Tuesday, January 29, 2008

BETT reflections - while it's still January

...February will mean it's nearly March, which will mean the Naace conference, so I really should sort my life out and get everything down that came from the BETT Show.
I was at BETT for all four days in my capacity as an Adobe Education Leader - I did presentations every day but the advantage of being there for the duration is the ability to have a good look around, not just a mad Supermarket Sweep-esque dash in a few hours.
It may be a case of Stating The Bleeding Obvious but anyone who could was trying to sell learning platforms this year. There are lots of exhibitors at BETT who are termed "box shifters" - just trying to sell as much stuff as possible, with little or no thought to practice, pedagogy, or much else. I came across one company who, in my experience, had always made (second rate) laptops and desktops, and guess what it was selling? You don't need to really, do you?
In previous years at BETT, a measurement of how the show was was always the amount of chaff and disposable promotional rubbish one brought home. This year I managed not to bring back any promotional carrier bags, instead my BETT was measured by the business cards of those who are worth following up. So here's some of my list of cards and why they might be worth contacting:

  • ode - I'd discovered Ode just before BETT and made a beeline for their small stand upstairs. This is the closest I've seen to something I outlined in a post about content a long while ago - the ability to buy just what you need from a content provider, rather than lots of content you don't want in order to get the 10% you do. Plus they're based in Oxford and say they are keen to work with Moodle...
  • 2Simple - I'd been contacted by 2Simple with regards to putting some of their tools in an online form into Moodle - a lot has already been done with other Becta-approved LPs and they want to make their tools available within Moodle. Since their online tools are built in a similar way to Moodle this should be straightforward, what's needed is to find some primary schools in Bucks who would be willing to pilot this. Personally I think 2Simple would do well to bring together their tools in a Foundation / KS1 ePortfolio tool - if they pitch the price right they could clean up.
  • SIFA - the Schools Interoperability Framework Assocation is (apparently) going to change in the UK so that there's a greater representation from schools and Local Authorities. In the past we've not been able to join because - this is so typical - their membership fees are payable in US dollars and as a local authority we can (you guessed it) only pay amounts in pounds. I was walking past one of the LP vendors' stands and saw a name badge which was subtitled Executive Director, SIFA so figured I'd better try and have a chat...
  • Heritage Explorer / Learning Curve / Screenonline - free resources which could easily be contained within our VLE activities - but what's the best way to do it? Services like Teachers TV allow linking directly to their videos (.wmv files) and so when used with Moodle's multimedia plugins filter these become embedded in any text area - such as an introduction to a forum, an assignment or a choice activity.

Beyond all that, TeachMeet was the best thing at BETT by far. Someone said that the creativity in the room far exceeded that beyond the doors in the main exhibition halls - in the main it felt much more real and a measure of it was that two (or three?) people travelled from New Zealand, just for the TeachMeet... I'm thinking of doing a similar unconference for our Bucks E-Learning symposium in June...

Monday, January 28, 2008

Dashing into Moodle with Dasher

Warning: this post will load Java into your browser. Sorry.
I started this post about a year ago, while thinking about inclusivity and VLEs. It's hung on the shelf for a while, but after coming across a Google Tech Talk on Google Video earlier today (see my del.icio.us for this an others), it's worth completing.
Dasher blew me away about three and a half years ago at a Becta Expert Technology Seminar at the British Library. It was a day on Human Computer Interaction and Accessbility and was one of the more disappointing ET Seminars - that was, until David McKay got up and explained Dasher (you can listen to the audio if you want). When I was part of a team in Futurelab's Design Challenge we used a Playstation 2 and a dance mat/DualShock controller to enter text using Dasher for our winning entry. Once we started using Moodle across the county, I began to think about how we might use alternatives to the default HTML editor of Moodle. Dasher could be one such alternative, but to explain it here's David McKay giving the Google Tech Talk which caused me to publish this today. A demonstration of Dasher is at 6 minutes 18 seconds in (the video's over fifty minutes long):

Once you've seen that, here's Dasher (embedded in this web page as a Java applet) for you to try out for yourself. I'd like to modify the Java applet to sit within a Moodle site and be able to edit a user's profile to allow them to choose Dasher over the HTML editor as their text entry method.

