Thursday, December 23, 2010

Teachmeet @BETT 2011

Teachmeet at BETT 2010
For the past few years, Teachmeet has been a highlight of the BETT Show for many people – with many even choosing to come on the Friday of the show as they know that they’ll get something new, innovative, fun - or all three - to take away. People have previously even timed their journeys from the other side of the world to attend a Teachmeet. Teachmeets aren’t only for big conferences or exhibitions of course – a cursory look at the Teachmeet site shows them appearing in all sorts of contexts, all over the UK and even abroad.

Lost in Space / School of Duty

FPP - derived from dsc_0113.jpg by metacheetr under a Creative Commons license.
After Duke Nukem.
Due to the nature of BETT - a four day exhibition/trade fair with 700 exhibitors, its more than 30,000 attendees making it more than twice the size of NECC /ISTE in the US, there's a sense of enormous cabin fever or Lost In Space which arises from being there for more than a few hours. Such an environment means that there are more than a few issues faced by a Teachmeet set at BETT. For a start, a Teachmeet is about sharing practice – classroom practice, work being done with learners now – rather than theoretical “in the future there will be robots” presentations or sales pitches. BETT is by and large like an immersive first person pitch-em-up game (FPP?) – you’re dropped into an alien environment, populated mainly by people you don’t understand, with a mission that you’re not clear on, with a cast of characters who don’t always behave or communicate in ways you’re familiar with as a teacher – unless you are on the receiving end of a lot of sales phone calls I guess.
BETT 2009 Tiltshifted
This are accentuated by the current cloud of issues around the role of ICT in education – the confiscation of Harnessing Technology funding to support the controversial Free Schools programme, the closure of Becta and the apparent absence of a role for ICT in the Education White Paper - all of which make for an extremely rarefied atmosphere in which schools attempting to use technology to support learning, school improvement and engaging with their school community might find the DfE unsympathetic with their aims. 
TeachMeet at BETT 2010
What this could mean for Teachmeet is fewer teachers attending BETT – even though entrance to the exhibition is free, it's easy to imagine many school leaders being less willing to release staff to browse an exhibition whose lifeblood of dedicated funding has been stemmed. So could this mean a Teachmeet devolved of practice and practitioners? Well I for one hope not-TeachMeets aren't about sales pitches, and there are enough of those on the floor of Olympia for the four days of BETT. Of course, if you're more than a little cunning you could see some real practice by attending one of the TeachMeet Takeover sessions...
In order to mitigate against that we're proposing a slightly different method of registering for the Friday evening Teachmeet at BETT 2011. We'll be using the Eventbrite service (which fits with the TeachMeet ethos, as it's a free service to those organising free events), and releasing the tickets in three batches:
  • teachers/LA/RBC consultants (those who are employed and work directly in schools on a full-time basis);
  • independent consultants (those who work in schools subject to contracts etc);
  • exhibitors (those who'll be at BETT and are salaried by a commercial company).
Eventbrite will mean that we will be able to communicate with ticket holders, match our numbers to the capacity of Olympia's Apex Room and release tickets in a way to try and ensure that as many teachers as possible get first chance to attend and share practice.
As ever, we'll be looking for sponsors (beyond EMAP's sponsorship of the room and AV/ICT support) to cover wifi access for attendees, an extra half hour of security so we don't all get booted out at the end, and some refreshments... so if you're interested in helping the event with a small amount of sponsorship then please get in touch by emailing teachmeetbett2011 [at] gmail [dot] com or follow the instructions on the wiki.
In the meantime you can...
  • read the TeachMeet @BETT 2011 page on the TeachMeet wiki;
  • sign up now if you're a teacher or LA/RBC consultant - and soon if you're an independent consultant or exhibitor - via the Eventbrite page;
  • consider presenting - either a seven minute micropresentation or a two minute nanopresentation.
Whatever your involvement - get stuck in if you can. TeachMeet is about sharing practice and, in the current climate, it must be more relevant than ever. Right?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Open letter to Michael Gove re: Severe Weather Disruption

Snow Day in Seattle by cheukiecfu. Used under a Creative Commons license.
Dear Mr Gove, 
Vobiscum cupio in situ euentus causa extrema caeli vel quasi eruptiones molaris scholae adhuc potest universaliter function - supportantes doctrina parentum Communicantes, cuius virtute baculum munere aliis huiusmodi. Video Admonitio de Severe Weather DFE collocato situ quoslibet mentionem fieri faciat quam Headteachers suis iudiciis quam scholis ludunt in partes key communitates locales.
Intrigued me saepe notione res posita in extreme Tempestas (maxime nives) ut simpliciter magistris conantur vade ad scholam localis. Miror quid sentias facturos ibi liberis nesciunt (possibly aetatis sunt inexperti supportantes dogmatisare), an non curriculum liberari. Quod hoc confirmat opinio sit essentialiter magistri pueri uelut minders et literae tantum processus auctoritate figura requirit praesens specimen in Nullam ac ante.
Postremo, miror si quidem plerosque studiis habere patriam potuerit facultas docendi et discendi si manere in corpore clausa Schola. Local Schools et vallavit auctores tempore et CPD volutans animo in developing online usu tools suscipere doctrinam administrationem communicet & carers parentesVidetur quod parum vel nihil diceret aut recognicio inde consilium habilitas in scholis vel Local Authorities Communionem.
Si um necessitatem directionis pagina DFE de situ ero gauisus super scriptis sustinebunt eam.
Tuus ex animo,
Ian Usher
E-Learning Co-ordinator, consilio County Buk.

Rough translation.
Source material.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Tweaking a Moodle course to display Resource & Activities in two or more columns

It's a long time since I've done a HowTo kind of post in Moodle, so please forgive any rustiness.

