paragraph:

It is being pitched as a safer alternative, but it's true they [students] are not as enthusiastic. Some sharing now goes on between other schools and between students, but it's by no means a social network of choice for them because it is still limited to just a few schools so far. Plus they know it is being policed.

And therein lies the rub. It's my intention that our secondary ePortfolio tool will have some social tools and features, but with a clear focus on supporting learning we can hope that it won't take on a Treehouse of Horror motif...

Some think that students should build their own tree houses (I sense a PLE spider diagram coming on) but I'd say that many of them already have them - and that this analogy could run out of legs if ladders, neighbours and planning permission were introduced...

Friday, May 09, 2008

Characteristics of an ePortfolio exhibited by Flickr

[Warning: long post, lots of links, your mileage may vary...]

As with many posts I scribble on here, this is by no means a complete piece, but more of a starting point or junction for my musings on the subject at hand. So please be patient...

One of the biggest beefs I have with the imposition idea of ePortfolios is that, in the main, the education community is being instructed what to do in this area with precious few examples - perhaps correctly there's no definition of what an ePortfolio is but I've never seen anyone setting policy in this area get up and speak from personal experience. I haven't yet seen someone from Becta's ePortfolio in terms of their photos on flickr, their collection of links on, videos on YouTube, or similar. Normally when a target or initiative is introduced in education there's at least some background to it - either from existing practice in schools, decent academic research and there's a vague consensus about what it means. With ePortfolios, there's no such consensus and multiple definitions of what an ePortfolio might actually mean.
Now, for me, the whole issue of personal use & experience is important in what is quite a new area of work - you might like to ask yourself if those telling us what to do with an ePortfolio are well-versed in the creation, maintenance and effective use of their own portfolios? I'm not suggesting that the Stephens Lucey & Crowne should show everyone in education their holiday photos, but I'd have more confidence that an organisation like Becta understood the realities if things were more, er, real... so, if you're in a local authority or RBC and someone's pushing an ePortfolio at you, why not ask them what their personal experience of using an ePortfolio is before they start telling you what to do? With any luck they'll be able to describe how it's useful to them, if not, then you could reasonably assume they might be reading from a script...

A personal angle

I've been using Flickr for about three and a half years now, which isn't a long time, but in that time I've started to rely on it for all sorts of things - as a backup for my most cherished / best / weirdest photographs, as an image repository for events / blog posts / other significant or otherwise things to do with work, or simply just as a tool to share and modify information in a creative way. It's apparent that Flickr has a number of features which would be desirable in almost any ePortfolio system and an openness which means that functions which aren't readily available within the system can be provided, often for free, by external tools.

Flickr's ePortfolio characteristics

In summary, there are a number of features which flickr exhibits which have to be essential for any ePortfolio system:

  • tagging;
  • many ways of adding content;
  • organisation;
  • socialisation around content, including commenting and relationships between users;
  • access control for differing audiences;
  • an API which allows other tools to interact with the system and its contents;
  • some personalisation and customisation;
  • republishing and repurposing of content


So, here are some features of flickr which might resemble what an ePortfolio could and maybe should aspire to:

  • Customisation - flickr is customisable in some ways, maybe not enough in the minds of those who want a "virtual desktop", but displays basic information about the owner of the portfolio. The front page layout of an individual's portfolio of images is changeable but that's about it. Something like MySpace or Bebo allows an individual far more customisation.
  • Categorisation - images (and, recently, videos) can be organised into sets and (in the paid-for version) these sets can be further organised into collections.
  • Tagging - items (though not sets or collections) can be tagged to enable similar items from my own photostream to be easily discovered - this allows me to easily find all of my images tagged with "naace" or everyone's images tagged with "naace". I can have up to 75 tags associated with each item.
  • Comments & favo(u)rites - as a registered flickr user I can comment on any other image on the site, including some HTML tags. I can see other people's comments on any images, including my own. I can mark images I like as my favourites, which are then visible to others. I am notified when others comment on my items or mark them as a favourite. Comments can also be made on sets or collections.
  • Annotation - I can add notes on top of my items to highlight important or interesting areas and can add notes to other users' items where I have permission to do so.
  • Other Information - information about each item (when it was created, when it was uploaded (with Calendar views for each), what device or tool was used to create it, how many times it has been seen, how many times others have marked it as a favourite) is available. Where it was taken or created can also be shown via geo-tagging or on a map.
  • Contacts & relationships - I can find other people on the system and add them to my contacts. I can select some to be friends and some to be family. If I want I can allow my contacts to add tags to my items.
  • Groups - I (or anyone) can set up groups on particular themes or topics. I can invite individuals to either join a group or submit some of their items to a group. These groups can either be private or public, moderated or not. My items can belong in more than one group, up to a maximum of 60 groups (10 for a free account).
  • Access control - I can control who can see each item - it can be public (open to anyone, even those who don't have an account on flickr), visible to my flickr friends and/or flickr family, or private (viewable only by me). I can also create a number of Guest Passes to allow users who don't have accounts on flickr to see images which I have tagged to only be accessible to my friends and/or family, or even private images. If a private image of mine is is added to a group other members of that group can see and comment on it. I can also control if others can add notes and tags to my items or see the originals of any images I have uploaded.
  • Granularity - these controls can be applied to individual items, or whatever collection(s) of items I choose to create - including different audiences for different sets or collections.
  • Adding content - I can add content via browser-based upload, an installable piece of software which uploads and organises my content, via email, directly from my phone, and via a number of third party tools. I can also add content to flickr and have it automatically posted to my blog.
  • Presentation - I can create slide shows of my images - either a set, a particular tag, or simply every image I've uploaded. Flickr also offers me the HTML code to embed an individual image on another web page somewhere.

