Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Preparing your VLE for snow, swine flu, or a huge invisible cloud of volcanic ash

Waiting by ShawnMichael. Used under Creative Commons.
On Monday I had a phone call from one of our Area Advisers - a colleague who works with schools in a particular area of the country. He'd been contacted by one of our schools who had a group of students in Chicago and couldn't get back to school due to the volcanic ash affecting flights in and out of the UK. Naturally the school was thinking about how to get work to and from the students (and accompanying staff). We could, of course, have supported the school via its Moodle and our county-wide Adobe Connect server - if, that is, the school had engaged with our county-wide offering and hadn't chosen to do its own thing, which wasn't an issue until this event when it became clear that they had a need for this sort of facility to support teachers and learners who, for whatever reason, couldn't be at school physically.
Speaking to senior leaders at one of our Upper Schools this week it was apparent how thinking about how to use the VLE or Learning Platform in a day-to-day environment makes it far easier to cope when unexpected events occur. Witness the teacher stuck in North Africa who emailed the SLT to say that she'd got to an internet connection and all of her work was on the VLE ready for students to access.
So, if you have a working VLE, what do you need to do to ensure that it's useful and useable what might you need to do to ensure that it's ready to be used in times of crisis, or even just times of inconvenience? As promised earlier this week, here are some pointers for things you might want to think about as an institution to ensure that, come hell, ash, snow or high water, your insitution will be in the best position to use your VLE or Learning Platform and have as few traumas as possible in the process.
I'd break the issues down into several elements. Some of the processes described are Moodle-specific, but if you use a different platform and have more than a few brain cells to rub together, you'll be able to see the parallels to your system. You don't need to pretend that if people buy the tool you're using then that's probably the only answer to H1N1 or snow or anything like that, even (or especially) if you're flogging Moodle to schools. Right? Oh, and when I refer to VLE, you might want to read that as Learning Platform, it's up to you.


perspective by paul (dex) busy @ work
used under Creative Commons
You'll need to make sure your staff & students are aware of:
  • the VLE's address - in Buckinghamshire this is of the form Encourage them to email it to themselves, add it to their equivalent of an iGoogle page if they use one, or use an online bookmarking tool such as Delicious if they are away from their "default" computer where they may have it as a bookmark, or it may be their home page. Probably the simplest way of doing this is to ensure there's an obvious link to the VLE from the school's "official" web site (if they aren't already one and the same). Trying Googling searching for your school's VLE and see if it's easy to find when you use what should be the obvious search terms.
  • their username and password - our system in Bucks uses the same set for their email as for their VLE login, so if they can get to their email and can enter the address of the VLE, then that's OK. If systems use different passwords, then you'll need to think about the logistics of this. Do you email the VLE or Learning Platform username and password to them - and if so, is this only to their school address? It's your call.
  • how to find any new resources and access them - if you're creating new sections specifically for Snow Day work, or an area for a group of staff & students on the other side of the world, are you going to enrol them in this area, or should they do it themselves? Again, you could use a HTML block on the front of your Moodle to highlight this, with a direct link to the course or categories involved.

Where is the work?

Day 136 - So organized? by Sarah Cady
Used under Creative Commons
Should you have a dedicated "School Closure Work" or "Snow Day Work" section, or put the resources in your existing online courses?
  • If you are already using the VLE to support work done in class in a significant way, then practically it's probably better to simply add this work into your existing courses - maybe at the top of a course so it can't be missed. As students in this scenario would already have access to the courses/classes in question, there will be few issues about ensuring that the right students (and staff) can see the appropriate work.
  • However, I think it's safe to assume that, come the next eruption near the end of a school holiday or, more likely, falls of snow in winter, there will be increased expectations from parents, the press or indeed anyone with an opinion and a voice with which to express it that schools should be seen to be doing something. Therefore, politically & PR-wise, it may be best to have a complete section (in Moodle parlance, a Category entitled Snow Day Work or something appropriate, with as many sub-categories or courses within it as necessary. Many schools in Buckinghamshire who used their VLEs well during the snow days this year still have these categories - but they are currently hidden and can be easily made visible at the next instance of snow. It's not over-confident to say that it's possible to guess during which parts of which terms snow is likely to occur, so it could be possible for staff to populate courses in this section with work.

    On creating a (initially hidden from students) Snow Day course staff could use Moodle's Import course data function (within each course's Administration block). The Import function allows staff to bring in activities or resources from any other course they've taught, which could help make a single Snow Day course, with appropriately labelled sections, suitable for providing work for many different groups of pupils, rather than needing a separate course for each class or cohort.
  • If your school has never used the VLE "properly" before and an incident such as 3 inches of snow or an as-yet-unpredicted panademic is the first reason you have to use it, then you won't have any of the pre-existing infrastructure of a school which has been using it previously. This situation probably means that you almost certainly won't have staff who can place resources / work on the VLE, so you need to do some thinking about that. It might be worth ensuring that at least two members of staff can upload and edit information on the VLE, and ensuring that other staff know how to get work to them and in what format. Of course, if you were being more than a bit adventurous, you could use the VLE to allow other members staff to upload work in the same way that students would hand in homework using Forum or Assignment activities. Those staff who are responsible for preparing the Snow Day pages could then take this work and put in on the VLE for pupils to access. In a Moodle context, these courses would need to be "guest" (i.e. publicly) accessible (or accessible to guests using an enrolment key

What will the work be?

