Monday, November 23, 2009

Using a VLE with teachers as the learners

Today I've been at my second face-to-face session with teachers from all over the County who make up the Teachers As Writers group (despite being started in November, this post wasn't finished until the end of the Autumn term). The TAW project is part-funded by NATE, the National Association for the Teaching of English and is being led by Simon Wrigley (our English Adviser and former Chair of NATE) and Jeni Smith from the University of East Anglia. Here's Simon's desciption of where the project had its genesis:

TAW was inspired by rage over the past 20 years of seeing the culture of English teachers denigrated, side-lined and eroded by centralised systems more concerned with control than learning. The National Association for the Teaching of English (a completely independent charity, funded entirely by subscriptions of those wanting a free voice in education) has argued for all that time (and indeed since its foundation in 1964) that teachers' culture was by no means all bad, that teachers knew things and, if trusted, could improve the lot of learners through their own agency. All this fell on the deaf ears of government- until about 2005 when it seemed that the powers that be were force to admit that without attending to the health of teachers' professional 'hinterland', further 'progress' was stalled. In fact, shortly before that the DCSF had been forced to concede that testing arrangements at KS1 were flawed, the importance of talk for learning had been underplayed, and there was a great deal more to education than that which could be easily be measured (eg ECM). And despite the enormously expensive apparatus of inspection and assessment, in the end, if a professional education service was to work well, you had to nurture and trust professionals rather than dictate to them or dismiss them. Indeed, had it not been for the professionals pointing out the short-comings of education policy, the policy would not have improved.
TAW was also inspired by the growing conviction that teachers who were succeeding with learners did so by their own energy, enthusiasm and reflection, by personal understanding of their pupils, and by trusting that film and literature had ways of talking directly to pupils which no amount of simplified method or scheme could do. What was needed was to gather teachers into self-help groups so that they had the space, time and respect to recharge their batteries, gather evidence and support each other. TAW's final impetus came from Jeni and I discussing writing groups which we had run with NATE over the past 17 years in Suffolk, Norfolk, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, London, Cambridge in the light of two government publications. That teachers of writing should write - and hence build healthier writing environments for pupils in classrooms - was endorsed and encouraged by Richard Andrews (Lecturer at the Institute of Education) in his 2008 DCSF report Getting Going, and by Phil Jarrett, (English HMI) in his 2009 Ofsted report, English at the Crossroads.

Bucks TAW is funded by Bucks County and DCSF Strategy money for the professional development of lead teachers, and for raising standards. It is endorsed by NATE and by UEA. Other TAW writing groups run by Jeni and by me will be contributing to the overall findings; these are funded by teachers themselves or their institutions. Jeni runs several other (mainly self-funded) writing groups, including a student writing group that must, therefore, be funded by UEA.

Bucks TAW's aims are:
  1. to explore CPD which gives teachers independent professional confidence through having more agency in research, and gathering evidence of their own;
  2. to improve the teaching of writing through more careful reflection on the processes of writing;
  3. to develop a sustainable model of professional development in the LA;
  4. to understand how on-line sharing may support the teaching and learning of writing in conjunction with paper and face-to-face methods.
The cohort of teachers was selected after submitting examples of their writing and have met a couple of times at the Teaching & Learning Centre in Aylesbury, as well as an inspirational day at the British Museum. My role has been to think creatively about the ways in which an online environment could support them - between the sessions the writers have little or no contact with one another - they are from primary and secondary schools across the county - and so a few months ago Simon approached me about the role an online Moodle-based environment could play. Prior to the project Simon was a self-confessed techno-agnostic - he could see the value of its use and was keen but (and I think he'd agree with this) often struggled with using it effectively in a way that wasn't frustrating. I've been longing to do this sort of thing - a medium term, involved, committed, blended approach to teachers working together - for ages, so I jumped at the chance. Here is a rough outline of the process:
  • The first thing was to establish a Moodle course on our central BucksGfL Moodle (to which staff from all schools have access) and, importantly, establish a server redirect so we could give out a simple, easy to remember URL - www.bucksgfl.org.uk/taw rather than www.bucksgfl.org.uk/course/view.php?id=413.
  • The next stage was to ensure that all participants had BucksGfL accounts. Due to the unified username system we use across the county, most did, but there were several people from schools who run their own username systems and won't play ball with other schools - these needed to be created as "one offs" along with a username for Jeni Smith. Simon & Jeni were given editors' rights over the course.
  • The first exercise was to establish a simple forum (set up with the "Each user posts one discussion" setting) and encourage participants to introduce themselves, what they'd like to learn about their writing or themselves, one claim to fame they had, and what they could see from their window. This last one was shameless ripped from the NCSL's online facilitation courses, but it seems to work, and we're about sharing practice, right?
  • Despite having never done any NCSL facilitator's training, Simon responded to all of the introductions (as did Jeni) prior to the initial project meeting at the Teaching & Learning C Centre in Aylesbury - an important part in encouraging further responses within the online space.
  • At the first session, the group went through various writing exercises, were given (real!) notebooks to work with, and introduced to the elements of the Moodle course. These were:
  • Various relevant documents from Ofsted, NATE, etc inserted as Resources in the course;
  • A Creative Writing Journal which was implemented using the (vaguely redundant) Journal module;
  • A series of open Forums to allow participants to share Examples of their own writing, Reflections on their own writing, Close (anonymised) observations of children writing and Reflections on classroom practice.
At the inception of the project we acknowledged that we didn't know how the use of the online tools to support the project might progress - we didn't really know how confident the participants were with using ICT and how comfortable they would be with sharing their writing and thoughts with their peers - we tried to structure it to have a private space (the Creative Writing Journal) and a public space (the forums). Right from the start we intended to start the project off and review and revise the use of the tools as it progressed. As expected, number of issues became apparent during the early use of the course.
  • The pretty-much-obsolete Journal module didn't retain formatting when someone wrote a poem, or allow the creation of multiple pages, plus the commenting/grading system was unwieldy. At the start of the project I'd seriously considered setting up a Wiki (with its configuration to be No Groups / Student) so that one activity could effectively create 16 parallel Creative Writing Journals, though shied away from it as, without explanation, it can be a complex tool. However, the needs of the participants and the course meant that moving to a Wiki was the right thing to do. Using a wiki meant that Simon and Jeni could switch between the journals by using the menu at top right when viewing the wiki:

