Thursday, October 23, 2008

Review of Becta's DVD "Learning Platforms in Action"

Becta Learning Platforms in Action DVD
What seems like an age ago I was contacted by Becta to ask if I could recommend some schools who had progressed well with their Virtual Learning Environments Learning Platforms (I'll explain the amendment in a moment). There were many candidates to choose from, but some of the most interesting work was being done at Buckingham Primary School and Chalfonts Community College. Becta said that they wanted to do some filming of the schools' use of their VLEs LPs. Well, dates were set, people with cameras duly turned up at schools, and filmed staff, parents and pupils, both in school and, in some case, at home using, in the case of our schools, Moodle and Adobe Connect. Naturally, the days (from our point of view) were busy and in some cases the tools they were using got stage fright, but the results on the DVD look really interesting. Here are some stills:

One of the interesting things (from talking to two of the staff featured on the DVD) was that, where in normal conversation they refer to the VLE, for the purposes of the video they were obviously scripted to say the Learning Platform. This leads to both Moodle and Connect (in the case of the videos from BPS and Chalfonts) being referred to as the Learning Platform. Now, obviously from Becta's standpoint that makes sense, since Learning Platform is the phrase to be used in all communications, but I wonder if this makes sense when the diversity of functions that a Learning Platform can encompass is considered. I guess this makes sense from the point of view of a reluctant school watching the DVD as they could see that having a Learning Platform means more than just making the school's MIS available online, or having handouts online (the paper behind glass approach to online learning). A cynic might say that with every tool featured on the DVD being referred to as the Learning Platform then this plays very well for those vendors still on Becta's Learning Platform Services Framework Agreement , since they can approach schools present themselves as a simple answer for to any question which begins How do I get what I saw on the DVD?
Mind you, everyone's got a Learning Platform now, haven't they? I'm always interested to find out which (if any) Local Authorities still haven't offered all of their schools a service, and of those who took a last minute approach, what they did and how it's gone down with the schools.
However, back to the DVD. It's well worth watching (for me it's just amusing to see Paul from Buckingham Primary dressed up as Dracula) and most of the examples are practical (and only a couple look staged...).
Becta delivery arrives
If you want the rest, you'll need to order the DVD from Becta. I ordered it on a Monday and it arrived by the Thursday (don't worry, it's free). It's an excellent resource to put governors, senior leaders, or even parents in the picture, so if your tongue sometimes get tied when you're trying to explain Harnessing Technology to someone who's quizzical yet relatively uninformed in this whole area, then give them a copy of this.
The copyright on the DVD says that it's fine to reproduce the videos as long as they're credited to Becta, so here are the ones from Buckinghamshire, uploaded to Google Video:

School Newspaper

How Buckingham Primary School used the VLE element (Moodle) of their Learning Platform to change the way the school's newspaper was put together and distributed.

Online Parents' Evening

How Chalfonts Community College used the videoconferencing & collaboration tool (Adobe Connect) within the Learning Platform to open up access to parents & carers to find out more about what their children were learning.

A Virtual Residency

How Chalfonts CC used the videoconferencing & collaboration tool to work with an artist as part of a Virtual Residency.

Musical Experiences

How Buckingham Primary School used the VLE to allow children to share & showcase work they had being doing outside of school.

Teaching Digital Art

How the teaching of digital art is supported by the use of a VLE at Chalfonts Community College.

Whole-School Creativity - the BAFTAs

How Buckingham Primary School used their VLE to support their use of digital movie making as a tool to involve parents in the learning process, and rounded it off with their own version of the BAFTAs.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

BBC fails to choose between RSS & elbow

Sometimes, the BBC provides an object lesson in the art of being open. The new Common Platform blog by Steve Bowbrick on open content, open culture and sharing at the Beeb is the sort of thing to get people like Theo Kuchel excited and revved up about the wealth of content which sits somewhere in West London and the potential for opening it up. At other times, there's a (hopefully unintentional) myopia which recoils from sharing, re-using and re-purposing content. I came across a significant example of the latter this week...

This was illustrated best (or worst, depending on your point of view) recently by the reformatting of the so-ubiquitous-it-might-as-well-be-part-of-the-curriculum BBC Bitesize service. In the last couple of years I've done a lot of work with schools on introducing them to using Moodle as a VLE, and something which almost always gets a good response is the use of RSS feeds. Starting with something like Newsround and the BBC Weather site, we'll move on to using sites like the Guardian, New Scientist, the Good Food web site, etc. etc. One of the final sites we look at has always been the Bitesize site – it's predominantly orange-coloured pages offer structured and themed revision resources for Key Stages 3 and 4 for English, Welsh and Scottish exams, and offers offered a granular set of RSS feeds which are were as flexible as the content is broad and deep. For example, the front page of the KS3 section offers offered a feed of all the subjects, then within each subject (for example History) the various topics are were offered as a feed, then within that topic the various subjects can could be fed out via RSS.

Now, RSS is best used for information which changes or gets updated fairly regularly (news, weather, sports results, etc.) so the geological pace at which the curriculum changes wasn't going to make for a constantly shifting feed of information from the Bitesize site. However, in our experience it was useful because having the revision topics and subjects as feeds enabled teachers to bring a whole bunch of guaranteed-to-be-accurate links into a Moodle course without having to validate the links, and held them all in one neat block.