Rsuty columns...
West Pier by orange brompton. Used under a Creative Commons license.
Moodle's default course layout arranges things in quite a linear way - items (Resources or Activities) are added in each section in a course, and can then be re-arranged by moving them up and down, or indenting them. This normally works fine, and a judicious use of sections means that it's not too tricky to achieve an appealing layout that works well and is understandable by anyone accessing it.
However, sometimes you (or I) will end up with a bunch of links, or resources, or something, which just seems to go on forever and starts to look like a long line of toilet paper, stretching on forever.
I'll use our soon-to-be-revamped CPD pages on our main BucksGfL site as an example. We will shortly have a long list of Directory resources containing PDFs of CPD courses, which could easily go on down the page forever. Here's how they currently look:
You can probably see that adding any more to this will make the page go on forever. In contrast, have a look at this arrangement:

If you think that's more appealing, or maybe just easier to take in, than the previous image, then here's how it's done. It's quite simple and requires a tiny understanding of how a HTML table is structured, and then the tactical addition of a few Labels into your Moodle course.

A HTML table's structure

It's not very CSS, but here's the HTML that structures a table with two columns:

<table border="0" cellpadding="1" cellspacing="1">
<tr valign="top">
Content in column 1
Content in column 2

Breaking it down

However, it's not possible to wrap this HTML around the content on a Moodle course's main page, so it can't be done, right? Wrong.
To achieve a two column layout we need to dissemble the table HTML and break it into labels, which we can then intersperse among the list of Resources and Activities in Moodle to force it into displaying two columns. Here's the content of Label 1:

   <table border="0" cellpadding="1" cellspacing="1">
   <tr valign="top">

Here's Label 2:


and finally Label 3:


Making the Labels in Moodle

Inserting a Label (essentially a piece of free text or HTML) into your Moodle course is easy - Turn Editing On, Add a Resource, Insert a Label. However, the old-ish HTMLarea editor in Moodle insists on correctly forming any HTML which is edited in it - so if you try and enter Label 1 as written above, you'll end up with all of the tags "closed" - which will end the table prematurely and stop you using it to tweak the layout. This is how you should edit the label to ensure that it's not closed: 
Code for Label 1 in the Moodle editor (HTML view). The start of the table, table row, and table cell.
You should Save and return to course while in this (HTML) view, not the standard (rich text) view - otherwise the editor will close the <table>,<tbody>,<tr> and <td> tags and stop the layout tweak from working.
Do something similar with Labels 2 and 3:
Label 2 - the </td><td> code which marks the end of one cell (hence column) and the start of the next.

Label 3 - the code which closes the table cell, the table row, and finally the table.
Once you've done this, you then need to place these three labels around and in the list of Moodle Resource/Activities you'd like in two columns. Place Label 1 at the start, Label 3 at the end and Label 2 about halfway down the list of items. You might get some odd layouts happening while you're placing them, but it should work once they're all in position, assuming you've done the HTML correctly and not switched back to the Rich Text editor before saving.
Once they're in place, this is how things should look (this view is that of someone with editing rights over the course):
Labels in place - note that other Moodle resources remain editable / moveable / indentable / deleteable etc.

Some important notes:

  • You can of course make three or more columns by creating an extra instance of Label 2, then placing it at an appropriate position in the list of items.
  • If you go to edit any of the Labels, then your default view of it will be the Rich Text view, so HTMLarea will close any tags - you'll need to switch to the HTML view to remove these. However, once you've created them, there should be no need to edit them.
  • Don't hide the labels - tempting though that might be. The layout will still work for you if you have editing rights, but in my experience once a student looks at the course when the labels are hidden, they don't display - producing a standard "long list" if they are all hidden and a malformed mess if just some of them are.
  • If you are creating a course for someone else to edit, then you must explain why the labels are there, why they're important and why they shouldn't be deleted or moved! Some people are obsessive about keeping their courses tidy and the apparent superfluous sets of editing icons might just seem like they need deleting to them.
  • There's an oddity that occurs if you have enabled Drag & Drop on your Moodle site (e.g. you've turned Ajax on). If you have (for example) the three Labels to make this tweak work, then the first will have the Ajax Drag & Drop icon to move, whereas any subsequent labels in that section will have the old style Click & Wait icons. They all still work in their own ways though:
If you'd rather not go through the hassle of creating the labels, then I've backed up a Moodle 1.9.n course with a link to this blog post, and one, two, three and four column layouts in sections down the page. Feel free to use it as you wish - it's downloadable here in Moodle Backup .zip format.
If you've any comments about how useful this is or isn't, or if there are ways in which it could be improved, then please leave them in the comments. Thanks!

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Teachmeet Takeover @ BETT 2011

Well, it’s nearly that time of the year again… the the end of Movember and the arrival of Advent means that January can only be a month away. That means BETT is approaching like some looming city in a US road movie, full of promise, labyrinthine alleys, hidden joys (and tacky mainstream pleasures) and an accompanying population which longs for a return to the countryside when all this is over...
BETT is a behemoth. It straddles the receding world of educational ICT and does its best to stare anyone down who dares to look it in the eye and say “stop trying to sell me stuff – what actually works in a classroom?”.

Last year, Tom Barrett conceived the idea of Teachmeet Takeover – a movable Teachmeet feast where, rather than assembling speakers and participants in a room after hours, teachers take the floor during BETT’s office hours - an event that could answer this question. The aim of Teachmeet Takeover is to take the interesting things shared during normal Teachmeet sessions and bring them into the well funded and rarely-replicable exhibition space in Olympia’s main halls and, in the words on the accompanying TMTakeover presentation which preceded most talks around the stands, to
“Learning something new, be amazed, amused and enthused”
Stuart Ridout #TMtakeover by kvnmcl. Used under a Creative Commons by-nc-sa license.
For BETT 2011 Teachmeet Takeover will again be using spaces donated by exhibitors to allow teachers & practitioners to showcase free tools, ideas and examples of how to do interesting things – right in the middle of BETT, during each day of the show. If you’re planning on going to BETT, either as an exhibitor or a ‘punter’ then you can sign up on the wiki – just names and contact details at the time of writing, there’ll be a detailed timetable available for vendors to offer slots and presenters to choose which slots they appear in later in December.
So far we’ve got (at the time of publication), 16 presenters (who, it would hoped, present at least once) and 10 exhibitors who have signed up to say that they’re willing to take part. I’ll be doing something Moodle-related (as yet undecided) and it’ll be good to, subject to trying to take in the rest of BETT, to see what people have been up to. If you’re not sure what it’s all about, have a browse of pictures taken during last year’s TM Takeover, or watch a brief video of Tom B doing one of his #tmtakeover presentations from last year’s show.
Even if you’ve never been to BETT before, presenting at TMTakeover is a great thing to do. Read the guidelines on the #TMTakeover2011 page on the Teachmeet wiki, and get stuck in! Thanks in advance to all the exhibitors who already have (and will) donate their time, space, AV, 240V AC, etc. – and a huge thank you to you if you’re going to share your real in-the-classroom ideas, tools and experiences with the slightly confused, bag-carrying hordes at BETT.
Many people say they most significant ideas and conversations they have at BETT come not from conversations with exhbitors, but from interactions with other teachers and practitioners - and that's what all Teachmeet events are supposed to be about. So, why not learn something new, be amazed, amused and enthused for free in the New Year?