Poofy's Adventures in Calculand by roboppy
Used under Creative Commons
I had an interesting comment from a Senior Leader in one of our schools that has been using their VLE well for a few years now. It went something like:
As a school we can easily set a lot of Level 1 Snow day work, we need to move to doing some Level 2 and 3 quality stuff.
This raises some interesting issues around what would constitute "good" work on a virtual space when learners were unable to attend the physical space. Should "Snow Day"-type work be the sort of work which fills a gap, like cover work, which can often not meet the high standards to which a teacher might deliver their curriculum in a regular lesson, or should it be on a more continuous line of teaching which transitions neatly between the face-to-face lessons either side of it? In the case of a Snow Day, there are lots of examples of schools putting tasks of the "Go outside and measure the depth of snow outside your house" sort, which are fairly rudimentary and could be seen as playing the political game of being seen to set work rather than necessarily encouraging higher levels or thinking and learning. Also, if the time that the school is closed isn't seen as time off for staff, then is it reasonable to assume that staff should be marking this work while school is closed?
So what are the options for a school wanting to use its VLE to set work for learners who aren't at school?
  • At the lower end of the scale might be publishing printable worksheets (in PDF format just for printing, or in RTF format for opening  editing in a home word processor) for learners to print out and fill in for marking on return to school. This of course assumes that a working and fully inked-up printer is available to the learners at home and also starts to pile up a great deal of work which will need marking when the school re-opens. The longer a closure lasts for, this approach becomes unsustainable  & the piles of marking will, well, pile up.
  • Somewhere above that is posting a message in a forum or completing an Online Text Assignment - the advantage of this is that no special tools are required - learners aren't expected to hand in a file in a specific format which might only be produced by a tool they don't have access to. They simply need internet access and a browser that can access the VLE and enter text in a standard editing box. The advantage of this is that it can be marked by staff while school is still closed.
Interestingly, I've just interviewed a teacher who was stuck in Morocco due to the volcanic ash, but still managed to get work set for her KS5 students. I'm going to transcribe it into a new post, and will finish this post when I do that one...

    Sunday, April 18, 2010

    Your school's VLE/LP & Swine Flu - sorry, Snow Days - no, hang on, Volcanic Ash

    You might think that the title of this blog post is trying to be link-grabbing, but it's simply a manifestation of the latest incarnation of many phenomena which might close schools or a school for a length of time.

    Now, that opening sentence was originally written last Autumn in relation to H1N1, but in the intervening months it's had an increased relevance for all sorts of reasons. Anyway, back to the original post - I'll cut in soon and try & put it in a more recent context...
    I'll do my best to explain.

    Peppa Pig beset by Swine Flu by cole007. Used under Creative Commons.
    Swine flu H1N1 was due to rise this last winter and the accompanying media coverage ensured that very few people weren't informed about it, from symptoms, to treatment, to vaccinations (I had one a few weeks ago before writing the original incarnation of this post), to all sorts of user-submitted stories about the virus.
    One of the only things it was difficult to get a clear picture of is what would happen to schools - sometimes the virus appeared to be spreading too fast for school closures to have any effect, other times it was thought some schools would need to stay closed at the start of this term in September. Actually, bear that last article in mind, we'll come back to it.
    There is some guidance from Teachernet on Support Learning During Extended School Closures (PDF) and a Model Flu Pandemic Plan (a checklist in Word .doc format). The relevant sections in there are probably:
    • 1.7 Develop communication and dissemination plans for staff, students, and families, including information about possible closures, any timetable changes...
    • 2.2 ...Consider also compiling home email addresses for students and parents/carers who have access to the internet at home.
    • 2.9 Consider developing and testing communications mechanisms in the possible event of school closure e.g. Telephone trees and text messaging services.
    • 2.11 Investigate options with your LA about how students might work from home during a pandemic.
    The guidance from Teachernet is here:

    What stands out in this document are:
    • It is useful for schools to review the proportion of students with IT facilities at home, and the extent to which students with such facilities could access school IT systems from home;
    • It is useful for LAs, or any schools that work outside pan-LA plans, to consider possible (non-IT) systems for getting work to and from students in the event of lengthy school closures;
    • Schools should recognise that staff – teachers and support staff – have a role to play in emergency planning and, together with their trade unions or professional associations, should be consulted on the school’s emergency plans (for pandemic flu or other emergencies);
    This (for me) is interesting as there are lots of issues here. If schools were to close for extended periods and hadn't made any provision to support learning during this period, what would happen?