You can probably tell where this post is going, but possibly as a result of some extra time / money, or just Because It Needed Changing, the RSS feeds have disappeared from the Bitesize site. Not moved, not shuffled around, but simply vanished. I can't decide if it's simply an oversight by an overenthusiastic designer or a deliberate policy to stop the information being shared, but if you want to use the Bitesize links in your Moodle course, or if you're a student and want them on your iGoogle home page, then you can't do it any more.

This reads all the more odd when read in conjunction with the previously mentioned Common Platform at the BBC blog (which you can also follow on twitter). This explores the notion that the BBC has so much useful, publicly funded information, tools, techniques... well, resources really, that making them open isn't just a desirable thing to do, it's an essential and healthy thing - so the vaporising of the feeds of information like they were so many minor villains in an episode of Doctor Who puzzles me.

On finding this out (in the middle of a day working with teachers of humanities, and eager to show them RSS and how it could be used effectively within Geography & History), I had a sinking feeling, like when you've bought something for ages from the supermarket, it's part of your regular diet, and then for some reason, someone somewhere (or, more likely, a computer somewhere) pulls it from the shelves. You hunt around for a while, wonder if it's moved to another aisle, then give up and go home, or buy something else, or shop somewhere else. I had a look back at the Internet Archive's view of the Bitesize GCSE Geography page to see if the feed's old address, still worked, but it doesn't.

All of this means (to my mind) that it's not an accidental omission. The feed isn't being generated (at least not at the old address), which means that someone somewhere has made a decision that this sort of information doesn't benefit from being shared. I've had it confirmed that the BBC won't be at BETT in 2009, does this all indicate a massive step back from online educational resources, a retreat inside the moat and pulling up of the drawbridge? Or is it really an error? What's going on? Answers in a comment please...

Image courtesy of Violinha.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

A short conference, some inspired teachers

Last Wednesday was the Celebrating / Sharing Success E-Learning Conference. For me it was a day bookended by a meeting with a Headteacher in a primary school, and a brief after-school INSET session in a secondary school. In between, 60 or so people met at the Teaching & Learning Centre in Aylesbury for a couple of hours to hear about 16 of their number share what they had been doing with all sorts of E-Learning. Being Buckinghamshire, this was very much a Moodle-centric event, with a couple of presentations about use of the Adobe Connect service which is available to all schools on the BucksGfL.

Doug prepares while a video plays
The delegates were recruited and invited by the whole of the ICT team, but for me a big focus of the day was ensuring that we were able to broadcast the event, via a Connect meeting room, through a couple of webcams and judiciously applied Blu-Tak (to hold the webcams firmly in place). For this element of the day the primary point of reference is the successful TeachMeet broadcasts, which use FlashMeeting and attract a widely distributed range of attendees, most of whom would be in the real life TeachMeet if they could. The last TeachMeet was at the Scottish Learning Festival, and the recording of the session is available here. TeachMeet is a public event, however the Bucks one was (for various reasons) not a public one - mainly because we knew that people's presentations would include student activity, and there are many potential headaches about broadcasting that on the interweb. However, if you want to view it and use twitter, then send me a direct message and I'll give you the URL (you'll even be able to play the penguin hitting game, which is nowhere near as violent as it sounds. Sort of.). If you want to know what Twitter is, or what it can be, then I'd start by reading Martin Weller of the OU's Love Song to Twitter (the presentation's unofficial title) on his blog.
"Celebrating success" recording
On reflection, I was (and I think the whole team were) really pleased on how the event went. In the days after I received lots of positive emails (and one text) from teachers who had attended, saying how useful it was:
"It was great fun and very interesting. There were so many ideas and I came away wanting to try so many..."
"It was very informative and having the chance to talk to other people that do the same thing as me was brilliant."
"...thanks for a very enlightening conference today. It makes me want to get much more involved with Moodle."
"...I found it really valuable and interesting..."
The presenters were a mixture of teachers and commercial companies, and what was enlightening for me was that most of the commercial presenters struggled to fit into the brief time slot - some completely ignored the focus of the conference and just talked about their product. I thought I had a plan for this, and at the start told the room that if they thought someone was doing a sales pitch and not talking about classroom practice then they should raise their hand - and if we got more than a half a dozen hands then I'd ask the presenter to immediately talk about classroom practice or stop (please). However, this only started to happen once - when one of my team raised her hand (thanks Pat!). I think most people in that situation understandably don't have the confidence to question what they're being told from the front, so it didn't really happen. However, I think it might be something which would work at a TeachMeet (more about that later). One of the commercial presenters said that they found it really hard to not do a sales pitch while talking, which tells you a lot.
An excellent (brief) presentation from Channel 4's Clipbank
To my mind only a few of the commercial presentations addressed the nature of the conference in a way that was appropriate for a commercial product - including a simple-but-effective presentation from Channel 4's ClipBank on how to incorporate clips into teaching-focused activities on a VLE. Doug Dickinson's presentation on Honeycomb was useful tool, since we'll be using HoneyComb as the main tool for our primary ePortfolio this academic year. For at least one vendor whose laptop wouldn't output to the projector, there was no Plan B, which I'd imagine was an interesting proposition for those teachers who presumably have a plan B when they use technology in the classroom each day.
As you'd imagine, those who attended would probably get a lot from a TeachMeet, so this is probably a good place to mention that the wiki page for the BETT 2009 TeachMeet is now available. If you are going to BETT, why not go on the Friday and round the day off with some of the best (free) CPD you're likely to get? If you'd like to go, or like to help, then you can sign up (instructions are on the page), or take a look at the previous BETT TeachMeet.