    This also gave participants who were bothered the ability to add a structure to their journal, by using the [square brackets] method of adding a page. This was a move away from the Journal activity, and simply required me to go through the Journal and copy the entries to the wiki, adding structure where it was obvious. I introduced this at the third session at the Teaching & Learning Centre and we spent ten minutes on it so that the participants could familiarise themselves with the new model. It works much better, and allows Simon or Jenny to add comments to any page simply by adding the text [Comment by Name] to the foot of the page and then adding their observations on the new page. The iterative, versioned nature of a Wiki activity also allows the course leaders to see how a piece of writing has developed.
  • It became apparent that one or two participants were getting overrun with email notifications from forums they had subscribed to, possibly without realising what this would mean when other participants posted to that forum. Each email from a Moodle forum comes complete with a link to unsubscribe - however my experience with being a member of the Naacetalk list for years shows that even those who have an allegedly advisory role in ICT can struggle with simple instructions on how unsubscribe, so at the top of the course we placed a link to the list of all the forums on the Moodle course, with instructions to have a good look at the Yes and No buttons as an indication of how many forums the participant was subscribed to.
  • Jeni had indicated that she wanted to share resources with ideas for writing with the group - a forum could have worked, but part of my approach was to broaden the range of tools we used, so I created a simple Database activity which allowed comments. Why do this? Well, we're working with a diverse group of teachers from an equally diverse range of schools and I wanted to give them examples of the different Moodle tools and how they might be used. After all, although TAW is explicity not a course, it does involve a cohort of 'learners' with nominal course leaders.
  • We used the non-standard Questionnaire module to carry out a survey of participants' attitude to and experiences of writing to get some baseline data. I chose the Questionnaire module over the easier-to-use Feedback module due to the ease with with a grid of similar "Rate"-type questions can be created - the two questions in the following image would require at least 11 questions to be created in a similar Feedback activity:
  • After filling in the questionnaire we asked the participants to reflect on their writing in an Online Text Assignment activity with a due date of the end of the (Calendar) year - as there's a need to move on through the process in the Spring Term.
  • Creating a web page of links to (and thumbnails of) relevant texts available from Amazon and embedding significant extracts of relevant texts on Google Books.
  • Simon has also been blogging about the project, a nice reflective process for the duration of the work and it's been encouraging and interesting to see how the fortunes of the project - and the participation levels have been interesting. Obviously they've peaked around the face-to-face sessions, but there's been an encouragingly consistent level. In this sort of project there's no guarantee of "success" through a ski slope of increased participation - but what's been encouraging is the level of engagement from the participants - e.g. the content of their contributions, not just the number of them:
Throughout the process I've been encouraged to see the reflections of those taking part and a number of requests to create something similar to the course which supports the TAW project on their VLEs - at primary, secondary and Sixth Form level. I'm really excited and encouraged by the project - it's an (at least) year-long endeavour and offers what would hopefully be a way of "developing a sustainable model of professional development in the LA" (to quote Simon's introduction above) and "to understand how on-line sharing may support the teaching and learning of writing in conjunction with paper and face-to-face methods". If we get a clear idea of both of these then, for me anyway, the project will have been a success. I'm not afraid of saying that we didn't get things right in the first iteration, but things are much more focused after the tweaks we made and will also hopefully improve throughout the rest of the year. Simon has reported that "TAW was well received by Phil Jarrett and others at the Ofsted conference on December 15th" which might be a sign that we're heading in the right direction. I may try and ask Simon to do a guest post on this blog about his experience on the project - and the more and more I reflect on the project, the more likely I am to submit a micropresentation on it for the forthcoming TeachMeet at BETT 2010. Watch this space. Or that one.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Microsoft, Moodle & Ayers Rock

At the start of June I was invited to Microsoft's HQ in Reading to be shown some developments that the company has made in the area of VLEs/CMSs/Learning Platforms. I mentioned this briefly on Twitter and received a number of responses and direct messages speculating on what this might mean. Some were positive, some were of the "I've heard MS wants to kill Moodle with version nn of Sharepoint" variety, others said "Don't drink the Kool-Aid".

Microsoft, Moodle & us

Our relationship with Microsoft (or at least their products) in Bucks varies - naturally all schools use their products in some form and to varying degrees and prior to our use of Moodle on a significant scale most of the servers at Atomwide (who do our hosting) were, as far as I could tell, MS-based. When we started our Moodle project both our central Moodles & the schools' Moodles were hosted on Microsoft's IIS web servers. When the scale of the project increased, it became apparent that for a number of reasons the Moodle installations weren't running as well as they might have done. Over two years ago I wrote about how we switched to Linux-based servers and, as the project has scaled there appears to be no reason to switch back. The vague “real time reporting to parents” targets will (apparently) be met with a SharePoint-esque integration with Capita’s unweidly, as-open-to-the-rest-of-the-world-as-North-Korean-pop-culture SIMS and any SharePoint integration gives schools another chance to have a whole different set of interactions with parents, or completely confuse staff even further, depending on your point of view.

The (mainly) NDA stuff

So what was the meeting in Reading about? Well, two main subjects, primarily the work that Microsoft have been doing to begin to bring the worlds of SharePoint and Moodle together. It's still NDA, but as a first draft I thought it was an interesting take on things. Also at the meeting in Reading were colleagues from Swansea and Pembrokeshire, who are definitely starting at the other end of the scale from where we are - heavy users of SharePoint who are looking to develop their use of Moodle, whereas we're travelling in the same direction for reasons mentioned above. I can’t go into much detail (all will probably be revealed at some point in the near future), but I think that the Moodle integration & associated tools, though well intentioned, may be based on a model of Moodle use that’s not that widespread in schools. The forums on Moodle.org are a useful place to get support if you are in the developer/pathfinder/early adopter role, but aren’t necessarily the place where a regular teacher would share what they’re doing. Hence, I think the MS approach, while having much to commend it, may need some finessing before it turns into something that a regular Moodler (meaning a teacher in a school) might use in their day-to-day moodling - it may be too based on patterns of use described on the Moodle support forums. Those forums aren't where (for example) teachers in our schools in Buckinghamshire would describe how they were working, but as someone who started experimenting with Moodle before we adopted it it was there that I'd ask questions, but they were definitely asked from a situation where our use of Moodle was in beta - even if the software wasn't, and hence wouldn't be "normal" use cases.
The second part of the meeting (and, if anything can be judged by the amount of time spent on it, the less significant part) was concerned with what is (or was at that time) the forthcoming integration of Microsoft's Live@Edu services plugin for Moodle. Essentially this is a block which, if an institution subscribes to the Live@EDU services or has hosted Exchange servers (as many of our schools do), allows some integration with Moodle (single sign-on). The first thing in many people’s minds when they saw this was probably the MoodleRooms work on combining Google Apps and Moodle. It’s a very fertile area and offers lots of potential for future development – integration of Calendars (with Moodle Calendars, including Assignments, Quizzes and other events) feeding into a user’s Google or Live Calendar via the iCal/RSS-type Calendar feed.

