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?