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Using a VLE for a Headteacher's trip to Ghana

About a year ago I received a note passed to me by my line manager. One of our primary schools was having an issue with Blogger being blocked by their default filtering - presumably because they were taking the "lowest common denominator" filtering offered to schools who don't want to control their own. It turned out that the Headteacher of the school was about to undertake a VSO placement in Ghana and had set up a blog to document it. After a few exchanges of emails I went to meet Karen Brooks, Headteacher at Weston Turville Combined School not far from Aylesbury. The previous year, another headteacher from Marlow Infant School had used their Moodle to document her yearly trip to Uganda over the summer and keep in touch with the school community while she was there, so there was an obvious application for the Karen's Ghana trip. After she returned to the UK, having been in Ghana for I asked Karen to write about her use of the VLE and how it supported what she'd been doing in Ghana and the UK. So, over to her...
Weston Turville flags
Weston Turville Flags
Using a VLE was a new experience for me and for most of our pupils, so going to Ghana was the ideal opportunity to experiment with it.  Ian came in to help me set it up, so the children could see where I was going and some of the facts about it, such as the location, the flag, the weather etc.  We also put in sections for diary entries, pictures and video clips, some of which we pre-populated with school information.
During the trip I uploaded diary entries, pictures and video clips, and I was really pleased with the response from the children.  Initially they wrote when prompted by their teachers in their lessons, but after a while many of them started to write independently whilst accessing the VLE at home.  Parents, staff and older siblings also took part.  The children asked a wide variety of questions and used the site to find out about Ghana and the school we linked with.  They also communicated with each other as well as with me.  It seemed to fire their imaginations and one child even asked if we could continue using the site after I came home.  They used the information for discussion in class, and sometimes sent a class response.
I was also able to use the VLE to show our partner school about us.  They were able to look at the photos and video clips and explore the questions being asked by the children.  The disadvantage in Ghana, however, was the slow internet connection which meant that each page took a relatively long time to load.
While I was away staff began to design their own VLE pages and experiment with them.  We still have a way to go in exploiting all the potential of a VLE; however, we have a number of plans to develop it for use with parents as well as pupils, and the trip to Ghana was the stepping stone we needed to become inspired, and to learn how to start to use it effectively.
If you're not a pupil or member of staff at Weston Turville you won't be able to access the VLE, but you can read the public facing side of what Karen did on her blog.
Shrink-O-Matic screen shot
Before Karen went I spent some time with her thinking about some of the practical things that might prevent her getting information back to the VLE with a slow or unreliable connection. Taking digital photographs that she might want to keep (of a large size and good resolution) might be one thing, uploading them to the VLE would be another. I think this was the first headteacher's machine I've ever seen that already had Adobe AIR installed on it, so I downloaded the easy-to-use Shrink-O-Matic AIR app which allows the downsizing of images simply by dragging them onto the application window. This meant that she could take full-resolution pictures and then easily create smaller versions for uploading to a Lightbox Gallery in Moodle, or attaching to a forum post. If someone in this situation wanted to do something similar with video, then I'd recommend the excellent (and free) Any Video Converter Free, which converts just about any format of video into... well, just about any other format (such as FLV for easy insertion into Moodle).
The BBC Weather RSS feeds for Buckinghamshire and Ghana were used to give current weather data and Google Maps were used embedded in the Course page to allow pupils to see a comparison between the two areas. Here's a (non-interactive) PDF of the main course page:
England & Ghana
England & Ghana
Supporting this sort of activity through the school VLE or Learning Platform seems to be a fairly obvious thing to do, and I'm amazed that it doesn't happen more often. Although this example (and the school that inspired it) are examples of staff working in remote locations, there are numerous applications for visits involving students:
  • embedding Google Maps/Earth/Streetview locations into pages, forums, etc. in Moodle to allow pupils (and staff) to recognise & explore where they're going before the event occurs;
  • allowing pupils to write regular reports of what happened, including (geotagged) video, audio, etc.;
  • providing all of this as a re-useable resource for future visits to the same location;
  • using available videoconferencing resources to provide live field reports from wherever the school has sent its roving reporters;
The list goes on, but all it takes is a little creative thinking, some planning and you'll have a resource that can support learners, teachers and the wider school community in bringing learning outside of the school grounds back into school and the home.  