Reading the tea leaves

Microsoft’s relationship with anything Open Source is hard to judge – clearly it has an interest (to put it in the bluntest of terms) in obliterating any Open Source products which compete directly with MS products, or even that operate in an arena that MS thinks it can make serious money in. However, the abundance of free tools from MS’s competitors (some large corporations such as Google, others more niche such as SlideRocket) means that simply taking out (or trying to buy) “competitors” one at a time won’t work any more; for every competitor removed another ten probably exist and are more agile than the one that rolled over and allowed Microsoft to tickle its tummy with a wad of cash. Hence there’s a need to embrace, or offer compatibility with, Open Source projects.
At BETT earlier this year I (nearly literally) bumped into someone from the Microsoft Open Source development lab at the Synergy Learning stand. Now, you may think that any OS development team from Redmond is probably located under the stairs and shares its space with one of those mop buckets on wheels and 50 tins of furniture polish, but I don’t think it’s quite like that. The Microsoft guy was clearly coming out of left-field (he had Moo business cards, not the standard issue MS corporate cards) and was talking about how his (admittedly small) team were looking at optimising things like PHP to run on MS servers (see the performance issues I mentioned above) and the like – stemming from what he saw as the demand from lots of organisations who use MS-based infrastructure to run Moodle simply and efficiently on top of this. MS’s worst nightmare might be that they lost out on the server market due to their systems’ poor performance running tools (like Moodle) that their existing clients wanted to use. The MS guy (if I still had his Moo card I’d namecheck him) was keen on Moodle and Mahara – but mainly keen that they ran on MS servers, which fits in with the model that Microsoft would want to go for large scale licensing rather than the odd school using MS servers here and there (would the larger scale model sit well within BSF, or would a smaller one be better? I'm not sure...).
This all seems like good news if you’re in to Moodle and the like – however, my mind keeps coming back to what a trusted contact told me about what a Microsoft rep said as part of a BSF planning process elsewhere in the UK – that Microsoft wanted to destroy Moodle and its like using SharePoint, that well known, pedagogically founded (don’t start me on that…), not derived from an office-app tool.
In my experience its very easy to find different faces of a large corporation saying completely different things – so I can sit in a room in Reading with some guys from Seattle who say that they embrace Moodle, while someone else hears in a BSF meeting that the Master Plan is to do away with the same. Meanwhile, I’m assured by a senior MS UK person that the presence of the guys from Seattle means that the local rep in the BSF meeting must be wrong – but will anyone tellthe rep, or has he maybe blurted out something he shouldn't have ? I’d see it that the guys from the States have recognised that the thing that they once categorised as a weed – invasive, alien to their plot of land, to be eliminated at all costs – actually brings diversity and colour to their monocultured, industrially farmed plot – whereas the local rep in the BSF meeting is still reading last year’s instructions from his chief gardener, promising that your lawn will be perfectly green and uniform (or probably covered with perfectly graded gravel) with a liberal application from the big green spray can labelled SharePoint.

Uluru on the horizon

Image by mingzhuxia used under a Creative Commons licenseSpeaking of which, a few indicators on the internet give another angle on what might be Microsoft's genuine view of Moodle - more like an annoying insect to be swatted away. Read that quote at the top of this post again - "I've heard MS wants to kill Moodle with version nn of Sharepoint". Now, if you recall, the local UK response is "Nope" - but then I had an interesting conversation with someone at the recent Open Source Schools conference. "Google Uluru" he said, "it's Microsoft's attempt to kill Moodle". Now, of course if you Google/Bing search for "uluru" you'll find your results dominated by Ayers Rock - Uluru is the Aboriginal name for this. So, a little more digging is required. Doing this finds the following:
So, what to surmise? Uluru is (in my mind) a direct like-for-like Moodle replacement which ties tightly into Sharepoint for those who are too scared to run anything which isn't Microsoft badged (Moodle) - or, from MS's point of view, those who might do and might end up exploring other server technologies (e.g. OSS) and dent MS's revenue stream - which would obviate the need for the MS guy with the Moo cards and his team since, as Blackadder would say, "Satan will skate to work" before Sharepoint runs on any OS other than Microsoft's latest one. I would imagine that Uluru would feature Silverlight heavily (or as a "value-added" option - "use Silverlight and you'll get a better experience") as Microsoft needs to increase the use of Silverlight, which currently doesn't register on many users' lists of core tools for a good online experience. Oh, and Uluru is a codename, just like all commercial tools have codenames while they're in beta/alpha, so "part of Sharepoint" or "Sharepoint Learning Environment" will be a better approximation.
So, what exactly is Microsoft's view on Moodle? I guess the answer is "that depends on who you talk to". Maybe the rep at the BSF meeting knows the true story (the "eliminate at all costs" view) and blurted it out, maybe the team from Seattle represent another view (that Moodle is something to be embraced) - certainly the work they've put in seems to suggest it. What do you think? If you've used Uluru and know Moodle, what's your point of view?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Whole School Moodle Inset - An Unusually Flushbunkingly Gloriumptious Day

Great Missenden, where Roald Dahl lived and where the inspiration for the released-this-week Fantastic Mr Fox was formed, has one secondary school - The Misbourne. In January this year my colleague Geoff and I did our four sessions at the school in liason with Lisa, one of the Associate Headteachers (a level of senior management I'd not encountered before). Rather than the often seemingly random selection of people that would be selected to be involved in training, the bulk of the people we worked with were the Fourths in Faculty (4iFs) - who would be responsible for developing and managing the VLE for their faculty. The training went well - not unremarkable, but from about nine months ago it's one of those things that I don't remember maybe as well as I might have, other than getting to the school through snow one morning to find that it had just been closed and we had to reschedule the training session...Anyway, a few weeks ago I was contacted by Lisa and asked if it would be possible to come and support the school in an Inset day just before half term. The bulk of the day was to be focused on the VLE, which struck me as a brave move, for a number of reasons. Firstly, because it's normally difficult enough to engage even keen people on a VLE for more than a few hours and secondly because it's a really difficult task to engage a whole teaching staff in the use of a tool like Moodle, particularly when there's little existing use of that type of tool in a school. I visited the school at the end of the day last Tuesday and the signs weren't good - a partial power cut (due to EDF, not anything inside the school) had closed parts of the site meaning that there was little or no power or network availability for several of the computer rooms. Also since the summer there have been some significant changes in the school and a new headteacher has arrived, who I'd heard was keen for staff to start using the VLE to support home learning. I've seen an over-keen member of SLT come up with an arbitrary "thou shalt have all thy homework on the VLE by Christmas" target (without a real appreciation of Just What That Means For Staff) and have the expected result, so that sort of hearsay was interesting but only encouraging in parts.
I should have known better. I had one of the most rewarding days I've had in a long time (which I'm sure is a sign of something).
The 4iFs have clearly been working really hard on using their Moodle courses, both to support their students' learning and to ensure that they were on form for today. This was important as, after a half hour introduction from me to the 80+ staff in the main hall, the 4iFs would be leading three sessions with the aim of ensuring everyone had a resource they could use with students by the end of the day. Not aiming low then...
My presentation was OK - I showed some of the usual Moodle suspects from around Buckinghamshire and also had a couple of minutes to meet the new Head - who has come from West Sussex and was in one of Mark Granger and Steve Snowball's Moodle pilot schools in Chichester, so has a grounded & realistic expectation about how the VLE could support home learning.
The first practical thing we did was to break into groups, which were arranged not by Faculty, so that any pre-existing pecking orders didn't affect training, but by self-measured ICT competence, so each 4iF had a group of people who were all similarly confident (or not as the case may be) and ready to move ahead at the same pace.
First up everyone enrolled on a course as a student (in groups, using Group enrolment keys, where the enrolment key was the room number they were in). They then had a look around a course and undertook a timed general knowledge quiz. This experience was important, as the focus for the afternoon was to be making their own quizzes. Prizes were offered for the top scores in each room (Green & Black's chocolate) and for the room with the highest average score (going for lunch ten minutes before the other rooms) - both were displayed using the Quiz Results block. Doing this in groups meant that we could illustrate how groups could be used to deliver a course across a number of different cohorts and how the complete data from a quiz would be displayed with the group data compared with it.
Then the groups moved at their own pace to develop resources - during the morning break one of the 4iFs (who himself is very proficient at using Moodle) said to me "I think they're already ahead of me".
After lunch I worked with four of the people who were already streaking ahead with their use of the VLE to give a little more specific and intensive coaching - aka "A crash course in things you've not used before". In about 40 mins we whisked through...