Dasher's free to download and works pretty much anywhere. Anyone want to collaborate on integrating it into Moodle? Actually, last year I had an idea for this, mentioned it to a representative from a company, and this year it was being sold at BETT. Grrrr.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Qik - broadcasting from your/my mobile phone

Wow. Not sure what it's got to do with this blog, apart from the fact that it's an innovative tool which could give all sorts of access (yes, including stuff that the Daily Mail wouldn't be happy with) but Qik has just made my jaw fall open, and it's rare that I see something and think Now that's remarkable. Simply put - get your mobile phone (probably 3G - you're going to need a flat rate data plan), sign up to Qik (it took about six hours for my account to come through in an SMS containing a weblink and activation code to my phone) and you can broadcast directly from your phone (assuming it has a video camera) to... whoever. Field trip report? Check. Participation in a lesson when you're not there (staff or student)? Check. One to many videoconferencing over your phone. Checkeroo (as J Richardson would say).
Below is an embedded video I've just done. Now, you could have watched this live, but as it is here's the recording. Note that nothing's stored on my phone - it's simply streamed to the site and then archived, which banishes the whole "I've run out of space on my phone and it takes ages to upload a file" problem to a greater extent.
I've recently got a sign-in for Seesmic which seems really interesting, Qik (and anything similar) appears to be in a similar ballpark but playing a very different game. Oh and you can post your Qik videos straight to Twitter and Seesmic...
The video runs out, just because the card on my phone is nearly full and the feed is (obviously) buffered. Still, nothing's stored on my phone, it goes straight here...

Friday, January 25, 2008

Mastering E-Pedagogy

I don't often get excited by my day-to-day work, it's not that amazing and in some ways what we're doing isn't that significant - hey, couldn't any local authority stick a few Moodle servers in and get an E-Learning monkey like me to go around and evangelise / train / harangue schools into using them? However, today we're starting something which I hope has the potential to be exciting, interesting, innovative? Well, maybe the first two...
About nine months ago I wrote a post describing how we were planning on running a Master's course in E-Pedagogy in conjunction with Oxford Brookes. Well, numerous staff changes and significant faffing later we're starting today. There are 14 students (probably more eventually) here today and we're covering an introduction to the course and one another. The session is led by Annie Haight and Chris Higgins from Brookes, with myself giving input on the Bucks VLE side of things.
We've spent the morning doing some practical activities (using Lego) and discussing E-Learning & Educational Paradigms. After lunch we've moved on to thinking about What's different about E-Learning? and later on we're going to look at homework - creating a Reuseable Learning Object - for the next session, which is a week on Tuesday.
As you might expect all of the admin for the course will be done on the main BucksGfL Moodle, other than the final submission of course materials which has to be done on Oxford Brookes' WebCT/Blackboard VLE. We'll be using a simple forum to enable individuals to describe what they're planning on doing for their 'intervention' (i.e. the piece of E-Learning which will form the core of their course) and to be able to comment on others'. A wiki will contain their book review exercise - the wiki being set up so that each person has their own wiki, but can see and edit the wikis of their peers. I've placed most of the instructions for the task in an instance of a book - one of the optional modules available on our Moodles but one which is rarely used by schools - the only place I've seen it being used is in Great Marlow where their staff handbook is, unsurprisingly, a book...
One of the reasons for doing this is to encourage the participants on the course to try out modules which they might not otherwise have used. The Book module is a case in point: it can import a number of existing web pages - great for creating a student-authored guide to a play, a school, a subject - and is much more user friendly for large amounts of content than the default "Create a web page" option.
Essentially, I spent most of the day marvelling that the course had actually happened. The idea of a course, for Bucks schools, for all levels and not just Able, Gifted & Talented, was originally a flight of fancy between myself and Gill Potter from Brookes, and to see a room full of people who were just about to start their Certificate in Advanced Educational Practice in E-Epedagogy was very satisfying. Let's see how we all get on...