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A school library manager's view of a VLE

RETRO POSTER - In the Library by Enokson. Used under a Creative Commons license.
Over the last few years I've done a fair amount a lot of training and development in secondary schools across the County. The schools choose who will attend and it's normally a helpful spread of subject teachers, or Heads of Department, or Third in Faculty, or... well, as with all aspects of ICT development in a school, participation is determined by someone senior in the school deciding who will take part & them having a vision to extend and apply it across the school. Occasionally there are non-teaching staff there - library & learning resources staff, network technicians, administrative people - and, to my mind, those are often signs that the school might be thinking in a more creative way about the way to use online learning to support all aspects of school life.
About three years ago a colleague and I did our regular four half-day sessions in Dr Challoner's High School for Girls in Amersham - one of the Grammar schools in Buckinghamshire's selective system. I can remember some of the details of those sessions - working across all schools in the county means they tend to blend together at some point, but among the fact that there was an issue with some PowerPoints not displaying correctly I can vividly remember that the school's Library Manager took part in the sessions - and that this was, amazingly, the first time a school had nominated someone from their library to take part. She was keen to get going and during the sessions was already thinking of applications of the VLE for student use.
Three years on, and that Library Manager has moved on from the school at the end of the 2010 Summer term. Before she left I asked her to write about how she's used the VLE to support her work, and the students' learning. So over to Lauren...
RETRO POSTER - Management by Enokson. Used under a Creative Commons license.
As a secondary school library manager, I’ve found that the involvement students have with online communities can be harnessed to further their engagement with reading and writing. When students visit the Learning Resource Centre area of our school VLE they encounter a variety of pathways into literature and research. In one corner, the latest headlines from our library blog promote library events and writing contests as well as new resources and study tips. In the other corner, the covers of our newest fiction books appear as moving graphics that students can click on to read summaries and reviews. There are forums for pupils to request books or discuss authors and novels with classmates. Students can also share their writing or post comments on the stories and poems of others in the creative writing section. Additionally, there are links to recommended research sites, subscription databases, reading lists, and websites that promote books and reading.
When I first began setting up the Learning Resource Centre area of our school’s VLE, I saw it primarily as a place to provide links to resources and websites. I divided the area up by subject, creating separate courses under the Learning Resource Centre umbrella (for example: LRC – Chemistry Resources, LRC – English Resources). Previously, we had given sixth formers enormous paper packets listing recommended web sites, as well as passwords for subscription websites. Unfortunately, these packets were costly to print and were regularly lost or mislaid by students. As soon as the resources were moved to the VLE, students could access them more readily, without having to find the packet, type in the web address or fiddle with different usernames and passwords. Students have a tendency to be overly reliant on Wikipedia and Google for their internet research, so our library induction sessions concentrated on improving and widening their research skills, with particular focus on the resources available on the VLE. For instance, students learned how to access newspapers going back to the 1700s, medical and science journals, essays on literature, and art archives that would not be available through an ordinary Google search. Teaching students how to access primary sources for their research not only prepares them for university, but can also help to kindle their intellectual curiosity. I’ve witnessed many students excitedly looking up famous historical events on the Times Digital Archive, where they absorb newspaper accounts of things that they’ve only previously encountered in history books.
RETRO POSTER - When You Want Facts by Enokson. Used under a Creative Commons license.
After creating these subject-specific resource areas, I decided that I needed a more general course where students could engage with the school library and also explore reading for pleasure. I titled it “LRC – General Research, Reading and the Library” and added forums where students could request new books or make suggestions about how to improve the library. In the last year and a half, I’ve responded to over 80 book requests from students on this forum. After letting students know whether I will be able to purchase a copy, I update them as soon as it is available in the library. If I’m unable to obtain the requested book, I suggest other ways for students to get a copy. I find these online exchanges to be enjoyable and informative (I often find out about the next big publishing phenomenon through savvy readers). But most importantly, the forum gives students a chance to be heard and to make a positive impact on our library. In a similar vein, the forum for general suggestions has led to extra library seating, new quizzes and competitions, and additional online resources. The students are happy to see their ideas being taken seriously, and I am pleased when their involvement with the library increases as a result.
A few years ago, I began exploring a website called LibraryThing, which was billed as ‘a cataloguing and social networking site for book lovers’. I was intrigued by the variety of conversations relating to books and reading on the site, and discovered a number of wonderful new books and authors as a result. In October 2009, I attempted to create a school-based forum, similar to the one on LibraryThing, in which students could create and direct discussions relating to their own reading passions. Over the past ten months, students have created 89 new discussions, and on some of these discussions there have been as many as 78 student replies, making this the most popular forum on our school VLE. With topics ranging from “What are your five best books ever” to “The Diamond of Drury Lane (you should totally read it!)” our students have been eager to participate, to share their own ideas, and to discover what their peers are reading. 
RETRO POSTER - Fiction by Enokson. Used under a Creative Commons license.
The ‘book discussion’ forum was introduced to Year 7 students in a library lesson, and as a result has been most heavily used by students in Years 7-9. Without prompting, they continue to add to the forum, frequently taking up their classmates’ suggestions when borrowing books from the library. Although I monitor the forum, I have rarely had to delete a comment, so when a student-led creative writing group began to meet in the library over the last school year, it made sense to add a forum where they could share their writing as well.
RETRO POSTER - Stories Of The Sea by Enokson. Used under a Creative Commons license.
The creative writing forum, which is open to all students, is used to share stories, poems, and other fragments of writing. Students can offer suggestions or simply a positive remark. The Year 13 student who started the creative writing group made a point of adding advice and encouragement to students who posted work, and followed up with an invitation to the weekly writing session in the library. Student writers at our school can now quickly join the creative community, and their work will be enjoyed and appreciated throughout the school.
Through the development and promotion of these forums and resources, reading and writing have taken a prominent position within the online social community at our school. When a student participates in these online discussions, sharing her own expertise, she identifies herself as part of a community of readers and writers. By linking the technology of the VLE with the more traditional pleasures of reading and writing, it’s my hope that our students will continue to find new paths into literature and research.
Lauren Howard
As mentioned Lauren is now no longer at the school, which is obviously a loss to the students & their teachers, but I hope what she's written above might stimulate some thought and ideas about what's possible with some creative thinking, creative students and a positive attitude towards using something like a VLE to support a school's library. You can get more inspiration from this old-but-still-relevant Teachers TV video VLE in Action. Skip forward to 9m 34secs to see some of the work done in the library at Queen Elizabeth School in Kirkby Lonsdale, in Cumbria.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Moodling in your Office? Should you?