  • using wikis in Student mode to create a learning log which students could manage & edit themselves;
  • allowing HoDs in other schools limited access to exemplar courses through Guest access & the course's enrolment key;
  • exploring the use of the Feedback activity for all sorts of evaluation exercises;
  • uploading and using video in Moodle (using the excellent Any Video Converter to make .flv videos which can easily be used in Quiz questions, Forums, or other activities)
Meanwhile, the other rooms were completing the day's evaluation, done (naturally) on the VLE through another Feedback activity.
Up, Up and Away...?I'm well aware that some people won't have done everything they want to do and some will have half-finished resources, but it was so encouraging to hear the buzz around the school for all of the day. Lots of people were commenting how positive everyone was and there's lots to build on.
One of the most encouraging aspects of the day was that, from my point of view, this wasn't a school that will be unable to move forward without detailed ongoing support from my colleagues and I. The fact that the bulk of the training was done by staff in the school is indictive of the capability that's there. This, allied with strong support from the ICT support staff (in the more complex issues such as taking SCORM packages from publishers), indicates that the school will be able to become more independent and forward-thinking in its use of online learning. Ironically it's the sort of place that I'd be more and more happy to do further support in, even though it might be needed less than other schools, because it would be work done in the knowledge that it would be fruitful and productive, rather than the feeling of pushing water uphill, which could be the case in a school where there was a desire to use a VLE from some staff, but there was no overall direction and plan of how it would support the school as a whole among SLT/SMT. I really got the feeling that there was at The Misbourne, and the atmosphere and "buzz" described by others, along with the sunny autumnal day I spent there, made it a great end to an odd half term.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Five ways to use your VLE / LP to support homework

The Dog Ate My Homework 1 by iirraa used under a Creative Commons License.
Today I randomly received a phone call from someone who'd been recommended to speak to me about using a VLE Learning Platform (must get the terminology correct) to support homework. Well, it might not make you the most popular teacher, but if used well it can support colleagues and students with managing, tracking and even handing in homework. So, without much of a fanfare, and based purely on my thoughts after this morning here are Five Ways to use your VLE or Learning Platform to support homework:
They start from the simplest, and get more complex - actually that depends on your point of view - and I'm talking in Moodle terminology here, but if you're using a different tool then you'll be able to map this onto your system, won't you? Good!
  1. Set up offline assignments to make a comprehensive homework diary
    The simplest form of Assignment in Moodle is the Offline Assignment - there is little or no interactivity in terms of handing in the work, but as a teacher you can use the Description field of the assignment to give useful links to start from, to embed videos to watch, or audio clips to listen to, and provide all of the guidance you'd normally give when handing out a paper-based piece of homework in the classroom. Importantly, set a due date so that the homework will appear in the course's Calendar and Upcoming Events - this way, a student (or their parents if your setup includes parental access) can see what's coming up over the next month / term / year (depending on how far you plan in advance). As the assignment behaves like a normal Moodle assignment, you'll be able to give marks and feedback, which can be stored in the gradebook so that students (and parents... etc) can see all of their feedback & marks in one place - plus as a teacher you get an overview of all homework in the Gradebook.
  2. Set up a Quiz with opening & closing times as a homework
    When setting up a Quiz it's a trivial thing to to set opening and closing times - set these to Friday 5pm and Monday 8am and you've a piece of work which, by definition, has to be done over the weekend. You need to be sure that all of your class has internet access outside of school for this to be valid - if this isn't the case, make arrangements with a local library or explore how students could buddy up outside of school to deal with this. This requires more preparation (of the questions, for a start...) but has the advantage that it's marked automatically (if the question types suit automatic marking). Again, all of the marks end up in your Gradebook (but can be modified if you feel that some attempts merit this...).
  3. Assess contributions to a Forum
    The same "access to online" proviso as #2 applies here, but setting up a forum as "homework" has a bit more bite if you mark responses using the Rating tools built-in (but rarely used) into the Forum module. Such Ratings are recorded in the Gradebook and by default only teachers can Rate/grade forum contributions. It's always a good idea to model appropriate and inappropriate responses first - so that you've got exemplar material to mark against. Ratings can be available as long as the forum's open, or restricted to a particular date range, this might be useful as you are likely to have to work with forums for a while before students get used to the idea that a meaningful response to another student's message is more than just "Yer Mum". It might be worth having a few practice forums so you can effectively manage students (and your) expectations before having an assessed exercise.
  4. Build a glossary together as a class
    The Glossary activity is an under-used activity in Moodle and allows students to build a user-defined dictionary of... well, anything really. You could ask students to contribute to a collaborative glossary of biographical entries for a list of characters in a play, relevant information about places in a series of historical events, or anything really. The key with this sort of exercise is to establish at the start that simply copying material from Wikipedia or Encarta isn't the way to go - so try putting a spin on it by limiting it to a number of words (like Four Word Film Reviews, how about Thirty Word Biographies?). The power of the Glossary is that it can be used throughout your online course, so any time a term in the Glossary occurs - in a Forum post, say - then a link is made to that term's definition which everyone can read. Entries can be graded, so you can set contributing to a glossary as a piece of homework.
  5. Hand in homework online
    This is the sort of activity which most people think of when they think of "Homework on a VLE" - setting an Assignment with a due date and instructions, pretty much as #1 above, then collecting the work on the VLE. In Moodle this is done via a simple Online Text assignment, an Upload a Single File assignment, or an Advanced Uploading of Files assignment. The details of these are best explored by reading the documentation pages, or simply by setting up an assignment of the kind you're interested in, but there are a number of creative practices which can be done with these tools. The Online Text assignment is fairly simple, but as it uses the HTML editor for students to enter their work in, there are lots of creative possibilities. If you're using Google Docs with your students, you could set an assignment (create a spreadsheet / presentation / etc.) as an online text Assignment and then students would respond with a link to their presentation and then a paragraph of explanatory text. You could set an audio homework by using something like GabCast - students simply link to the contribution that they made via their phone or (for the geeks among them) embed it in the HTML editor (if your Moodle site is set up to allow embedding to be done by students). There are as many ways to set up creative pieces of homework as there are creative tools on the web - however it's a good idea to settle on a few and stick to them, rather than aiming for something novel every week. That way students have more chance of focusing on what you want them to study, rather than the tool you want them to learn.
Dog ate my homework by Inju - used under Creative Commons licenceOne really important part of any of these uses is setting grading scales consistently across you VLE. The best way to do this is to decide on a few "common" grading scales, then make sure your Moodle admin makes them available across the site. It's a good idea (in a secondary school) to agree a series of "applicable to everyone" scales, such as GCSE Grades, A-Level Grades, Levels and possibly ones like Effort & Attainment. These are then available to everyone on a consistent basis.
One word of advice would be - don't try everything at once. Think about what you would do with "normal" paper-based homework, work out which tool(s) would work and then have a go - starting simply and developing your use and you (and your students) learn how things work.
What other ways might you use a VLE for homework? Has anything worked better than you thought, while other things died a slow and painful death?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Create a free e-newsletter service for parents using a Moodle forum & Feedburner

Communicating with parents


Email Subscribe by derickkwa - used under Creative Commons license.