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Different ways to Moodle at secondary

Today was spent working in two different Buckinghamshire upper schools. Princes Risborough and Mandeville are of a similar size but are at different stages in the life of their VLE.
This morning at Princes Risborough was the first session of one of our groups of four we offer to secondary schools. When we started this sort of series of 'training' (I'd rather say education but that might sound a little condescending) the first session was always a tour of examples of other schools - both primary and secondary - who were already working in Moodle across the County. Nowadays it's different - we ensure that staff log on to their school's VLE and acesss a course as students. The course is repurposed from school to school (easily done in five minutes using Moodle's backup and restore functions) so we gradually refine it, so staff work as 'students' in a course 'taught' by myself and my colleagues - they see a student's view and can see the teacher's view via the data projector. The usual interactions - choices, forums (fora according to a Latin teacher at Beaconsfield High earlier this week...), quizzes, assignments, feedback questionnaires - are all done as if they were our students. The next stage will be to set up a 'sandpit' for each individual member of staff - so in the next session they can start to create resources and activities for themselves and, if there's time, enrol the other participants as students in their mythical course. Over the remaining three sessions this sandpit will start to contain examples of their practice - the sandpit analogy is useful, since it's just somewhere to play in, and if they want to they can rake it over and start again (i.e. delete everything). Perhaps the most significant thing about this morning was that the six people in the session included an Assistant Head, the Deputy Head and the Headteacher. Do you want buy-in from your Senior Leaders for your school's VLE or Learning Platform? You need this kind of support...
This afternoon at Mandeville the continuing use of those Sandpits came into its own. This was an additional session after the four introductory ones to enable staff to have time and space to think and practice in using the VLE. The school has a very clear plan about how the VLE should be started - each member of staff who did the initial sessions has identified a group of students to work with and the unit or units which they will use the VLE for. So today consisted of lunch to allow them to calm down (everyone worked during this session) and then the final period to start to work on their pilot content. Having this time out of teaching also legitimises the activity for staff - it's not something for the geeky and/or the keen, but something which could become part of regular teaching.
During the session almost everyone was continuing to work in their own Sandpits and so it was a natural progression to show how they could create new courses (by default, everyone who does the training becomes a Course Creator) and then use Moodle's Import function to bring in whatever they'd perfected in their Sandpit. This encourages the idea of experimentation and refinement - and also means that staff have somewhere to 'play' without feeling they might get something wrong in the full view of students.
The situation at Risborough this morning was unusual in that there are already a group of staff using the VLE - but the school is looking to launch it post-Easter and so this was a chance for senior leaders to find out what it was about and (very importantly) work out what the adoption of a VLE means for staff development, resourcing and other non-ICT areas. As one of the senior leaders present said afterwards "this is a chance for us dinosaurs (harsh, but I know what was meant) to find out what all these mammals are up to" - meaning the ICT-competent and literate NQTs who have a fundamentally different way of relating to technology in terms of how they use it to teach.
I think both schools today were interested in the model of VLE development at Great Marlow - one person who deals with a lot of the technical side who is bought in for a certain number of hours a week and someone else who works around the school with different departments, encouraging & supporting them to use the VLE to support and extend their teaching. Seeing this as a whole-school tool, rather than an isolated thing which might have an application in the future, sets the tone for staff expectations, student engagement and also releases senior leaders from the need to rush this process - with something of this size, it's clear it will take more than a term.

Monday, January 21, 2008

PuppyCam on our Connect server

Well, it's not quite one of Atomwide's LGfL Birdboxes, but I recently had an email from one of our primary schools asking if they could broadcast a webcam from one of the teacher's homes. The reason? The teacher's dog was due to have puppies a week or so ago and she wanted to show the children at school what the puppies were up to. Short of using something like Mogulus or Ustream (which would almost certainly be blocked from school) it was a simple task to set up a dedicated Connect meeting room, give the teacher permission for her BucksGfL login to manage that room, and create two layouts. One had a large view of the webcam, the other had the webcam at top left and focused on photographs of, or PowerPoints containing photographs of and information about, the puppies. The result? PuppyCam - and yes, if you do Google it, you'll find lots of other PuppyCammage.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Personal clipping from the Guardian into Moodle