It's been about two months since the Microsoft Office Add-In for Moodle was released. The what?
Well, it's an extension for Microsoft Office 2007 and 2003 which allows you to save Office documents to your Moodle and open them from your Moodle.

Saving a file to Moodle from within Office 2007
This is, in many respects, undoubtedly A Good Thing. When I'm doing Moodle training there are often teachers and other staff for whom uploading a document to an online space is something they've not done before - so the process of updating that same document stored in their Moodle course's Files area is not intuitive. They'll open the Files area, click on the file to open it (either directly in their browser if using Internet Explorer or in their browser's cache of downloaded files), edit it, save it and wonder why the file in their Moodle course hasn't updated. For people who've only ever stored files "locally" - i.e. on USB, network or local hard drives - the idea of having to upload again seems alien to them. Well, this Add-In could deal with some of that. What doesn't happen is that the file is automatically saved when using the default Save (or Ctrl-S) option within an Office program (Word, Excel, or PowerPoint). However, it could be possible to alter this by a network admin (or a keen user with geek tendancies) to customise their copy of Word/Excel/PowerPoint to include the Open from Moodle and Save to Moodle buttons as defaults, possibly even (gasp!) removing the default Save icon:
The Open from Moodle... and Save to Moodle... commands added to the Quick Access Toolbar in Word. The default Save command could be removed if you were feeling brave.
I tried to find the Save to Moodle command in the Customize... button for Keyboard Shortcuts above, but as far as I could tell it wasn't listed, even under All Commands. Shown below is the default shortcut keys for Save - if the SavetoMoodle command was here you could (again, for the brave) map this to Save to Moodle by default:
I've done a quick Captivate movie of how the Add-In works in practice. Once you've watched it, read what follows below...
There are a few riders to this seemingly seamless way of saving to your Moodle:
  1. You need to have Teacher rights over a number of courses on your Moodle. Administrator rights will get you in a whole heap of trouble, since the list of courses will be over-long if you're an Admin, and this might mess things up.
  2. Your course(s) needs to have the My Courses or Courses block displayed on them. This appears to be the way that the add-in picks up which courses you are on and could explain why, in the demonstration movie above, the course titles are prefixed with the code to display the course icon in the My Courses block. The documentation that there is indicates that you can hide this block once the Add-In has picked up which courses you have - though I'm not sure if the Add-In would then automatically pick up any new courses you had teacher rights on.
  3. You can have access to multiple Moodles via the Add-In, though I'm not sure where the passwords are stored (and how secure they are) if you check the "remember my password" box. I'm not saying they're insecure, I just don't know.
  4. It doesn't work on a Mac. Or with Office 2010.
  5. It hasn't been tested on Moodle versions earlier or later than 1.9.n - and the indications are that it might not sail faultlessly into Moodle 2.n
  6. If you are a Teacher on some courses, and a student on others in your Moodle (for example, your Staff Room where others post notices, files and messages) then that will still show up, you'll just get an error message when you try to add something to those courses you have a "Student-like" role on.

The bigger picture

It's interesting to see Microsoft engaging with an OSS product in this way. It looks similar to rough drafts of some work I saw at Microsoft almost exactly a year ago, but appears to be a selective development of that prototype system (which allowed teachers to manage their courses' Files areas in a local drive (the M: drive or something similar created via what appeared as a network share) but which (if I remember rightly) appeared to require an intermediate Moodle site to be created in order to work).  However, with a little thought, it's obvious that this isn't an entirely altruistic move. At its core it aims to ensure that users will stick with using Office files to share information. This is understandable from a Microsoft point of view, but before you insist that everyone in your school installs the Add-In to simplify things, it's worth considering how this would effect the process of sharing things within Moodle. Ask a few questions:

What exactly are you trying to do?

I've spent a fair amount of time training and supporting users using Moodle in schools - but most of these principles apply to any Learning Platform you use. It's really hard to get away from the "I'm going to take all of the documents on my network drive / USB stick / desk and shovel them onto my VLE" approach. In itself, this approach doesn't even begin to transform the learning process. It moves the repographic burden from the school to (potentially) the students which could cause issues with the community of parents & carers in your school, what with printer ink being more expensive than oil, champagne and human blood. What someone often means when they say "I want to upload a Word document" is "I want my students to read a piece of text, possibly with images in it". If you're in a situation where many colleagues are wanting to do that, then here's a decision tree to help (I hope):
If you look at that document closely, you should see that the core question is what do you want the learner to do with the information you’re giving them? Generally, this falls into a few actions on behalf of the learner:
  • read it (possibly on screen, possibly after printing, depends on what the learner prefers or can do);
  • annotate it with a pen (generally after printing);
  • copy its contents into some other tool (word processor, presentation software, graphics application);
  • save and modify it (possibly before handing it in as an assignment).
In summary, the document above illustrates the fact that there are only very particular circumstances under which, as a teacher, I’d be sharing Office documents in general (and Word documents in particular) through a Moodle course. It’s the equivalent of sharing Audacity AUP project files rather than MP3 format files to allow students to listen something, or Photoshop PSD files rather than GIF, JPEG or PNG format files to allow students to see an image. Of course, if you’re wanting learners to edit or modify the ‘source’ files then the .aup, .psd or .docx/.doc files would be worth sharing – otherwise, I’d be looking to share something that’s fit for purpose and (here’s the most important point) is accessible to as many learners as possible. Standard Moodle-generated web page resources can contain all sorts of information (just like any web page) and are accessible to learners on mobile devices, internet-connected gaming devices such as PSPs or PS3s and any internet-connected computer without the need for a plugin. PDFs (the next step up on the food chain) are accessible on almost all mobile devices which commonly have PDF-reading apps pre-installed or built-in to the OS. ‘Native’ .docx or .doc files will almost always require an external app or viewer to open
It may seem that using the Office Add-In for Moodle would railroad a user into using Office format files – however, as Microsoft themselves point out, you can use it to upload other file formats into your Moodle course’s Files area. If you have a full version of Acrobat or have installed the Save As PDF Add-In, this means you could generate your simple PDFs from within Office and save them into Moodle.