Other functions

Aside from functions within flickr which I can control, I can also authorise other web sites and online services and access other, more general, tools which use the information stored within flickr. These tools are able to do many things, so that I can:

  • Edit my images through web-based applications such as Splashup, Picnik and others. My images in flickr can be directly opened from within the application and any changes can be saved back to flickr without (necessarily) downloading a file;
  • Use my images in other services such as the collection of Flickr tools. These tools can take my original image on flickr and convert it into many things - a magazine cover, a motivational poster, a Rubik's Cube, an image in the style of David Hockney, etc. - see more in the corresponding Flickr set which accompanies this post;
  • Access the flickr tagging structure and image repository to provide the ability to browse the content within flickr without (initially) accessing its main web site, such as the Flickr Related Tag Browser or Tilt Viewer;
  • Access the meta-information associated with the items in other tools such as Spell with Flickr or the Colr Pickr;
  • Offer RSS Feeds of my photostream, a particular tag (just my images tagged with a tag or everyone's) so that the information can automatically be referenced in another site which can incorporate feeds (though this isn't possible from a set or collection);
  • Create a 'badge' highlighting my photos or particular tags which can be incorporated into any site as a HTML or Flash item enclosure.

What it can't do

Things flickr can't do or doesn't offer - among others - deliberately or otherwise:

  • Allow me to download my entire collection of images - however a third party tool such as FlickrDown or FlickrExplorer can access the Flickr API and download everything to my computer;
  • Keep detailed information about who visits my items - unless they interact with the items (by marking them as favourites, make comments, or add tags and notes);
  • integrate with other services (other than the fact that a Yahoo username is required in order to log in. However, Yahoo's recent commitment to the OpenID framework (along with Google and others) means this may become more open and allow more interoperability.

Other tools

The open nature of the information stored in my flickr account means that I can start to make things with it - using all sorts of tools to do weird, wonderful and interesting things...

But what about us?

Fortunately we've just started testing what for a long while has been my preferred option for an ePortfolio - for secondary anyway. It exhibits many of the characteristics outlined above and, while few educational tools will ever have the breadth and diversity of tools which flickr has inspired, it looks like a good start. More to follow soon... I hope.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

On the 'Access to work, any time, any place' ePortfolio piece

Slam went the door...

A couple of weeks ago I answered a few questions for a forthcoming piece in the Guardian on ePortfolios. Here in Bucks we haven't committed to an ePortfolio yet, for a whole number of reasons (chief of these being a lack of clarity and guidance on what 'counts' as an ePortfolio). I was reminded of this vagueness on starting to read the article in the printed paper and online - plus part two of the article which escaped me in the printed edition.
If other contributors' contributions were similar to mine, then we were each asked a series of questions and then the answers were put together to comprise the articles. The first question is a pertinent one, and maybe it's no surprise that Becta's Bernie Zachary gives the only answer:
Q. Should all pupils have access to an eportfolio now?
A. Yes. The target within the government's Harnessing Technology strategy (launched in 2004) was that by spring this year the relevant agencies and authorities would be able to provide all learners of compulsory school age with access to this online learning space. BZ
If you've read anything about ePortfolios then you'll know that this appears to be not quite as things are, but exactly why I've never been able to place my finger on. If you look at Harnessing Technology then the occurences of portfolio or e-portfolio are there (seven times in seventy-two pages), but they are always (deliberately?) couched in vague terms. Have a look:

Why is this? If you're in Educational ICT and haven't been living under a rock for a few years you'll know that the focus has been on Learning Platforms, which have been seen as a catch-all term for everything - including ePortfolios, or at least "the ability to support" ePortfolios. There has been no clear guidance about what constitutes a portfolio, yet even within its text Harnessing Technology refers to what functions this mythological beast will undertake for learners. The targets (so it seemed to virtually anyone trying to work out what they meant and who didn't have a product to sell) seemed too easy to hit and therefore too hard to meaningfully define, which some would say is a good thing, but in my experience that's led to uninspired, lazily put-together applications which are about as appealing as [insert your own obvious analogy here].
A few of the comments in the Guardian article seem (to me, and it's just my opinion, remember) to be confusing an ePortfolio with an school's VLE, and elsewhere the Becta ideal of an ePortfolio being contained within a Learning Platform is given fresh air, even if to my mind this is a fundamentally flawed idea. Of course, the so-obviously-wrong-it's-crazy line about "open source depends on institutions have to provide their own support" is trotted out again... I mean, come on. People of Becta. Listen. Your web site runs on Apache, which is open source. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that people in your offices have to look after the servers, although, being a Government agency, I guess anything's possible. You pay professionals to do that (I hope).
Possibly the most telling comment in the article, and the one that's the reason for the image at the top of this post, comes after the declaration that all pupils should have access to an ePortfolio now, when it's mentioned that it's now that Becta is adding guidelines to its documentation on Learning Platforms. Go figure, as too many people have already said.