OK, so I'm probably a bit late to the party on this but here's how a keen teacher could easily share articles (in this case from The Guardian newspaper) with students in a Moodle course.
The first thing she'd need to do is to register to create an account which lets her log in to the newspaper site (and comment on blogs, etc.).
Once this is done she'll be able to visit any story on the Guardian site and "clip" it - using the link at the foot of the page - to save it to a clippings file. She should probably note that some older stories have "Save Story" at the foot of the page - this is a hangover from an older system but any older Saved Stories can be moved to her clippings file.
Then, if she visits her clippings file she'll see that it's got an RSS feed. She could easily place this feed in an RSS Feed Block within her Moodle course - then her students could access her "clipped" stories through the RSS feed block. If she wanted to she could have a quick preview of my RSS feed (which shamelessly contains Moodle stories from the Guardian).
Of course, other newspapers and web sites can do this, but for some people it might be a simple way of starting off in social bookmarking.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Innovative Moodle development across a school

I've spent most of this morning in a meeting at Great Marlow School to explore, among other things, their steps towards integrating their Moodle with the Softlink Oliver library catalogue and our Adobe Connect videoconferencing and collaboration tool. Along the way I got to see a number of other developments they're undertaking. It's always encouraging when you see people working in ways in which you've imagined that schools might be able to work - and it's even more encouraging when they're working across an entire school. Here are some interesting aspects of the work I saw this morning...
Bullying Reporting Tool
An area for students contains a simple instance of the (optional) Feedback module which is in Atomwide's default build for Bucks and West Sussex Moodles. This tool allows students to report an incident of bullying anonymously, with the chance of giving their name if they want to. A pastoral co-ordinator gets an email whenever a student fills the form in - and the tool maintains a record of reports for later analysis if necessary. I'm hoping to co-author a tool like this (with different version for primary and secondary) to offer to schools if they want to use it through our BucksGfL Moodle Users area.
GMS Rewards System - Online Banking
This is an excellent tool whereby staff can issue "credits" to students in the form of an online banking system (which uses the fictitious currency of GMS Lira). It's essentially an instance of Moodle's Database module - with the course set up as separate groups - each student being in a group and hence only able to see their own credits and (if necessary) debits in the database. Credit is given for being a member of an organisation outside of school for a certain time, and a number of prizes are on offer for those with the highest balance at the end of specific periods. It's a really interesting and innovative use of the database tool - I love going to schools and seeing people using Moodle for things I'd never thought of.
Library System Integration
One thing I have thought for a while is that it's often the case that a group of people in secondary schools who get passed by in the development of a VLE are those who support students in the Library or Learning Resources centre of the school. People in these roles are used to handling, categorising and using large amounts of information and making it useful to students, so they're ideal to get involved at an early stage. In some schools I'd go so far to say that someone in that position should co-administer the VLE, as they may have the time to undertake some of the tasks a teacher might not (this depends on the school of course).
At GMS (and also at Beaconsfield High) the school have been wondering how they might start to integrate elements of their library system, which in the case of these schools is Softlink's Oliver.
This was first floated a while ago by Hadyn who works with GMS to develop their use of Moodle - a cursory view of the Oliver system didn't offer too much in the way of hooks which could be used in Moodle. However, with a bit of thought...
Most, if not all, of the information within Oliver is stored in a database - and as with any database, this could be exposed in different ways. It would be a fairly simple leap to make something like Oliver a little bit more Web 2.0ish - a simple way would be to exposed those searches, categories, reading lists, etc as RSS feeds displayed in Moodle RSS blocks. This would mean they could be easily included in any Moodle course (Geography reading lists in Geography courses, etc) and hence increase the use of Softlink's product. As far as I can see it, everyone wins.
Use of Adobe Connect to store content
You can store any file type in Moodle, right? Well, maybe that doesn't mean you should - particularly not if you've got a more efficient way of delivering it. GMS are (to my mind) leading the use of our Adobe Connect server for storing large and (typically) streamable files. In particular they are using it to store a number of videos relevant to science - and could even start to use it to host MP3 files to support music teaching. In the same way it's possible to create narrated PowerPoint content (like the background to the BucksGfL one I presented at a Naace conference a while ago) using the Adobe Presenter software (which our schools can use to upload PowerPoints to our Connect server) or simply just upload a normal PowerPoint and have it automatically converted to a Flash file. Here's another example written by a colleague on art - which explains why it is best to use the double primary colour palette and how to set out a painting station.
I'd love to have other secondaries developing like this in their own ways - to my mind this happens because GMS haev dedicated staff supporting the use of their VLE, whether it's for administration (an online staff bulletin), parents & carers' information, or support across the curriculum. With any luck we'll be able to share some of this with other Bucks secondary schools.