What do your learners (and staff) have access to?

No Entry - CC image by Joshua Rappeneker
If you knew that your documents were only ever going to be downloaded in school, then you'd have a pretty good idea that everyone would be on a particular version of Office (or Word in this case) and could distribute  the appropriate file accordingly. However, in the mixed environment that offering access to files from home almost certainly guarantees, this can't be guaranteed. Placing .docx files on your VLE or Learning Platform will almost certainly guarantee that some learners (and staff) won't be able to read them at home - and no, they won't bother with a 24MB download and install just to read one paragraph of instructions that you couldn't be bothered to place on your Moodle as a web page. 
Interestingly, there have been numerous examples of students with particular versions of software handing in Upload a Single File assignments from home with (for example) .docx extensions (Word 2007), when the software in school which their teachers will attempt to use to open their submissions is Word 2003. This also applies with Microsoft Works assignments, or Open Document Format (.odf) documents (ah, the irony) or any other random file format that the teacher either (a) wasn't expecting and/or (b) can't open. This is one of the pitfalls of insisting that a particular piece of software is used for completing an assignment (or assuming that it will be). It might be argued that a more holistic way of education students would be to create Online Text assignments in Moodle and equip students with ways of finding, inserting and attributing images and content from around the web, since these are transferable, adaptable and agile skills which can be used anywhere.
I could insert another paragraph here about how another approach would be to ask students to create documents in something like Google Docs or Buzzword, then copy the public URL for that document and paste it into an Online Text assignment. However, you get the idea.

Accessibility is the key

This all boils down to making the information you're trying to share as accessible and appropriate as possible. As is seen from the document above, there are times when it's appropriate to use Office format documents to share information, and times it's not. Here's a simple acid test to work out how easy it is for your users. You could try it with a class of learners - just tell them that they're part of some research you're doing.

  1. Create a simple paragraph of text in Word. Save it as a Word file. 
  2. Create a PDF file from the document using whatever method you wish.
  3. Upload each of these files (the PDF format one and the Word format one) to your Moodle course using the Add a Resource > Link to a file or web site or Display a Directory options.
  4. Copy the text into a web page using Moodle's Add a Resource > Compose a Web Page option.
Then ask students to go home and try and access the web page, the PDF and the Word document. Ask them to carefully record a number of things for each of the three items:
  1. From being on the course page and clicking on the link, how many more times did you have to click to see the paragraph?
  2. Did you have to click on any dialog boxes or pop-ups to get to see the information?
  3. Were there any security warnings which you had to click on - or any that you didn't notice at first?
  4. Did you see the text straight away?
You'll almost certainly find that for the text and PDF files, it's a one-click process. For the Word document however, your students will come up with a wide range of things that happened - security warnings, different versions, some things not appearing at all, oddities with differences between Windows PC, Mac, mobile device, or games console, or any number of odd things. It's not surprising for teachers to share information via Office documents and have students never see them at all - not down to Moodle, but down to how security settings might be configured between Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office, or some other reason that prevents files from being downloaded. Remember, that was when you specifically told them to look for oddities, or things that didn't work, quite possibly because you're bothered about how this online learning business works. For other staff and other students, it's just another reason why this online learning thing doesn't really work, or an excuse why they couldn't hand their homework in. Bear that in mind the next time you're tempted to throw a Word document at a group of learners, just so they can see some text that you want them to read.

A small tangent: what if...?

This makes me wonder if Microsoft could, with a bit of thought, create a "student" version of the Add-In which allows learners to submit a Word document as an Assignment. All the Add-In would have to do is scan the user's Moodle for courses that s/he is enrolled in as a student (similar to how the current one looks for courses the user is a Teacher on) and then look for any active (i.e. not yet closed) Upload a Single File assignments. It would know (from the Moodle userid) which area of the course's moddata folder to create a new subfolder in and place the Word document in there. It would perpetutate some of the issues outlined above but might be useful in some environments. Just a thought...

Monday, May 24, 2010

TeachMeet hits its fourth birthday: Coming of Age

The main room awaits TeachMeet Midlands 2009
TeachMeet is entering its fifth year and the unconference for teachers, by teachers has helped hundreds - maybe thousands, in fact - to try out something new, alter the way they already teach and learn, join a community of innovative educators or completely transform their way of working.

The hope was that the model would spread. It has, but as those who have created and helped pull TeachMeet together over the past four years, we want to see it spread further, deeper and with increasing quality of input from practitioners. This post outlines how we think we might manage this. This is the beginnings of a conversation with those who care about TeachMeet. Add your views in the form of any blog post or comment or tweet - tag it #tmfuture

What are the goals of TeachMeet?

TeachMeet was originally designed to:
  • Take thinking away from the formal, often commercialised conference floor, and provide a safe place for anyone to pitch their practice;
  • Provide a forum for more teachers to talk about real learning happening in real places, than one-hour conference seminar slots allow;
  • Showcase emerging practice that we could all aim to undertake; sales pitches not allowed;
  • Be all about the Teach, with only a nod towards tech that paved the way for new practice;
  • Provoke new ways of sharing our stories: PowerPoint was banned. We wanted people to tell stories in ways that challenged them, and the audience;
  • Empower the audience to critique, ask questions and probe, all online, through SMS or, later, Twitter.
Over the years, these 'rules' have altered, leading to some great innovations, others less so. The answer to "What is a TeachMeet?" has become a myriad of meanings, some pretty far off the original goals. We need to help and support people to organise, run and contribute to events that build on previous ones. We need to make TeachMeet as accessible to newbies as it was in 2005. We need TeachMeet to once more find its focus.

Supporting the "infectiousness" of TeachMeets

Organising TeachMeets should not be easy. Taking part in them should be. But more support is needed for organisers:
  • Sponsorship is hard if there's no bank account into which funds can be sent
  • Without sponsorship, any event over 30 people becomes tricky to organise while also giving people a special night of learning, the time, space and mood that gets people over their self-conscious selves
  • Paying for refreshments and venues is impossible if there's no organisation to pay them the precise sum.
  • The best TeachMeets provide social space, social activity, entertaining MCs, good refreshments, good online coverage and some form of online 'conclusion' - this needs coordinating by the organiser(s), but it's not a skill everyone will have the first time around.
  • We've got a superb opportunity to curate the best bits from all these TeachMeets that are happening weekly - this needs a degree of oversight.

