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.

1 comment:

  1. Good blog post.

    We discussed these issues at the Plymouth e-Learning Conference in a debate entitled "Keep Calm and Carry on". I recorded the debate and have put it on my blog as podcast.

    Though with an FE and HE emphasis as you might expect, there is some good discussion in the debate about how institutions are not prepared for "million to one chances" that happen nine times out of ten!