Monday, January 14, 2008

JANET, UKERNA & BT strike again

Almost exactly a year ago, we were attempting to do some demonstrations at BETT when, somewhere on the network, a card in a BT exchange became "unseated" - i.e. not sitting in its socket properly and connections across the BucksGfL WAN went down. As UKERNA / JANET were at the BETT show we were able to pester them about what was going on. As is the way with these things, the issue was passed to BT. What happened then was (to my mind) a Keystone Cops-esque tale of ineptitude as it took about three days to sort the problem out - and bear in mind that (as I understand it and I'm happy to be corrected) this was a card - basically a big version of a network card in a server or PC - which hadn't been pushed in properly. At one stage, a BT engineer was (so I'm told) sent to the wrong exchange to fix the problem. On finding that all was well at said exchange s/he went off home (understandably) and we were told that the problem had been fixed. Of course, anyone looking at a network connectivity map or trying to access a server or the internet could tell that it wasn't, but it got frustrating going back to the UKERNA / JANET stand and insisting that, no, it really really wasn't fixed.
Well, this morning (actually, as of yesterday), a similar problem has arisen - almost exactly a year on. Our UKERNA feed went down on Sunday - so it's Monday morning and (I'm assuming) there's no internet access beyond the WAN, or access to BucksGfL sites from outside of the WAN. Here's a simple test for you to see if UKERNA / JANET / BT have got their act together - try visiting this web site and, if the link doesn't work, they haven't fixed it yet...
The thing which spins my head around though is how this is almost exactly 12 months on from a very similar issue.
This is very pertinent actually in the light of last week's comments by Fronter about Moodle not being reliable enough for a 24/7 operation. Our Moodle servers are sat there, in County Hall, humming away (and they should be accessible from inside the WAN - i.e. schools should still be able to see them) and - let's be honest, any server - Moodle, Fronter, Microsoft, whoever is as vulnerable to this sort of issue as any other - the idea that spending a fortune on a VLE implementation will insulate you from this sort of issue is a fallacy.
11:30am update - a conversation with someone on our internal BucksCC service desk reveals that the entire UKERNA service for half of the south-east is down. Speaking to someone on the school's network reveals that the BucksGfL (and hence the Moodles) are accessible to schools as all are inside the BucksGfL WAN and hence insulated from this. Here's a quote from a JANET update:

Latest update from JANET
Loss of connectivity to several circuits in London (TT:20080113-1)
Update - 14/01/2008 09:40
BT have reported to us that is an SDH fault, the fault has been passed to their SDH team for further investigation. Further updates will follow when available.


There then follows a long list of services / LAs / colleges / Universities categorised in green or red according to whether they're working or not. Watch this space, or go outside in the sunshine if you have it...

3.30pm update - still nothing, though the lack of contact I've had from schools (other than those who aren't on the BucksGfL) suggests that they can still access their Moodles.

9.15pm update - il marche! A quick attempt to browse to the Winslow Moodle on my phone reveals that everything's peachy now.

Final outcome: the outage lasted from lunchtime on Sunday until between 7 and 8pm on Monday. The cause of the problem was a failed ATM card in a BT circuit somewhere in London. Schools couldn't access the internet but could still work within the network - i.e. could access their Moodles and send and receive internal emails.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Teachmeet at BETT