A means to make TeachMeet more sustainable, easier to use for sponsors and organisers, and have the ability to do something spectacular.

TeachMeet is owned by the community that shape it - but there needs to be a body to manage sponsorship and sponsors, and provide support for new organisers so that they maintain the TeachMeet goals. We assume that if someone is organising a 'TeachMeet' they would like to emulate the success of those popular early TeachMeets, and better-supported national conference ones (e.g. SLF and BETT).

What would support look like? (is this for new organisers of events? support from the TeachMeet body?)

  • Seeking of sponsorship all year round - including ways and means to get your message to as many teachers as possible;
  • Brokerage of sponsorship - i.e. one place sponsors and those seeking sponsorship can come together, in a transparent manner;
  • Recommendation of onsite support (good venues at discounted rates/free, A/V, event organisation [for bigger venues], catering etc);
  • Suggestions for various formats that have worked in the past;
  • Mentoring from previous TeachMeet leaders including on-the-night help;
  • Featuring of content and promotion of the event in a timely manner on an aggregated, higher profile TeachMeet site;
  • A group calendar so that events can be seen by geography and date;
  • Promotion of TeachMeet through international and national events, using contacts of existing TeachMeeters;
  • In-event publicity (e.g. if you plan an event at a regional ICT day or national event, then we can help broker paper materials for insertion into packs etc).
But, above all, TeachMeet is reaching a point of saturation in the UK - things are going really well in terms of enthusing teachers about their own learning. We have a great opportunity to carry over a small proportion of the sponsorship and contributions towards creating a TeachMeet culture in countries where teacher professional development in this way is still blocked by barriers physical, financial or cultural. This is just one idea, harboured for a long time but unable to realise in the current setup. This body can take the form of
  • A Limited company (with a Director and shareholders);
  • A Charitable Limited Company, with a board of directors and voting rights for fellow 'shareholders' (we could work out some way of people being 'awarded' shares based on [non-financial] involvement?);
  • A Social Enterprise, perhaps formed as a Limited Company (see more information on what this means and how it might work (pdf));
  • A Charity (this feels like a lot more red tape to pull through and perhaps not entirely necessary).
As we take things forward we invite you to contribute your ideas and thoughts to make things work smoothly. We want you to comment, probe and make your own suggestions before the end of June, using the tag #tmfuture

Becta, Jamie Oliver, and the Romans

Highland Theatre by miss mass. Used under a Creative Commons License.
Something I should say up front: I've done a little consultancy for Becta in the area of learning platforms, but the funds involved went to my employer (Bucks County Council) for my time & travel, and not to me.
[This post was started before the announcement of Becta's closure and completed on the day of it and so the first section has been edited to reflect this.]
With the nascent coalition government already unable to control leaks of Tuesday's forthcoming Queen's Speech to the newspapers, today is the day tomorrow is heralded by many as the day on which it will be has been announced that the government's education technology agency - Becta (formerly the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) - will either be closed  or at least severely cut back. Becta - a non-departmental public body classified as a quango - operates in many different roles  and its roles have changed over the years. It was very much a child of its time - formed in 1998 to oversee the increased levels of investment in education technology which the incoming Labour government of 1997 brought with it. It's fair to say that the UK had never seen such a significant investment in information & communication technology specifically aimed towards education and hence Becta's role could be likened to inventing, then studying, nurturing and then trying to domesticate a new breed of animal - namely ICT harnessed to support education.
Becta has a number of aspects which impact on schools - it was charged with overseeing the Primary Schools  Whiteboards Expansion project in the early 2000s, of the Laptops for Teachers scheme of the and a number of procurement frameworks, in particular the ones concerning Learning Platforms and Infrastructure Services.
It's easy to place oneself at either end of the spectrum of views of Becta - either at the "it never did anything for me, so good riddance, let's put the money straight into schools" or the "it should carry on as it ever was". Whatever the truth is (and no-one will ever know), there are some odd attitudes around. Some people seem to be overjoyed at the prospect - though someone would only toast it with a chilled bottle of wine if they were particularly bitter at feeling marginalised in the past, or didn't quite appreciate that there might be perspectives other than their own. I've seen a lot of messages on Twitter saying things like Becta never managed to introduce technology effectively into schools or I never got anything from it or an unthinking It didn't work - and a lot of these messages come from those whose heads are screwed on normally in terms of educational ICT. There are a few things that these points of view miss:

Becta was not really given the power to make schools do anything.

I recall a conversation with someone involved in the Learning Platforms framework who was referring to the spring 2008 "personalised learning space" target. As this person said "it was a target with no teeth" - meaning that  schools wouldn't face sanctions it they didn't meet it. The drivers which would make it a genuine target - if Ofsted looked at the school's provision of such a space as part of their inspection, or if a school's SEF had a section concerning online support for learning - just didn't exist, and with Oftsed showing such a lack of understanding of Learning Platforms / Virtual Learning Environments it must have felt like trying to explain to a medieval knight how important passenger airbags are. The instruction to make change in schools happen using ICT without any compulsion for schools to engage with this instruction meant that in many ways, Becta were on a hiding to nothing...

You can lead a horse to water...

Every now and then there's a complaint that food facism is taking children's freedom to eat junk food away. Then Jamie Oliver makes the point that maybe it's not such a good idea to feed children Turkey Twizzlers and there's general acceptance that the dietary health of schoolchildren might actually be important after all. Try and implement such a programme, however, and you create a black market of crisps, sweets and sugary drinks run by the children themselves - plus all the usual stories about mothers pushing burgers through the school gates to fat-deprived children. The point is obvious - all of the good intentions, funding, examples of what a difference a particular programme can make - can easily run aground on the rocks of an attitude which says Nope, we don't want to do this or I don't think it's important. Was it Becta's responsbility to force feed the healthy eating of well thought through ICT down the mouths of unwilling schools? Not unless it wanted to be accused of the opposite - of imposing technology on schools no matter what. Take its foot off the pedal and it would be subject to the half-hearted complaints surfacing at the moment - something that gets individuals, schools or Local Authorities off the hook as Becta is a convenient scapegoat when "it doesn't succeed in putting ICT in schools".

