Monday, December 12, 2011

Teachmeets @BETT 2012 - Get Involved!

What follows is a close relation to a blog post I wrote about a year ago. Most of it still applies, but there are some notable changes...
Pre-Teachmeet @BETT 2011
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.

A last Olympian hurrah for Teachmeet @BETT

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. This will be the last BETT show in the halls at Olympia, so next year will be a learning curve for anyone involved in running a Teachmeet at the show.
BETT 2009 Tiltshifted
Interestingly, this year's BETT is due to be opened by the Member of Parliament for Surrey Heath - personally speaking I won't be there on the Wednesday for this auspicious / idiosyncratic / surreal moment, but if you're attending BETT in any capacity then at all other times there will be plenty of opportunity for you to see and hear from people with experience of teaching, rather than those who set policy for those who do the work - and to share what you're doing if you'd like to.
TeachMeet at BETT 2011 panorama from the front
It's possible that there will be fewer teachers attending BETT 2012 – 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 - read Ian Addison's blog post on that here.
Once again we'll be using the Eventbrite service to manage 'tickets' for the Friday night Teachmeet session and releasing those 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).
The reason for releasing the 'teacher' tickets first is that current classroom practice is the lifeblood of any good Teachmeet - and so ensuring that there are as many teachers and current practitioners as possible maximises the chance of everyone hearing about Good Things Happening Now. Of course consultants can talk about all sorts of great practice too, but getting your fellow teachers to present means that it's (more?) likely something will be replicable in your classroom just as it was in theirs. That doesn't mean that the other tickets are second class, or even third, but ensures that the balance is more likely to be right so that everyone sees what's happening now.

Get involved!

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... information on how any generous sponsors can help out will be put on the wiki page. In the meantime, why not

  • read the TeachMeet @BETT 2012 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 - or if you are at BETT but can't be there on the Friday night, consider contributing a presentation to the Teachmeet Takeover.
  • There is normally a TeachEat event at Pizza Express in Olympia afterwards, to which you're welcome if you attend the Teachmeet - details on the wiki page.
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?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Using Moodle to help Model the United Nations

During the last academic year I was fortunate enough to be involved in a Model United Nations (MUN) project being run in the Aylesbury Vale area of Buckinghamshire. This post reflects on how that process worked and (as you might expect) how I used Moodle to support and enhance the project. This post will demonstrate why this couldn't really have been done without an online environment, and how it couldn't have been managed without a Virtual Learning Environment. It will also give some guidance on how to meet the project's requirements using Moodle in case you ever need to do this.
The Aylesbury Vale MUN Conference in session

The project's background

Voting during the MUN Conference
A few months ago I was asked by a colleague to see if there was a way of supporting an instance of the MUN being run in Bucks by the Schools' Linking Network (SLN) charity, which has considerable experience of running MUN projects in Local Authorities. I was initially invited to a meeting for staff from schools involved to work out the logistics of the project with a brief of sharing documents between the schools. This was the first time an MUN project had been run in Buckinghamshire and after listening to what my colleagues and those from SLN were proposing it became clear that without some sort of online interaction - beyond simple document sharing - the project would struggle. The students (henceforth known as delegates) would all meet once at the project's inception, and again for the final conference, but between those two times would have no organised times when they could meet. Delegates from nations would need to work on position papers which would be presented at the final conference and the representatives from international media organisations would need to carry out similar work.

How the project worked

The French MUN Delegation
Five Aylesbury Vale schools came together to work on the project. The students involved were from Years 9 and 10 and worked in pairs to represent either nations or international media organisations. Although there were nearly a dozen students Delegates from each school, the pairs of delegates would not be from the same school, and so would have to work with someone from another school to prepare a country profile and subsequent position paper. Their colleagues representing five international media organisations (Fox News, the BBC, Russia Today, PressTV and Al Jazeera) received some training and advice from colleagues in the BucksCC Press Office and would cover the conference on the day. During the preparation process, the accompanying staff from the schools involved (henceforth known as Faculty Advisers) would support a number of the nations and one media organisation each. The Delegates and Media Organisations they would support would not necessarily be from their own schools and the Faculty Advisers would be expected to communicate with all of their groups. An important issue was that as nations were preparing position papers which were to be presented at the final conference, this work needed to be private within the group of two delegates and one faculty adviser.