In Buckinghamshire we don't currently encourage schools to give out parent usernames for their VLEs, so having a "log in to the parents area" section is difficult, other than doing it anonymously via a Moodle course with an enrolment key set and Guest access allowed for those who have the key. The enrolment key can be communicated to parents via the usual channels (letters home, open evenings, etc.) and this provides a simple way of opening up part of the school's Moodle in the same way sections of the school might be opened up during a normal open evening.

This can work well, but doesn't really send the information to th e parents - it requires them to "log in" by entering the enrolment key every time they want to access the information. RSS Feeds are another method of "syndicating" content from Moodle - especially forums - however those parents savvy enough to subscribe to an RSS feed would probably be comfortable with logging in to an area dedicated for parents, so those might count as methods which replicate one another.
BlackBerry Bold by edans - used under Creative Commons license.

A final option is email - many (though - crucially - not all) parents have email addresses, and might be keen to receive messages on their phone, computer (at home or work) or other device which might access email. However, as previously mentioned, parents don't have accounts on the VLE, so won't be emailed automatically from forums, as staff or students might be.
However, there is a way around this problem - and, up front, credit must go to Paul Adams, working at a couple of our schools, for inspiring this.

What is outlined below provides a simple (and free!) alternative to something like ParentMail, which sells itself as "help[ing] you meet Government targets on parental communications" - well, I guess what's outlined below does a similar thing, except it doesn't cost anything (cough)...

Setting up the forum

The first thing to do is ensure that RSS is switched on for foru ms on your Moodle site - this is done through your site admin (if that's not you). On a Moodle 1.9 site, go to http://yourmoodlesite/admin/settings.php?section=rss and make sure that RSS feeds are enabled. Then visit the Forum module admin pages at http://yourmoodlesite/admin/settings.php?section=modsettingforum and make sure that RSS feeds are set to "yes". Once those things are set, add a new forum for whatever is wanted to inform parents about. It might be the monthly newsletter, it might be emergency school closures - it's up to you. Make sure that in the settings for this forum that RSS is enabled - with as many / few items as you want. Complete the other settings as you need to - then view the f orum. If RSS has been enabled then you'll see the orange RSS icon - click on this to see the feed. This will initially be blank - especially if you've only just created the forum. Copy the feed URL (it should end in rss.xml).

Enter Feedburner...

Once the feed has been created, what we're going to do is put it into Feedburner - a free service (acquired by Google in recent times) which allows all sorts of subscription options to RSS feeds - including (crucially) via email. Once you've set up a feed and added it to Feedburner (you'll need a Google account which the feed is associated with - bear that in mind if you leave the school) you'll see the Publicize tab, under which is the Email subscriptions item. This allows you to copy the HTML form code to embed the subscription form on your VLE, or you could simply copy the link further down the page. Parents & carers will be able to subscrib e to the service once they've given a valid email address, and responded to the confirmation email.
What this means is that every time an entry is made in the forum then it will also be emailed to those who have subscribed - you can even customise the output to include your school's logo, format it nicely, even change the wording of the confirmation email which parents will have to respond to - much of which is explained in the Feedburner email FAQ. It's definitely worth testing this out yourself by subscribing to your own feed and posting a couple of items in the forum, just to see how they arrive in your email box. Feedburner works on a daily digest model - so multiple postings in one day will arrive as a single daily email. It also provides statistics of who's clicked on what, which country they were in (useful if you did an newsletter fo ex-pupils), how often it was read - in fact probably Too Much Information, but someone will be pleased all of that data is there...

A few pointers

This is quite straightforward to set up and provides the functionality of paid-for services which are sold to schools to enable them to "engage with parents". However, there are a few points to bear in mind if you're doing this:
  • bear in mind that, if you publicise your subscription area in a public place, anyone will be able to subscribe to (and hence read) whatever is sent out in this forum. The Subscription Management tool at Feedburner allows you to see who's subscribed, who's confirmed (and remove anyone if you feel the need to);
  • as this forum will be read publicly, it's important to know who can post to it. You should use the Roles options for the forum to ensure that only staff who you have asked to can post to the forum. Critically, if the forums are held in a course, make the course non-enrollable (in its Settings) so that students can't reply to messages in the forums - which might be sent to all parents!
  • bear in mind that any attachments (PDF etc.) made in the Moodle forum might be referenced as being "inside the course" and might require parents to access the course - so if that's not something you want then you could publish any newsletters as something more "sexy" at Issuu or Yudu and simply place a link to the newsletter on that site in your forum post.
  • you can have as many Feedburner subscriptions from as many forums as you want to - parents would need to "opt-in" to each forum, as you'd hope. They could also unsubscribe when they wanted to.
  • if you wanted to make this slightly more private, you could hide the links or subscription forms in a Moodle course which had Guest access enabled but was (slightly) protected by an enrolment key (which you'd make available to parents, but not outside the school). Once parents had got into the course, they could then access the links to subscribe, then they'd never need to visit the course again.
  • ...and of course, you can do this with any VLE or other tool which provides an RSS feed - I use it for this blog - so it's definitely a transferable, adaptable tool. The most difficult thing to do is posting something interesting, timely and relevant in the forums!
Do you used Feedburner or similar tools to communicate with parents? Have you had any problems or successes? How does it compare with paid-for newsletter services?

Using Web 2.0 within Moodle

Yesterday I went to a meeting at Great Marlow School in, er, Marlow concerning the Wycombe A-Level consortium. While this was a fruitful meeting, what was equally interesting was the chance to meet afterwards with one of the Assistant Headteachers of the school and Haydn Jones, who's been leading on the development of the school's Moodle as both VLE and the main school web site.
The decision to use Moodle for both the school's VLE and its "public facing" web site isn't a small one, since the average school leader wants a pretty painting aesthetic features which many people are convinced that Moodle can't provide. This isn't strictly true, since there's a plethora of really striking Moodle themes around can be applied and adapted - many are free, or a school can fork out around £20 for any number of lovely themes, or even design their own. We have plenty of schools around the county that have "rolled" their own theme, or adapted an existing one, plus there's my relatively simple flexible Moodle theme (if that meets a need).
What's been going on at GMS is a little more nuanced - as well as the look and feel of the site, there's been much thought about the process by which the average web site is updated, and by whom, and how that process might be simplified. As you'd guess, there are plenty of simple tools around to make it easier for appropriate staff to update elements of the site, but integrating them into Moodle might take some work.
Suffice to say that from my brief look at the work that's gone on at the school, it's clear that there's a lot of thought that's gone into it - and the practical yet innovative application of the tools is pretty good too. I've asked Haydn if he'd be good enough to write a post or two here to go into it in detail, since I think it would be of interest to many people. Here's a brief rundown of what tools (other than the ones built-in to Moodle) have been used:

Now, because some of these services are (by and large) blocked by the County's default filtering settings, the school has taken control of local filtering [PDF] to allow certain parts of some of the services through, which has made the whole process a lot easier.
I won't go into any more detail now - I'll leave that for Haydn when he writes his post(s) (no pressure there...). The site is due to relaunch in the near future, so hopefully you'll be able to read about how it was made around that time. In the meantime you could always request to follow Haydn on twitter if you're interested about what he's up to...