My view & experience don't represent everyone else's - and neither do yours.

Part of a mature outlook on many things is to recognise that one's own portfolio of circumstances, attitudes, experiences and environment isn't the only one - meaning those who say Becta failed have taken their own experience, or someone they know, or something they've read and extrapolated it to apply to everyone everywhere for all time. It's true that not everything Becta carried out worked as intended but, as Ken Robinson points out, you can't be creative if you're not prepared to be wrong. Many of those who want to encourage creativity in learners and teachers (often through the use of ICT) don't have time for the possibility of an organisation which they don't control being creative and (quite possibly) getting things wrong. If my experience of Becta (whether positive or negative) leads me to draw a conclusion about its overall worth, then the least I can do is consider those who've had the opposite experience and work out where the truth lies.

Becta, Moodle & the market

Before going on I think I should address some of the misinformation going on around Becta and Moodle (or Open Source in general) - particularly on Twitter today. One of the accusations being levelled is that somehow because Becta didn't "get" Moodle (or Open Source in general) it deserves to die. Well, hang on. Moodle couldn't be offered as a platform in the Learning Platforms Framework because the Framework was about services, not software, despite the fact that some servicing companies weren't up to scratch. If anyone knows anything about the way schools, Local Authorities and the wider NEN works they should know that, so saying "Becta blocked Moodle" is uninformed I wrote years ago about how if someone really wanted Moodle under the LP Framework they could get it that way. Did anyone do it? Not that I've heard of. Secondly, here in Buckinghamshire (and in West Sussex, and in Cumbria and Lancashire, and in... etc) we use Moodle to meet the relevant parts of our targets - completely sanctioned and approved of by Becta - they visited us enough times to validate that what we were doing was good enough and were really positive. Our work was featured on their Learning Platforms in Action DVD and in a number of case studies and... and... and... well, after a while I get bored of hearing people moan that they weren't allowed to do things by Becta like "use Moodle" - if that was the case, how do they explain what we did? Answers in a comment please...
(an edit as I originally forgot to include this when I was rushing out to a school) Also, Becta supported & supports the Open Source Schools project in the UK as it starts to work out how to best support and advocate OSS in schools. 

Hang on. What about...?

In all of this, there are some important unanswered questions:
  1. Bearing in mind that most government web sites currently have the disclaimer with words to the effect of all statutory guidance and legislation linked to from this site continues to reflect the current legal position unless indise, but may not reflect Government policy. where does this leave things like online reporting, home access (which was a one-off grant). Do the targets for parental reporting (etc) still apply, or are schools and LAs now not required to meet them? Is the ditching of Contact Point indicative of a large-scale rolling back of projects, meaning that everything will be swept away in a baby/bathwater episode, or will initiatives be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
  2. What will happen to the resources on the Becta web site - such as the research papers, resources, guidance, etc. Closure is slated for November, but there's a wealth of resources there which should not go to waste.
  3. What does this say about the Coalition's view on the appropriate use of technology in education? The Conservative party, whose pre-election education information contained no mention of technology in any form, and who had an image of a child writing lines of I will respect my teacher in chalk on a blackboard only a year before the general election appear to have steamrollered the Liberal Democrats' thoughts on education, so it remains to be seen if any green shots appear from beneath the paving slabs. Listening to George Osborne & David Laws announce the extent of  thecuts/efficiencies/savings this morning I was struck by the number of times they thanked the people who'd been working all weekend on them, but didn't hear anything about those who will lose their jobs & professions as a result of them. Ah well. Slightly more disconcerting was to hear David Laws say that they'd fought hard to protect front line services for schools - was this an admission that the Coalition doesn't see effective use of ICT as something important to 21st Century learners? We shall see.

So, what next?

The phrase curate's egg is almost certainly tripping from some commentators' tongues, but the nub of that phrase is that what is good in some parts and bad in others is "completely spoiled". I don't think that this is the case with Becta. What was needed was a leaner, meaner, keener Becta, which could have addressed the wasteful spending in the realm of ICT. I often wonder how much of what is spent at the BETT show is used effectively - at this point some people would start to blame Becta for a waste of government funds, but ultimately the money spent at something like BETT goes to schools and (for the moment) Local Authorities. At this point, I was going to pontificate on what this leaner, keener, meaner version of Becta would look like, but on reflection (since this blog is, primarily, a means of reflecting on what I claim to be my "profession"), I'll leave that to another post after some thought.
In the meantime, reflect on this. Over the past thirteen years Local Authorities and their schools have been, for the most part, like spoiled children in terms of educational technology. I have colleagues in private schools who are green with envy at the funding, support and guidance that LAs and schools have had - and for the most part, those colleagues have benefited from the latter two elements while pining for the former. Like spoiled children, we get bored with being endlessly accomodated to, whether it's more money for this, or this, or that, or... and the moaning begins. It's really interesting to look across at the United States and see parts of President Obama's Stimulus Package, with its $650 million for educational technology, as a direct descendant of the model overseen by Becta in the UK. I'm also aware of the resources made for UK schools used across the globe to measure impact, look at "E-Maturity" and other resources which would never have existed if a group of school leaders had sat down in 1998 and listed what they'd like. However, that's just my view of course. I've had plenty words to say about how Becta could have done things better (and when they've done things well) but that's probably enough for now. I'll edit this post further as things come to mind, or if anything isn't clear. In the meantime, if you want to hear the popular view on Becta, just search Twitter, you might find plenty of bile and celebration overwhelming the worried voices. However, you could always summarise what's being said by listening to a few guys from England put it in just about the most succinct way: