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.

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