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Does Ofsted really understand VLEs?

Belated reflections on the Ofsted VLE Report

Folly in the evening by Adrian Midgley - used under Creative Commons license.

About a month ago I spent an evening trying to get into the FlashMeeting of EdTechRoundup - but for some reason it wouldn't let me in, which was a little bit galling - however it did prompt me to bash out a brief blog post on the Ofsted report Virtual learning environments: an evaluation of their development in a sample of educational settings, which I've been more than a little tardy in reflecting on. (Editor’s note: it’s only taken a month after this was started to finish. Read on.) This was the document referenced in the ETRU meeting wiki page for the meeting in question, and was published in January of this year. Essentially it says that there is little effective use of VLEs in primary schools and some moderately successful use in secondary schools – the report also covered FE but that’s outside of my remit here.

The report makes several good, if fairly obvious points, including:

  • VLEs should be developed to enhance learning and not just a storage or communication facility (which I've heard described lately as a WHORE);
  • senior management roles should be included in any VLE strategies which are put in place;
  • the impact of the VLE on learners’ outcomes should be regularly assessed;

You can read the report yourself to explore the background to these comments – there’s no point in expanding on them here and indeed they are common sense to anyone who’s looked seriously at the implementation of VLEs for more than about a month or so.

However, what has made me raise my metaphorical eyebrows has been the experiences of a number of our schools in Ofsted’s approach and interest in the VLE (or lack of) during inspections. Chalfonts Community College, the Royal Latin School and Buckingham Primary School have all been inspected over the past couple of years and – critically to this discussion – all are using their VLEs to support learning effectively in different ways. Just as there is no defined method for “successfully” using ICT to support learning, there’s no one guaranteed way to enhance learning through using a VLE – it’s up to individual schools to cut their cloth to fit their school environment, community (staff, students & parents) and the other characteristics which make every school unique. You can read the reports for Chalfonts, the Royal Latin and BPS on the Ofsted site, but the interesting thing for me is that none of the reports mention the VLE (open any of the PDF files, press Ctrl-F and enter VLE, virtual, or platform and “No search results (are) found”) - despite it being core to much of the learning that’s going on in the schools.

Er, what’s a VLE?

Paul (who blogs at planetpda.net) who was responsible for much of the development of the VLE at BPS, now works part-time at the Royal Latin with a special focus on ICT as well as transition – and is uniquely placed to see how a VLE might work in both environments. His experience of how Ofsted react to the existence of a VLE may not be indicative of all inspectors but it’s worrying – especially in the light those elements of Ofsted’s own report on VLEs which refer to schools. Is it simply that Ofsted aren’t expecting schools to use VLEs - so they don’t ask about them? The report visited six primary schools and described the use of VLEs as “very limited”. There’s no doubt that in those schools the use was limited, but does that become the measure of how all schools should be inspected? To visit a school like BPS where the VLE is used widely across the whole curriculum and ignore it, or simply not be aware of it, makes me wonder what’s happening – it really would require a deliberate decision not to address it (because it’s not seen as ‘real learning’? because Ofsted visitors don’t feel comfortable with it?) or simply not be aware that it was there. Well, let’s eliminate the second of those possibilities– I know that that many staff who spoke with the Ofsted team throughout the inspection mentioned the VLE and that it wasn’t until nearly the end when the Lead finally asked “What’s a VLE?” to a teacher who had mentioned it (again). So why was it ignored?

Switch to the end of 2007 and Chalfonts Community College has an inspection. Greg at the school prepares a dossier on how using the VLE has engaged with disaffected students, broadened access to the curriculum for all students – all of the things you’d expect even a half-decent implementation of a VLE to do. Evidence from site logs of the commitment of students to working outside of school, assignments and work done online, you name it. What does the inspector want? “Give me a paragraph on how it’s affected attainment”. As you can imagine, the significant provision that the school makes (and made at the time) was not mentioned in the report.

The irony of this all is that both Chalfonts & BPS are featured in Becta’s Learning Platforms in Action DVD as examplars of how to use VLEs/Learning Platforms efficiently. Now, I know during the filming of those videos that students, staff and parents were instructed to use the term “Learning Platform” rather than “VLE” to fit in with the focus on the former – but however you put it and whichever term you use, these tools can be fundamental to enabling effective learning and all sorts of other “good things” which would characterise a good school. Reading paragraph 5 of the Ofsted VLE survey it appears that “a sample of 34 school inspection reports, published between September 2005 and December 2007, that had references to VLEs” was the basis for some of the background to the report. It’s not immediately clear if “only 34 reports” from that period mentioned VLEs or if these 34 were merely representative of a much larger number which mentioned them but weren’t included. Given the way Ofsted reports appear to ignore online learning even in schools which have carefully and thoughtfully used it to enhance, I think I tend towards the former.

What does Ofsted really think?

Solomon's Temple, Buxton by Frankie Roberto - used under Creative Commons license.

So what is Ofsted’s genuine opinion on this? Is it worth schools’ while to invest time and effort in developing their use of VLEs if they are fairly sure that Ofsted will ignore them during an inspection? Does the average Ofsted inspector realise that schools have been obliged to support learning online for a couple of years now (from the E-Strategy)? Is there a general awareness that schools have been mandated to work in this area, and that it's closely related to the personalisation agenda? Should I search Ofsted reports for the word "personalisation"?

As Paul says, until aspects of online learning appear in the SEF then it would appear that Ofsted won’t be bothered. The SEF is the main document referred to when an inspection is planned and inspectors (we are told) study it before an inspection. That, or when some inspectors are employed who have recently been involved in schools, either in a leadership or Local Authority role and have seen what good online provision to support learning looks like. When I worked in Hertfordshire about seven years ago, we used to joke that if you gave a CD-ROM to an inspector they wouldn’t know what to do with it. Nowadays, the equivalent appears to be a username and password to your school’s VLE – at least one of the schools mentioned above offered this to the Ofsted team and it wasn’t touched.

I’d be really interested to hear any comments on Ofsted’s approach to any online learning provision you’ve made in your school – were they interested or ignorant? Did they seem familiar with what you offered might mean to learning? Did you mention online learning in your SEF, and was this referred to by the inspectors? Alternatively, if you didn’t or don't offer much in the way of online provision, did it bother them? Would online learning's inclusion in the SEF change your senior leaders' or governors' point of view?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Schools get treated with scorm by content providers

Changes are afoot in the world of online content. What used to be gravy trained ELC-funded sets of resources sold in the guise of DVDs, CDs, access to web sites etc., are rapidly moving towards resources which purport to fit in to the much funded, much discussed Learning Platforms framework.

