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.  

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