What do you want to do, exactly...?

Delegates working on papers
during the Conference
The secret to supporting an event such as the MUN, or successfully extending and enhancing any learning using technology, is to work out the processes and transactions involved - what are those involved expected to do, respond to, share, produce - and then appropriately applying technologies to support those transactions. From the initial meeting with colleagues, SLN staff and staff from schools, it was apparent that the following things needed to happen:
  • All delegates, media correspondents and faculty advisers needed to be able to access resources, news and updates about the project;
  • Three levels of access were required - BucksCC & SLN staff (aka "UN Advisers") should have complete access, school staff ("Faculty Advisers") should have access to the groups they are supporting, students ("Delegates") should only have access to their own group's work.
  • Delegates and media correspondents needed to be divided into discrete groups, able to:
    • communicate without other groups being able to see what was said;
    • work on position papers and country/media organisation profiles which would only be visible within the group.
  • These communications and documents needed to be accessible to Faculty Advisers supporting these groups;
  • The Media Organisations needed access to certain resources (from their media training) which those Delegates from countries should not access;
  • "UN Staff" (colleagues from BucksCC and SLN) needed to be able to see all work so they could ensure that Delegates and Faculty Advisers were taking part.

Different technological approaches

Members of the International Media wait for
Country delegates to arrive
First of all, it's important to point out that due to its distributed nature the MUN project could not really have taken place as it did without some sort of online technology. Pairs representing countries and media organisations consisted of students from different schools, and staff were supporting students from schools they did not teach at. It is almost impossible to get students out of their timetables for a project like this and so having another space for the project to take place is critical.
The default position for something like this - where sharing and communication are core components of the transactions - is often "let's just email everything" and it can be quite difficult to convince someone based in an office that email isn't the right tool to use. Defaulting to email misses out on many options for collaboration and makes some simplistic assumptions about how students and staff in schools work. Also, there is a need to find out if Delegates and Faculty Advisers are working on the project - since it is in addition to other school work - and the closed and private nature of email makes this difficult. Any Delegates or Faculty Advisers joining the project slightly late wouldn't have been privy to previous emails, but using an online environment makes all of the historical information transparent.
MUN Moodle course overview
Another approach would have been to go for a third-party service such as Facebook - but this would be problematic, as there is no guarantee that all Delegates & Faculty Advisers would use it and access from within school would be patchy at best. Also, there is little or no control over the way in which a third-party tool is used and no guarantees that it would not change halfway through the project. I've a blog post specifically about this issue to follow soon. By using the county-wide Moodle we could

  • guarantee access to the space for everyone;
  • ensure that the environment wouldn't change appearance or functionality during the course of the project;
  • provide enhanced levels of access for school staff and staff from the LA and organisers in a granular way.

How to achieve this with Moodle

The most important thing to enable the project to be supported effectively was to ensure that all participants had access to whichever system we used. In Buckinghamshire we have a unified sign-on system, meaning that an individual's BucksGfL username gives them access to a wide range of services. Most schools use their own Moodles, however only staff and students from an individual school can access that school's Moodle, so hosting the MUN area on a school's Moodle was not going to work.
A few years ago I requested that Atomwide establish a county-wide Moodle, one which meant that we could easily create cross-school projects which participants could log into using their BucksGfL username. This was the same tool used for the Buckinghamshire E-Anthology project covered here previously and means that any student or member of staff with a BucksGfL username can take part in a project with another group of students from across the County. As one of the schools involved doesn't use the BucksGfL username system we had to ensure that the staff and students involved had their accounts created, but once that was done, we were ready to go.
Let's revisit what needed to happen and I'll give some pointers to how this was done using Moodle 1.9.n:

  • All delegates, media correspondents and faculty advisers needed to be able to access resources, news and updates about the projectThis was done by simple document sharing - PDFs of the Delegate Handbook and a simple web page with embedded YouTube clips in. Colleagues from BucksCC posted regular messages in the News Forum (to which all members are subscribed) so any Delegates or Faculty Advisers will have received these updates as emails.
  • Three levels of access were required Within the course the Teacher role was renamed to UN Adviser (using the Role Renaming settings within the MUN course), the Non-editing Teacher role was renamed to Faculty Adviser and the Student role renamed to Delegate.
  • Delegates and media correspondents needed to be divided into discrete groupsThe MUN Moodle course was set up with its Groups setting set to Separate Groups - this meant that all functionality could, if necessary, be made to run in parallel for the groups of students. I created the groups and gave them a group image of the nation's flag or media organisation's logo. The group image is useful - have a look at the Group Discussion area to see how the images are an important visual aid to how the forum is viewed by an administrator. On the student day pairs of students drew their group out of a hat - while watching this, I simply added the two students to the relevant group. Faculty Advisers were added to all of the groups they were supporting, meaning they could engage in the next two activities:
  • A Faculty Adviser working with Delegates
    during the MUN conference
    ...communicate without other groups being able to see what was said;

    This was very simple - a Forum set up to run in Separate Groups mode, meaning that only one link appears on the page, but each group sees only messages from those in their group. The Group Discussion area images shows a UN Official's (Teacher's) view of this forum and it is apparent how this means
  • work on position papers and country/media organisation profiles which would only be visible within the groupideally I would have liked to use something like Google Docs here, however a suitable alternative is Moodle's Wiki module. Setting it up with the two settings of Groups Mode: Separate Groups and Wiki type: Group meant that each group has a document they can edit (help image on A simple proforma document starts the wiki pages and the groups can edit these documents.
    At the end of the process UN Advisers (BucksCC staff) can copy and paste the final wiki page into documents and share PDF versions of the final position papers on the day of the conference.
  • Moodle Wiki activity for a
    Country's Position Paper
    These communications and documents needed to be accessible to Faculty Advisers supporting these groups;
    This was done by ensuring that the Faculty Adviser/Non-editing Teacher roles were assigned to multiple groups, meaning that they could switch groups from the drop-down list at the head of the Wiki and Forum pages.
  • The Media Organisations needed access to certain resources (from their media training) which those Delegates from countries should not access;This was done by enabling Groupings across the site and then, within the course, creating a grouping of Media Organisations, which contained the BBC, Fox News, Press TV, Russia Today and Al Jazeera groups. The resources given by my BucksCC Press colleagues were then placed in a resource which was made available only to the Media Organisations grouping. This meant that the other groups could not see these resources.
  • "UN Staff" (colleagues from BucksCC and SLN) needed to be able to see all work so they could ensure that Delegates and Faculty Advisers were taking part.As mentioned previously this was done by making UN Staff equivalent to the Teacher role, which meant that they could see all groups and make judgements about how work was progressing.

It's quite easy for a Moodle course with a lot of content to become very text-heavy, so I took the approach of using simple, large icons to ensure that the important parts of the course were easily available. IconArchive is a great place to start for icons which are appropriate for decorating Moodle courses with, and inserting them into Labels on the main Moodle course page meant that they could easily be hidden and shown as the project progressed.

Final Reflections

The Oculus Room, Aylesbury Vale
District Council, before the
MUN Confe
It was a privilege to be asked to work on this rewarding project and it became apparent as the project progressed how much it could be extended and enriched. It was more substantial in its scope and impact than many school-based projects and required an approach which would work with a range of learners of varying ages & experience, rather than a focused class or year group delivering a familiar curriculum. It required creativity in understanding how the project had worked and hence what would be the most appropriate methods of using the technology to support something with quite a clearly defined scope. I was able to watch the project unfold online and tweak and nudge it where necessary, and attending the final conference was great, particularly as everyone present could see the transformation of the slightly nervous students at the start of the project to confident delegates.
I was an unofficial photographer for the conference - which was held in the new council room of Aylesbury Vale District Council - and hence there is a set of pictures available documenting the day of the conference and some of the Moodle-related work associated with it. At the time of writing I am supporting another MUN project in the High Wycombe area. Again, the project is supported by an improved version of the Moodle course used for the Aylesbury Vale project, which was featured in this brief BucksCC video:

Monday, June 27, 2011

Presenting at #ngconf on Learning Platforms

Newcastle platforms tiltshifted
I’m tapping this out on Windows Live Writer while my 3G connection searches for a signal north of Durham and the “paltry fifteen minutes of free wifi” offered by East Coast trains sits unused. #ngconf is the Twitter hashtag for the Northern Grid for Learning Conference (alternative Lanyrd link) and, although Newcastle was a long way to travel to present a single workshop, the journey was more than worth it.