Any schools or Local Authority advisers might already have got wind of this from the latest mailings and spam “informative” emails from content companies. Here's a relevant quote from one such email:

We have been consulting with BECTA since July to clarify the position with regards to using the Harnessing Technology Grant when subscribing to [the name of our web site].
We can now clarify that on October 2nd 2008 Becta announced '...the Harnessing Technology Grant can be used to pay for such services...'

For any readers using English to take in this information, this might roughly translate as:

We can't take your money in the designated form of ELCs any more, so... we've managed to talk the people who set the budgets into allowing you to spend your Grant 121 money on our content.

But does this make sense? Is it worth sinking your precious funding into this sort of content? I've written before about how many companies portray their content as being the fuel which powers the vehicle that is your VLE / Learning Platform – attitudes which clearly overstate the importance of the content and overestimate the “compellingness” of the material contained within it. This becomes even more laughable when you consider how the content is packaged...

The phrase which will crop up in most literature and was all over the BETT Show is SCORM - which stands for Sharable Content Object Reference Model.

First of all, a quick primer on what a piece of SCORM content usually looks like. It's a .zip file, which is placed inside the VLE and then is unpacked by the VLE when a user accesses the content. A giveaway that a piece of content is SCORM formatted is that immediately inside the .zip file is a file called imsmanifest.xml – which describes how the content in the .zip file is structured, and instructs the VLE on how to access and present it. Any 'assets' (web pages, documents, video & audio files, Flash movies, etc) might be stored in folders in the .zip file and accessed by the VLE when the SCORM file is being used, according to how the imsmanifest file offers them up.

But why have SCORM content anyway? Well, within a VLE it's a simple process to link to something like an educational game or activity on a BBC site (like the KS3 Geography Sustainable Development activity) and have learners attempt the activity, play the game, or take the quiz in question. However, as a teacher there's no way of confirming that the pupil completed the activity, or how well they did, or anything really, since the activity isn't contained within the VLE. A piece of SCORM content (so the theory goes) will report on a learner's progress and (importantly for some schools), retain their progress and/or marks within the VLE.

Anyway, what normally happens when a school purchases “SCORM content” is that a it will receive a DVD or CD (normally the former, whose larger storage capacity is a clue to the nature of one of the problems) with the content it. Sometimes the content is already packaged up into .zip files, ready for uploading into a VLE, but sometimes, there's a menu system which the school can use to choose which elements it wants in the SCORM packages it uses. This tool generates the zip files.

At this point, I would propose that there's one simple criteria which can be used to separate out Good Content from Bad Content. Any piece of content which doesn't allow the school to decide what it wants in its .zip package can (to my mind) be classified as Bad Content, or Content Not Worth Wasting Your Money On. Packages which do – where a school can select a couple of activities and make an easy-to-deploy .zip file stand a better chance of being Good Content Worth Shelling Out For. This goes back to an old post of mine inspired by Gerry Graham from Learning & Teaching Scotland, which talked about how small, bite-sized chunks of learning content were better suited to schools real needs, rather than gargantuan, monolithic slabs of learning – which are better suited to the convenience of the companies that produce them and sell them, with little or no regard for the way in which they'll be used inside or outside of the classroom. So, if your provider of online content insists that you present the resources according to how they think the curriculum works, rather than how you would like to teach it, then I'd step backwards and think again.

I should point out that I'm not commenting on the quality of the actual content here, but on its ease of use by schools. The content might be fantastic, it might be shoddy, but how it's packaged, how easy it is to access, deploy and meet the needs of those who are teaching it, might be some of the biggest factors which prevent anyone from ever using it.

Being able to customise what's in a SCORM package isn't the only measure of the ease-of-use of a piece of content. There are good reasons that sites like YouTube have a limit on the size of uploads – among them being that most users' ADSL connections will choke, or at least take a long time to digest the prospect of uploading enormous files. So, dear reader, what do you think are the typical filesizes schools are expected to upload into their VLEs to cope with the content being offered to them by content providers nowadays?

  • 10MB? A few do that, but that's not really a sign of some serious curricular intentions now, is it?
  • 100MB Quite a few are around this size, but many are far greater.
  • 1GB? At least – I've dealt with a number of queries from secondary schools who are being offered SCORM packages which are provided in a format requiring the school to upload a single file of over one or two gigabytes in size.
Besides the obvious practical limitations of this, there are obvious implications about how such a piece of content probably contains the entirety of part of the curriculum which, as I've written elsewhere, probably impacts on people's willingness to use it. Have the people foisting these inflexible, monolith, too-large-to-use-practically pieces of content ever thought about how people in schools might use them? I can’t believe they’ve ever been into a school and worked out how their content might be used. It would only take five minutes to realise that what they’re offering is imipractical, inflexible and inaccessible for most schools.

So, what are alternatives are there? Bearing in mind that there are many more pieces of content out there which aren’t listed below (or were exhibited at the BETT Show recently), here are some I’ve experienced and would recommend if you’re starting out with SCORM:

Bear in mind though, that any of these samples vary enormously in size - and differ greatly as they rely on the publishers' different ideas of what counts as a "SCORM-compliant" piece of learning content (whatever that means).

Is it worth it?

Hang on though, there’s a big assumption, always unwritten in publishers’ blurb and mostly unspoken by those involved in this, that SCORM is the answer. But what’s the question that it’s the answer to?

Of course, the USP of SCORM is supposed to be its ability to report back to the VLE / LMS / Learning Platform – so you’ll see plenty of marketing speak about how a system which works well with SCORM content is the answer to every teacher’s prayer, and the soothing balm to every person in charge of assessment’s statistical nightmare. However, to my understanding, SCORM is based on a number of principles, some of which are more relevant to schools in the UK than others:

  • Individualised learning - SCORM assumes that an individual will sit down, access a piece of content (possibly in more than one sitting) and “complete” it. If you want something to report on collaborative types of learning activities, or measurements that are qualitative, SCORM won’t really do that for you
  • SCORM is a specification of the ADL initiative, which originated from US Department of Defense.This might be technically proficient, it might be a mess, but it's not based around the needs of a primary school in High Wycombe.
  • An important thing is that SCORM is not a standard, more of a reference model. One of my most memorable moments during a Becta Expert Technology Seminar a few years ago was when a speaker from CETIS, during a session on learning standards, said that the best thing he could say about what the acronym IMS (a framework for describing any learning design inherent in certain types of online content) stood for was “It Means Something”. SCORM has similar issues - ask ten different content providers about what should be in a SCORM package and how it should work, and you'll probably get about eight different answers.

Issues such as this vagueness, the inability to describe all sorts of learning activities which might take place online, and the ease with which almost any piece of content can be badged as “SCORM” make it (for me anyway) hard to recommend to schools unless they know what they’re doing.

