Thursday, July 10, 2008

Parental usernames - why we don't (currently) do them & why the Government needs to put more thought in...

Keys. Lots of them. If you're involved in educational technology in the UK you'll probably be aware of "targets" for all sorts of things - but the thing that's made most schools wake up recently is the issue of Real Time Reporting. Put simply(ish) this is the target that any parent should be able to access their child's progress reports online - at any time. This is a target for secondaries for 2010, while primaries get an extra two years to get this in place. A quick Google for information turns up all sorts of things, but here's a quote from the Government News Distribution Service pages:

By September 2008 all secondary schools will be expected to provide information to parents covering achievement, progress, attendance, behaviour and special needs, on a timely and frequent basis - this should be at least once per term.By September 2010 all secondary schools will need to offer parents real-time access to this information (including the opportunity for secure online access) wherever they are and whenever they want. [More]

It was the 2005 publication of Harnessing Technology which gave the oft-quoted, rarely understood, completely missed "access to an online learning space" target ("a target with no teeth" as I heard someone wearing a Becta badge describe it once). The updated version of HT was published recently - for a point of reference, here's a completely unscientific word cloud of the 250 most popular words in the 2005 original (click to enlarge):

During our Moodle training sessions we're often asked about our BucksGfL username system - a common question is Can we create usernames for parents? While it's (in theory) possible to create usernames for parents, sometimes (in my opinion) this seemingly straightforward question can have all sorts of unforseen implications, which aren't often thought about. It's also my position that (currently) the idea of Real Time Reporting (RTR) via a "secure" web site doesn't think about many of these issues. As far as I can tell, as envisaged in the realm of RTR, parents would log in to a secure area on the school's web site / MIS system / intranet / Learning Platform / some other named tool which hasn't been dreamed up yet. Here are some questions about this:
  • How many usernames is this per school?
    If you have 1000 pupils in your school, is this two thousand usernames? Two per pupil? One per family? More than two per family? What about parents who don't live locally?
  • Who manages the usernames, passwords and authentication?
    Do schools create, delete, monitor and administer the usernames? Do they need to employ someone to do this - surely recent scandals about failures in data handling mean that this can't be left to part-time responsibilities for non-specialist staff.
  • What asumptions are being made here?
    That parents can use a system like this? That they can be relied on to remember their login details? Who will do the training / support / equipping?
  • When the parents do forget their details, who do they call?
    The school? If so, they're likely to call in the evening... will they just leave a message saying I can't log in? When does the school call back? During the day while they're out at work? Anyone for answerphone ping-pong? How does the school validate that it's really the parent on the phone?
  • What about multiple roles / responsibilities / access rights?
    I might be a parent of a child at one school, a teacher of a hundred children at another, and not allowed to access the records of a child at another, a governor at another school - well, probably not that exact scenario, but you get the idea. Who is going to manage and enforce those relationships and the data structures which underpin them? The school? The LA? The RBC? The Government Department? Becta?
  • What's the role of pupils in this?
    Since in many (but not all) families some children will be more capable in using technology than their parents, will it be significant if a pupil installs a keylogger on their home PC? Maybe it's just a subtle way of enabling students to see their own data under Freedom of Information (that's obviously not a serious point... I think)?

Maybe there are obvious answers to these, but in my mind this fundamentally isn't a technological problem (like I said, we could create plenty of usernames if we wanted to...) and therefore funding/finding a technological solution won't do, will it? If it will, please tell me so I can stop worrying...

I wonder if the Contact Centre of a Local Authority might be part of the answer to this, however there are clear issues around validation, data security, authentication & validation(heck, even Apple don't get this last one right all the time). A Contact Centre, even an effective one:

  • could deal with calls out of hours (good);
  • would keep a record of what happens (good);
  • would need access to data, password resetting tools, etc. (potentially not good);
  • could take much of the burden from schools (good);
  • would need detailed information on who was allowed to see what data (hmmm, the data structures thing again);
  • would need to validate that you are who you say you are, Caller... (errrr...).

Now, please don't read into this that I'm advocating a Call Centre to manage parental access to this - but can you think of any alternative to turning schools into ICT support centres for their parental communities? Will schools / LAs get additional funding to provide out-of-hours technical and organisational support - because it's fairly clear that, if as a parent you're trying to log in to a school's web site and can't, then you're going to want to call the school as a first resort. Has anyone thought of the implications of this or has more power to/access to data 24/7/365 by parents been thought up in isolation from the context of schools, which it clearly exists within? You could always read The Register's Parents to get classroom spynet in 2010 article and the predictable comments - some of which are predictably empty & reactionary, while others raise good questions.

Back to near where we started, here's the word cloud from the just-released update to Harnessing Technology (again, click to enlarge):
Now, I know that it's juvenile to infer anything from how often a word occurs. It is, however, quite fun to do so... compared to the earlier version, the word Becta is more prominent, as is technology. Can you see schools? I can, just...
By the way, I don't presume to have the answer to all this, just some questions. If you have any more of either, please feel free to leave a constructive comment. Thanks!
Photo credit: Keys by steena

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Final reflections on the Bucks E-Anthology project

Poets and Andrew MotionWell, the Buckinghamshire E-Anthology project is finally over (more or less) - I dashed from a school in the south of the County last week to the Civic Centre in Aylesbury where the Year 10 poets had a final celebration meeting with friends, family and teachers at the publication of the E-Anthology. The local paper turned up, but neglected to bring a photographer, so it was a little odd! It was great to see parents and teachers there and (as far as I could tell from turning up after everything had happened...) most people seemed pleased!

The Bucks Herald go for an obvious title.

I thought it was worth reflecting on the process, what happened, what might have been better, and what worked well.