Blogging from TeachMeet 2008...
NCSL - videos and resources for leaders
RM Asus - nice brief presentation (and this blog post is being written on a stylish black Asus)
Jeff Howson - uLearn - this is a sales pitch - it's the Naace Social Networking conference all over again
TeachMeet 2032? It's going to be virtual, Ewan will be a grandfather.
Bugger, this one was me. My Flash movie didn't work so I had to use the one in my email from DylanMessaging.com, which was the non-paused version of this message. I showed the Moodle Support area of the BucksGfL and the directory of shared courses. I think I mainly mumbled. Hmm. Anyway, here's the message - please don't read too much into it!
Back to the good presentations. The next one is Vivien Bailey from Warwickshire, who's talking about blogging using Honeycomb. We've looked at Honeycomb for ideas for a primary ePortfolio, but the price was waaaay to high - who knows if this might change?
Ian Grove-Stephenson (who I've spoken to on the phone but have never met) is talking about Yacapaca.
A fiteen minute break.
Andy Black is doing gadgets and gizmos. "It's not about the device stupid". A lot of random gadgets... including a rare battery powered data projector.
Nanopresentations - Doug Dickinson on Ictopus, Doug Belshaw on a new EdTech podcast, Steve Sidaway on EduTxt, Dave Stacey on Ten Commandments on Evangelising ICT.
Theo Kuchel on Free and Easy. Tools like Sketch for the Mac and some impromptu community singing...
Drew Buddie - no Powerpoint, just a mobius strip on large pieces of paper. Plus one pair of scissors. I've seen this before at the MoodleMoot a couple of years ago.
Leon's doing his live video streaming (Mogulus) and Creative Commons licensing (Picture Sandbox)
Derek Robertson on games based learning. Phoenix Wright sounds like Phoenix Nights (in pronunciation) and there's been a merrrder.
And that's it - time for Pizza Express. But not this one.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Kevin Brennan in non-attendance at BETT shocker

It's already been given plenty of attention by Ewan Mcintosh and now on Futurelab's Flux, but I somehow doubt that Kevin Brennan (under secretary of state for Children, Schools and Families) will be attending the BETT show, which opens tomorrow morning. Having recently presented at an event he was speaking at I was quietly encouraged by what he said there, now I figure I must have been wrong. His responsibilities are "pupil behaviour, attendance, and tackling bullying; the Respect agenda; and health issues including school food, Healthy Schools, obesity, drugs and alcohol" so I guess it's the first of those which "informed" his recent comments on leaving "gadgets" at home. You'd hope that Jim Knight, who spoke at last year's Naace conference and seemed very positive, would have a different view, particularly in the light of recent rumblings from government.
Maybe Kevin would like to sit down with Marc Prensky for ten minutes...


I'll be at BETT, probably around the Adobe stand at stand K40 (and maybe occasionally at the next-door Atomwide stand) over the full four days - ouch. If you've any questions (awkward or otherwise) about Moodle then please come and say "hello" - in many ways, despite an alleged emphasis on 'personalisation', BETT can feel like The Most Impersonal Place In The World Ever, so it's always nice to see a smiling face or two. I've just realised - I've no business cards left! D'oh!
Away from BETT, the interesting thing for me is that over the years it's becoming clear how pupils aren't just sat in front of computers when they use their schools' VLEs. Playstation Portables and mobile phones are regularly used to access some of our schools' Moodles and now no doubt the web-enabled 360s, PS3s and Wiis will start to enable access to these and other resources. One post from a primary school's Moodle forums I vividly remember was a boy saying that he was taking his PSP to his nan's so he could be online there - I'm not sure what was more intriguing, the fact he planned on doing that or that his nan had wifi. Maybe she'll have a Wii soon...