I think Becta missed a trick with things like Curriculum Online which I've always thought of as a missed opportunity to set some standards about what interactive online content should be. Just think, by making it a pre-requisite of the fabled ELC-approved badge of the past that content had to conform to these standards (whether SCORM or something more appropriate) Becta could have ensured more accessibility and a better understanding among both content providers and schools about what interactive content might look like, how it should look and behave and why it's useful to schools, teachers and learners.

If you’re a school, try contacting a content provider and asking them if their content is SCORM compliant (don’t start me on the word “compliant”). They’ll almost certainly say “Yes” or “Not yet but it’s on the way”. Then ask them why this is important. They’ll tell you something along the lines of “it means it works within your Learning Platform”, often without having a clear idea of what this means or what your VLE/LP can retrieve from it. Content publishers who also provide a Learning Platform might tell you that their content works best with their platform (there’s been a plethora of dog-eat-dog moves, such as Pearson buying out Fronter

Beware mutton dressed as SCORM

As mentioned before, one problem with SCORM is that it's seen as the answer to any content that needs to go near a VLE, rather than an appropriate format for some content. I have lost count of the number of schools I've been to who are having "VLE friendly stuff" pushed down their throats by desperate-to-sell publishers. Take a look again at two of the pieces of demonstration SCORM content offered by ER4L - they're in the JSH Education SCORM package and are entitled Cells and Leaves and Photosynthesis. Now, if you were being sold a SCORM package on leaves and photosynthesis, you'd expect something interactive, something which tested you as a learner - maybe a quiz or interactive activity. However, have a look at what's actually contained in them - here are the pieces of content for Cells and Leaves & Photosynthesis extracted from the SCORM .zip files. Have a look:

27th March 2009 edit:
Well, due to communcations from the nice people at JSH (see comments below) I've removed their content - which is at the time of writing still freely available from the ER4L SCORM samples page - click on the JSH Education link. If you download it, unzip it and examine the SCORM packages you'll be able to see what's included and the following paragraph will still hold true. Heck, it holds true even if you don't download it - it's still just a PowerPoint dressed up as SCORM. Some of the other exercises are interactive, but the content referenced in this post might as well be an animated picture for all of the interaction it provides. You can download this - though be aware, you may well receive a similar "Cease and Desist" email if you publish it anywhere anyone can see it. Pupils, for example?

How to find it:
Once you've downloaded the
(>40MB) JSH SCORM Samples file, it's in the Presenting Biology folder, then inside is B01.CellsScorm1.2.zip (the SCORM zip file containing the imsmanifest.xml file mentioned above), then inside this there's another folder called B01.CellsScorm1.2, then inside that the Flash file named B01.Cells.swf contains the content you're after. Sorted! If you don't have a local Flash player installed, just drag it into any web browser window, it should play fine.

Can you guess what it is yet? Well, if you've used iSpring Converter - a free tool to convert any PowerPoint file into an .swf Flash file - you might recognise it. Both of those files are simply PowerPoint files which have been converted into .swf files using the paid-for version of iSpring's tool. There's no interaction (other than sleeping looking through the slides) and the .swfs have been bundled up into a "SCORM package".

What this means for the publisher is clear - they can now tout this as being a "VLE-friendly piece of E-Learning" - all because it can be referred to as a piece of SCORM content, and the company can suddenly try to tap into the deep pool of Harnessing Technology monies which any school which doesn't want to do a lot of thinking might throw at any vendors who mention HT enough in their promotional blurb. (The phrase you're looking for there, by the way, is ker-ching.)

What this means for the school is that they pay a lot of money for a PowerPoint file dressed up to be something it isn't. If you are really that bothered about getting a PowerPoint into your VLE and want to make it accessible to everyone, not just those with PowerPoint at home, then use something like the iSpring Converter and upload it as a Flash file.

What sticks in my mind in all of this are the conversations I've had with those looking after VLEs in schools. When asked about the quality of the 'VLE content' being offered to them by publishers the overwhelming opinion is "it's rubbish, really, really poor and unusable". I've seen (as above) simple converted PowerPoints, simple Flash videos and even pictures packaged as "SCORM" - which again points to the vague nature of the standard being the reason why anyone can get away with almost anything if it ends in .zip and contains some alleged learning content.

If you're a publisher, I'd love you to understand this - people in schools know rubbish when they see it (and won't use it), and no amount of Scormifying or VLE-ising your content makes it any good simply because it sits in a learning platform. Schools have rumbled you, they know it's poor quality and frankly, if you try and foist substandard on them, people need to be told...

so... if you're a teacher, or someone from a content provider willing to be honest (no adverts please) about your experiences with SCORM then I'd love to hear from you. Any good or bad pieces of SCORM content you've used - please give an example by leaving a comment - and name & praise / name & shame them!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Reflections on BETT 2 of 2: Don't sell, sell... camel!

During the week of BETT it felt like something was looming over me.
I had presentations to do on the Adobe stand which could be subject to the usual show problems of lost internet connection, there was the usual challenges which face any BETT visitor or exhibitor - finding satisfying food for less than a tenner for each meal, finding somewhere to sit (other than the floor), and finding a food vendor where the staff could operate the coffee machine (for me, Crussh was the answer to the last problem). However, these were all surmountable. Then it hit me: like a fool, I'd become involved with the organisation of TeachMeet, the highlight of BETT 2008 for me (and many others) and one which was anticipated to grow for BETT 2009.
Well, the headline from TeachMeet was fairly simple: it happened (and - I think - no-one got hurt).
I've been reflecting on it a lot over the past few weeks, and have lots of positive things which I think came from it - and quite a few negatives too. So here are some...

  • Image used under CC licence from cloudberrynine+ve - we nearly filled the room! The Apex Room at Olympia has a capacity of 250 for an event like TeachMeet and, combining the numbers of organisers/helpers, presenters and enthusiastic lurkers, we just about reached that number. Not bad for something for which people signed up for themselves and no paperwork was sent out.
  • -ve - not enough classroom practice. Tom Barrett's open comment of his presentation about there not being enough classroom practice so far in the evening was spot on. Aside from one sales pitch, there were a few abstract ideas, a bit of research and some other things which didn't quite reach the door of the classroom. I think that research etc. can fit in to a brief TeachMeet-style presentation, but only if it's contextualised firmly and clearly within classroom practice.
  • +ve - people were positive, enthusiastic, and keen to get involved. It got to the point where we had so many people willing to help out that they didn't all get involved, so if you want a look at a list of people who really made TeachMeet happen (rather than the numpty up the front) then look at the list of helpers & organisers, all of whom deserve much thanks. Also, the sponsors who between them paid for everything - from security and wifi access, to a meal afterwards.
  • -ve - not enough teachers. This is of course related to the negative point above - the nature of BETT means that it's difficult to get out of the classroom for a Friday, and few teachers outside of London would make the effort to come in to Olympia in the evening.
There are plenty of others, but rather than expand on them here I've contributed to the TeachMeet Feedback page - and in the future hope to get involved in some small, chair moving capacity at TeachMeet Midlands which is being run by the capable and Google-blogging Tom Barrett.
Oh, and to some extent, the camel worked...