Here's how the E-Anthology worked:

Project Background & Preparation

  • The project was the brainchild of our Secondary English consultant, Lindsey Thomas. Lindsey was a student on our E-Pedagogy course run with Oxford Brookes University, and as she's not teaching any one particular group of children this project counted as her "intervention" as part of that course.
  • Students in Year 10 were chosen from a number of Buckinghamshire secondary schools. Secondary schools were written to and asked to take part, those who replied were then asked to select students be involved. Some schools asked students to complete a piece of work in a mini-assignment - others were less structured. Either way, all in all sixteen students from seven schools took part.
  • Some of the schools involved have their own Moodle VLE - others do not yet have one. A pre-requisite for students to be involved was that they had access to their own personal BucksGfL username and password. Since this was a cross-school project, the online work was undertaken on the main pan-Buckinghamshire Moodle site at

Face to Face & Online Sessions

  • All students were invited to an introductory face-to-face session held at a school in Aylesbury. They were accompanied by staff from their English Departments. This session introduced the project, started the "socialisation" aspect of the work and gave the students the opportunity to log in to the E-Anthology site.
  • The next face-to-face session held at the school was open to students only - myself and Lindsey Thomas were the only adults involved.
  • In between these sessions, students worked together in a number of online activities on the VLE. These included:
    • Entering simple discussion forums about an example of poetry and a subject & title for the Anthology;
    • Completing online surveys about their attitudes to poetry, and also their experience of using ICT in English at school;
    • Voting in a Choice activity on whether they intended to create a multimedia version of their poem;
    • Submitting a photograph of themselves to be used in the printed anthology;
    • Editing a number of pages in a Wiki to create their own Poetry Trail;
    • Keeping a reflective blog after each face-to-face session and as the project and their development of their poems progressed.
  • A number of these activities were modelled by Lindsey - for example the poetry trail and forum activities, to set expectations for the work and ensure that students understood how to use the VLE.
  • Poet & PoetThe Writer's Workshop was a face-to-face session with Andrew Motion. Any teachers who wanted to attend this session were politely encouraged to create their own poetry trail online in an adjoining room, ensuring the students could work with Andrew;
  • Andrew MotionThis session had no online elements - other than reviewing what had gone before. When you've got the Poet Laureate in the room for a few hours, you really should use the time wisely...
  • Subsequent to this session, students continued to work on their poems online, and used features of the Wiki tool to comment on and annotate each another's work;
  • In the final stages of the project, students were encouraged to search for images to accompany their work, using Creative Commons search tools such as FlickrStorm, Blue Mountain CC Flickr search, and CompFight - or to supply their own images. These images were then shared using an Assignment and a Forum.

Outcomes & Project Evaluations

  • We wanted to have something tangible as a result of the project - both as a motivation for involvement and also something for schools to be proud of their involvement through. At first people within the Council wanted to go to the local printers - the sort of people who produce the LA's CPD directory - but Lindsey and I felt that we wanted something a bit more than a spiral-bound collection of A4 sheets...
    • With this in mind, we chose to use the online publishing service. I spent a couple of days preparing a rough layout using the Blurb Booksmart software, publishing rough PDF drafts on the VLE for review by both Lindsey and the students.
    • The Blurb model meant that we could get something of high quality in the quantity we required in both hardcover and softcover.
    • Once the layout had been approved, the time from order to delivery from Switzerland was approximately a week. Result!
      The E-Anthologies have arrived!
    • As Blurb is a publish-on-demand service, this meant that friends and relatives of the students could order further copies online without the involvement of the LA - less administration and more control for those involved. It also prevented the possibility of going to a local printer who might specify a minimum print run, leaving us with piles of hundreds of unwanted Anthologies - digital textbooks anyone?
    • The quality of the books is fantastic - far better than anything I've seen published by local printers on a similar scale. The students, parents and staff loved them and (personally speaking) it was a high point to see how pleased they were with their work reproduced professionally.
      Students & the printed Anthology
    • The local paper also gave details of how to order the book online. I'll be interested to see how many people (if any) do.
  • In the project evaluations, students were clear that the presence of staff from their schools inhibited their enthusiasm to engage with one another and the work. Working on a cross-school project in a core curriculum area has plenty of potential for competition between schools - which would almost certainly come from staff. The kids just wanted to get on and work...
  • The students (in the main) wanted to keep going after the sessions had finished.
  • Many of them hadn't worked on a VLE before and their responses to the survey on ICT use in English were interesting as were their experiences of the VLE.
  • Despite clear minimum expectations of what counted as "enough" involvement in the online environment, some students needed to be encouraged to login and contribute - and despite being informed before the project started, some schools wanted their students to attend the Writer's Workshop with Andrew Motion while skipping the face-to-face sessions. This would seem to indicate that there's a long way to go for schools to appreciate how the online environment can effectively complement the classroom environment (and vice versa).
  • Some important things that we learned while running the project - when there's no regular face-to-face contact with students, clear communication and instructions are doubly important in the online learning environment. Also, students will use any tool they can to complete a task, even if it's not the one you intended...
  • Finally, here are the students' evaluation forms in Wordle format:

...and here's the E-Anthology in lovely browseable form:

Friday, July 04, 2008

Have I been Moodling under a rock recently?

Well, it felt like that when I realised (through reading Doug Dickinson's blog in Google Reader) that this blog has been nominated alongside seven other diverse blogs (including Ewan M's) in the Public Sector category of the Computer Weekly Blog Awards 08. Which was nice.
Anyway, should you wish you can vote for this blog over at Computer Weekly - but I'm obliged to suggest that you read all of the other nominees first. Heck, it was a nice surprise so I don't mind at all! Bizarrely, the embed code for the CW Vote for me please please please why don't you badge doesn't appear to work - unless it appears below, in which case it's been fixed!
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