Open Source is as much about the people as the product

[here's the original version of the Guardian Soapbox piece which was published on 8th January 2008. I think it reads better, but then I'm not really qualified in this area...]
BETT: A Tube journey with a nose in an armpit which isn’t yours; more free pens than you can shake a memory stick at; a quest commissioned by your SLT to return with a Golden Fleece in the form of a Learning Platform. But wait, what am I really doing here?
Think about things which have transformed your school, or at least part of your teaching. What do they have in common? Did a piece of software or hardware revolutionise your school on its own? I doubt it. Whatever a vendor at the BETT Show might try to tell you, even as you flick through their glowing case study – liberally seasoned with words like 'personalisation', 'transformational', 'Every Child Matters' and the like - it's not expensive products which transform learning, teaching, or even a school, it's people. We know this, that’s why we’re here. But what now?
Open Source tools are free, inferior, DIY versions of commercial ones, aren’t they? So how could tools like these help build capable people? Commercial vendors describe cheap, amateurish, unreliable solutions hosted in a corner of a room – or, according to a DfES/DCSF representative, “boys playing in garden sheds”– caricatures which say much about their authors. However, the significance of “free” in Open Source is not the financial aspect, but the freedom to work as you wish, on your terms and in your own style rather than as determined by the software market’s received wisdom. For those of us who rely on Open Source solutions in the arena of Learning Platforms, the organic nature of the tools we’re using leads to something which makes sense to hard-pressed teachers who want to work together and share resources – collaboration. Making such tools available to schools without the “we’ve paid a lot for this so you’d better get on and use it” expectation allows us to support staff in their thinking, planning and pedagogy, rather than encouraging a headlong rush to use something because the financial clock is ticking and the next budget review is due.
So with this in mind, what’s the reality of a “free trial”? You must take time to nurture and develop the use of a VLE or Learning Platform across your whole school rather than follow the unsustainable pace of the geeky and the keen. But for how long? A month? A term? A year? However long the trial is, rest assured that it won’t be long enough to properly evaluate the nature of the product – or, more importantly, the culture and readiness of your school to use it to work in a new way. For that privilege, you’ll have to pay. One school signed up for a “comprehensive” Becta-approved learning platform provider only to find that the VLE element wasn’t up to scratch – not the sort of thing you discover in a trial period and an expensive mistake to make.
No matter what a vendor might tell you at BETT, all competent learning environments have similar capabilities – and hence are all as vulnerable to failure due to an ill thought-through implementation in a school. The best remedy for this? Build capacity in the people you work with – invest in their CPD rather than a product. So, if you’re at BETT, or even if you’re not, think about what really builds capacity in your school. Think for yourself, work with others, ask awkward questions and who knows, you might return with a golden fleece.

Response to elements of the Guardian Link's Moodle article

I thought I'd write a few lines to respond to some of the statements in the Guardian's Moodle article, which is published today in the Link E-Learning supplement.
[Warning: may contain strong and personal opinions]
As ever when someone from a commercial interest tries to comment on Moodle, much of what is said there is, unintentionally or otherwise, based on misinformation which starts to bear an uncanny resemblence to the tactic of fear, uncertainty and doubt.
First off, here's an entertaining and, to be blunt, entirely bogus quote from a Fronter representative:
Moodle can’t meet the availability and reliability necessary for a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operation.
Let's look at least one of the huge assumptions packed into such a tiny statement. First of all, this statement attempts to reinforce the notion that using an Open Source tool means that it's got to be installed on a second-hand (and probably old) server somewhere in a dusty server room, probably maintained by a pale-skinned geek who, if he doesn't communicate in binary, barely speaks English and might live in a shed. It's a bit like saying that MS Office wouldn't be worth relying on because there's a chance it might be installed on a old, dodgy laptop with a flaky hard disk and badly seated memory and the "S" key missing from the keyboard. The above statement would ring true if it read:
A badly-run and supported server can’t meet the availability and reliability necessary for a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operation.
Now that rings true, but do you see the problem with a statement like that? This statement would mean that any learning platform, VLE, or other critical service would not "meet the availability and reliability" if the service underpinning it wasn't up to scratch. Imagine the horror if a core element of a Learning Platform service wasn't available for four days. That couldn't happen. Could it? Oops, looks like it could. Now then, the RM Easymail system can be part of the RM Learning Platform offering, but could you see a Fronter rep saying something similar about RM? Nope, I didn't think so either...
How badly thought through that statement is becomes even clearer when you consider what Becta have said (again and again) about what the Learning Platform framework is about. It's not about a product, it's about a service. That service is the totality of everything - the product, the infrastructure supporting it, the helpdesk which supports the users... hopefully you get the idea. Also, does the Fronter rep seriously think that the Open University, the LSE and others aren't bothered about their services being available 24/7?
Now of course, any server can go down, but that doesn't reflect on the services being run on it - unless you're threatened by another product, in which case don't worry about being accurate, just make stuff up. A quote from an RM rep says:
What are the costs of hosting, managing and running it? What does it cost to tailor it to what you want it to be? Moodle is very 'tailorable' but it can have slightly higher configuration charges. You have to sit down and do it yourself or every teacher has to, and that has a cost.
Well, let's answer that in the context that I know about, that of what we're doing in Bucks.
The cost of hosting, managing and running it? The same, if not less, than any commercial offering. Moodle is offered to our schools as part of their broadband connection and costs them nothing to host. As for managing and running it - the cost is the same as anything and it's a time cost and resourcing cost for the thing that's worth investing in - people. This cost exists for any learning environment and it's a fallacy to suggest otherwise.
To suggest that every teacher needs to configure Moodle themselves is bizarre (and for what it's worth fits neatly into at least one of the Top 10 Moodle Myths which you might like to read immediately after).
Yet again, take a closer look at that statement. How is the notion of "slightly higher configuration charges" arrived at? We've been working with West Sussex and other LAs to develop, over a number of years, the optimum way of setting up Moodles for our schools and this doesn't cost the schools anything. Actually, a phrase like "slightly higher configuration charges" does sound exactly like it's inspired by the Wikipedia definition of Fear Uncertainty and Doubt referred to earlier...