    Well, that's how the post started. Then it snowed.

    The Snow Days of January 2010 - an extended period of school closures due to wintry weather - highlighted the fact to many schools here in Buckinghamshire that they needed the ability to provide for supporting learning online when physical access to the schools was limited. This ran into a snag. What happened here was that a lot (if not all schools) saw a screen similar to this, only with their school's Moodle address at the top:
    Now, if you're familiar with Moodle, then you know that that could mean a significant issue, even if you're not sure what caused it. Of course, a lot of people saw it as an opportunity - see? Doing that Moodle thing is just asking for trouble. Where's your technical support now then? Well, as it happened they were all over it, but what looked from the screens above to be a Moodle-sourced problem turned out to be an issue with the (commercial) SAN software which tied together the vast amounts of storage which underpin our Moodle service. When the storage didn't respond in a timely manner to a Moodle's request for something, the error message above was generated. This was all pretty messy, but hey, I'd rather have the sort of problem where people are too keen to use what we're doing than the opposite.
    Many schools made really good use of their VLEs during the snow days, though I had some interesting comments from those who have been doing it for a while, saying that they needed to move beyond "Level 1" online learning in this sort of situation and move on to something more sophisticated in terms of the thought that was put into it by both staff and pupils.
    However, those questions above regarding preparations for H1N1 were still relevant.
    The Shot Everyone's Taking by Mike Knell. Used under Creative Commons.
    As if Swine Flu and Snow Days weren't enough for one academic year, it's now the end of the 2010 Easter holiday and the skies above the UK are quiet, cloudless and have no trace of contrails left by any airliner stretching across them. The recent eruptions beneath the Eyjafjallajoekull glacier in south-western Iceland and the ensuing total cancellation of all flights have transformed not just the sky, but all sorts of things. As flight restrictions were imposed from Thursday onwards, any staff and pupils attempting to return to the UK almost definitely won't be in school for at least the first half of this week unless they can squeeze onto a ferry or Eurostar and any backlog could affect schools and learners for a good few days, if not into next week. What happens in these situations (snow, floods and now the unlikely "ash") is that complaints start to rumble about how schools aren't prepared, how teachers like to take it easy, how decisions are taken lightly. Well, in the case of the ash cloud, there's not much that can be done. One secondary school I know of at the time of writing has at least eighteen staff and that's probably among the lower numbers. The reports of parties of stranded schoolchildren are rife (including a group from Loughborough in Iceland for a geography field trip) and the Director of Children's Services here in Bucks responded to the fact that we have seven school groups abroad on the BBC News web site. At the moment it's an inconvenience, but just as the Snow Days earlier in the year moved from a mood of it's fun, we're not at school! to How is this going to affect our children's learning?, there will come a time when schools will need to think about what to do.
    This situation is a much more nuanced version of the Snow Days and what would have been the situation in the event of closures due to H1N1. In those cases, the lack of physical presence in school was due to the buildings themselves being inaccessible and was a blanket effect - if the school was closed, no-one came in to experience a normal school day, even if they lived around the corner and could walk into school to teach or learn. In this situation, it's likely that most staff and pupils will be able to get to school, but obviously many won't be. How should a school respond in this situation? Plough ahead with the curriculum anyway? Put everything on hold while the dust settles (literally) and then start when the school's community could be considered "quorate"? These are questions which would need answering on a school-by-school and class-by-class basis, but form the basis for some interesting debate. The questions originally posed for H1N1 apply here too, but in a different set of circumstances.
    As James Clay has observed, a similar phenomenon is occuring to what happened during the Snow Days, namely an assumption that nothing can be done to support learners who aren't at school. Well, if you've got a working VLE or Learning Platform then you'll probably have something to say about that. This has already been a long post, but I'll shortly follow it up with something approaching a checklist of things your school will need to think about if you want to be proactive for something like this - whether it be snow, H1N1, an invisible cloud of volcanic ash, or something else. A few years ago I attended the 2006 MoodleMoot at the Open University and saw a presentation called After The Flood which inspired me to think a lot about these things, so I hope to share some thoughts which might have matured a little. It seemed timely that the MoodleMoot concluded as the ash spread across the UK and then Europe, so I hope to bring a few fairly obvious things about how I'd advise our schools in Buckinghamshire using the two main tools avaialable to them - Moodle & Adobe Connect - and hopefully how to address some of those original H1N1 questions. Right, now I've promised something, I'm going to have to write it. Probably this week. Hmmm. In the meantime, enjoy this courtesy of Eyjafjallajökull (pronounced [ˈɛɪjaˌfjatlaˌjœkʏtl̥], translated "island mountain glacier") & Tessa Watson:
    Image by Biology Big Brother. Used under Creative Commons.