FUD is generally a strategic attempt to influence public perception by disseminating negative (and vague) information.

Here's a statement which made me smile (wryly and to myself):

The need for interoperability is crucial, insist the [proprietary] learning platform people, because secondary schools are expected to work collaboratively with neighbouring schools on the new 14-19 diplomas.

The implication of this statement is that it's not possible to interoperate with Moodle. Well, it's a good thing that that's crucial, since we've only got a system which allows single sign-on for any of our users into any school Moodle (with permission) using the same username and password - and all this without going near Shibboleth (which Moodle can do in its sleep).

Sometimes statements like this confuse me. I can't decide if they come from an accidental misunderstanding of Moodle (or whatever) or a deliberate piece of misinformation. As it's a new year and I'm feeling charitable, I'll assume the former, but you can make up your own mind. Either way, these statements are just plain wrong. Rest assured though, if you're a school trawling around BETT this week and you mention that you're using Moodle to one of the Becta LP Platform suppliers, they'll be doing their best to scare you out of it...

Monday, January 07, 2008

Moodle training - for 64 people

The first day of term, so for many schools that means Inset. Towards the end of last term as a team we began to receive a series of requests to offer Inset training to schools today. Well, we could only be in one place at a time so today Geoff L and I spent one day training what might well have been nearly all of the staff at Holmer Green Senior School. This is a school which has used another learning platform (I Survey Nit, (1, anag.)) in the past and has moved to Moodle. Today our training was very different to the normal funded training we offer for both primaries and secondaries.

The day was broken into hour-long sessions under the umbrella term of Learning is not a spectator sport and as such our sessions were hands on, giving staff the role of students in a VLE Inset Introduction area with Geoff, the school's ICT AST and myself as teachers.
Normally in our 4 session training we'd work through a number of activities, thinking about how they might be used and following up staff experiencing them with a chance to create their own. Such was the compressed nature of today's sessions (with about 40 minutes to be introduced to Moodle after settling in and ensuring that everyone had their username and password) that we eschewed creating examples of activities with staff. Instead we let them be students on a pre-prepared course - undertaking a Choice, a Forum, a Feedback activity, a Quiz and an Assignment as students so that they could get a feel for what's possible within a VLE.
For the first time in training we actively used groups (visible groups in Moodle) so that the sessions were more manageable and that staff could get experience of different cohorts of students (their groups) accessing the same set of materials (the VLE Inset Intro course).
Using a Quiz Results Block in the course allowed staff to see how they'd got on in the general knowledge quiz (1 attempt, a 5 minute time limit, instant feedback) which included a range of questions (matching, short answer, calculated, numerical, mutiple choice, multiple answer and some others).
Today was also the first time we'd actually had course members enrolling themselves in the course and becoming group members at the same time. This is done by setting up the groups and then editing the group details to set an enrolment key for that particular group. This means that, as an alternative to using the default enrolment key, the group's enrolment key can be entered by a student. As well as enrolling the student on the course, the group's enrolment key automagically makes them part of that group. This would be a very easy way of getting a whole year group to self-enrol on a common course while creating groups automatically.
This was the first time we've done a structured training day like this for multiple cohorts. It was a bit of a production line, but actually surprisingly effective. Hopefully it will inform the 4 day training we will do at the school in May and June of this year - staff will now know what they will be involved in creating and learning. The highlight of the day was definitely someone who really really didn't want to be involved at the start and could see little or no relevance who, by the end of the session in question, said "someone from my Dept has got to be involved in this...". Result?