This was an interesting time to attend another conference, as two days before I’d run some workshops at Buckinghamshire’s own, far smaller, “Future Learning with ICT” conference held for schools in Bucks. The Northern Grid covers several local authorities in the north-east of England and (for anyone reading who’s not in the UK, or hasn’t spent too much time in the world of educational ICT) is a Regional Broadband Consortium, who have been tasked with offering services to schools and Local Authorities in whichever region they cover. Today's conference was illuminated by lots of inspirational and (at least as important) practical people to illustrate the difference well-used online tools can make - people like Russell Prue, Steve Wheeler, Jan Webb, Bill Lord, Martin Waller and Ian Addison (among others) were there to stimulate, provoke, make people think and above all give practical ideas.

Steve Wheeler closing keynote. Picture by simfin2010. Used with permission.
My workshop had the (rather verbose) title of How to improve your school using your learning platform without wasting time, money and opportunity. Not exactly the most catchy title, and if I’m honest I was half expecting to be in a room with half a dozen other people. However, the session was quite full (maybe fifty or sixty people) and I confessed at the start that I wasn’t sure if they would be leaving at the end with an “answer” (if indeed there is one). One of the aims of the session was to share and publicise the Steps To Adoption Model, originally written by a group of experienced users and advocates of the sort of work that can be done using elements of a Learning Platform, and the new post-Becta home for that work, namely the Learning Platform Network. I’m aware that even the mention of Learning Platforms will provoke the usual mix of responses, some positive & hopeful, some vehemently negative or sceptical, or more than a few saying “Learning Platforms – they’re so last decade…. Which of these reactions, if any, is right?

Your answer to that will almost certainly depend on what your experience of the concept of a “learning platform”. I’m frequently amazed by the baggage the term has acquired (Becta coined the term and then, in my opinion, tried to include absolutely everything that could possibly ever take place in the definition. Simply defining it as “a tool that provided a platform or stage for enhancing learning using online technology” would have been too simple (imagine a procurement framework based on something as vague as that) - however the phrase would almost certainly have meant more in schools.

Simply put, it’s a tool (or a suite of tools, or a collection of small tools loosely joined) a school can use to be more effective, more engaging, more efficient, more open… etc. You get the idea. The group of us who were brought together under the auspices of Becta during the autumn of its time were tasked with developing, refining and publishing a refinement of the work done by the excellent Dave Whyley during his work with WMNet using the LP+ learning platform. We came together from using a whole range of tools – this was the point, we shouldn’t pretend (nor should anyone) that effective use could only be made by using A Single Brand Of Tool. That, some might argue, is the job of the vendors of such tools, but this afternoon I was really concerned to (try and) put people at ease. I feel uneasy when some schools – those just starting out, or those regrouping after a change of leadership or other personnel, or those who are unsure how much is appropriate to use – are subjected to comprehensive case studies from those selling allegedly transformative tools which ignore the change management aspect. At its very core e-learning, or e-engagement, or e-maturity, or whatever is about change management. Whether that’s on a class, year group, key stage or whole-school scale, if there’s no appreciation of the changes which are required and/or might result from taking online aspects of learning, management/admin and communication seriously, then it’s possible to expend a lot of  time, money and missed opportunities (hence the title of my presentation today). The Steps to Adoption Model, based around Dave Whyley’s work,  which was in turn based on Simon Hooper and Lloyd Rieber’s 1995 Teaching With Technology (definitely worth a read if you’ve not seen it before, the article’s own references are worth a follow or three), aims to couch the idea of using online tools (of all kinds, not just those which might fall under a list of ten approved providers) in five broad areas and (critically) make this measurable and understandable in the wider context of School Improvement. These areas are:
  • supporting organisation, management and practice;
  • extending opportunities for collaboration, interaction and communication;
  • information and data management;
  • approaches to learning;
  • parental involvement supporting learning in and beyond school.
The document itself (PDF) is quite detailed, but can be used in a really flexible fashion if (as with all these things) the context is understood. It would work well across a department or faculty, or in an environment such as a school Sixth Form where no progress has been made. Of course, it works at a school level (this being the environment it is designed for) but I could easily use elements of it at a Local Authority level and (shudder) at a Department for Education level as well. In whichever context it’s being used it’s possible just to focus on one of the areas above, progress in which can be categorised against stages modified from the Hooper and Rieber model, an clickable interactive summary of which is here:

[Displayed in an iframe - view original page in new window]

In the Steps to Adoption model these five steps (in yellow above) are described in each of the areas relevant to School Improvement, and are
  1. Aware
  2. Develop
  3. Adopt
  4. Integrate
  5. Transform
What’s really interesting is the work that Northern Grid have done to develop what could be a dull, dry document (OK, it might actually be that way if you have no need of it) into an interactive online tool. This, in turn, was a development of some really good work by Alex Rees, one of the group of us who wrote the document, who transformed it into a spreadsheet-based tool and trialled it with some of the schools he works with as a School Improvement Adviser in the London Borough of Redbridge. This online tool will allow any school to register and record their progress – at the same time being able to filter the activities and measurements by both the stage a school sees itself at, and the area of interest, plus many more things. This work has been done by Philip Belcher who works for Northern Grid, and is a great example of how, when used appropriately, good technology can take thoughts worth having and ideas worth sharing into a space which is more accessible and, hopefully, useable.

The interesting thing that Becta did was release the document under a Creative Commons licence (a Creative Commons Attribution Licence 3.0 as long as both Becta and the originators are credited) – and from what I’ve seen there are already elements of it in Frogtrade’s self-assessment tool for users of their product (which if I’m honest looks like an early rudimentary version of some concepts we had as a group of how to express progress in each area - it's still good to see the principles being applied), and I understand that It’s Learning among others are looking at using the document to support their schools. From informal communications among the group of us who co-authored the document, it would appear that many of the commercial Learning Platform providers are looking to consolidate their user base – e.g. retention is at least as, if not more, important than new recruitment. How do you keep people using a tool you’ve sold them? By helping them to use it better of course, and the Steps to Adoption Model can be used for any tool in the original Learning Platforms Framework and plenty more besides.

I can’t wait to see the tool when it’s released (follow Philip and Simon Finch on Twitter  to stay abreast of developments on this) and, if you’re serious about bringing your possibly-isolated use of new technologies – whether cool, mundane or too-new-to-describe-yet into the realm of “official” school improvement in your school, you could do worse than to have a read through the Steps to Adoption Model. As I said in the introduction to today’s workshop, I don’t give a monkey’s what tool(s) you are using – whether it’s Moodle, It’s Learning, FrogTrade, a Wordpress blog, Twitter, Google Apps for Education, UniServity, or anything else – this tool and resource should help you.

#ngconf visible tweets. Picture by simfin2010. Used with permission.
This was originally supposed to be a brief reflective piece on the Northern Grid Conference rather than a treatise on Learning Platforms in their broadest sense - but as is often the case when one's brain is stimulated in a good way, it's the different, less straightforward-than-it-was-in-my-head-when-I-started route that feels the most rewarding. Kudos to Simon Finch and all who organised #ngconf, I can't wait to be doing that much thinking again soon.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Today Programme approach to an Open Source vs. Closed Source learning platforms debate

Vegas Pictures 2009 Canon 003
Vegas Pictures 2009 Canon 003 by AdolfGalland. Used under Creative Commons.
I was recently asked to contribute to SecEd magazine on the case for using an Open Source Learning Platform - a piece to go up against an advocate of a "buy a commercial Learning Platform" approach. I didn't know who would be writing the companion / conflicting piece, so it was an odd piece to write. In the end it turned out that Dominic Tester from Costello Technology College was writing the other piece. I've met Dominic at  SSAT learning platform events and he does really good work with CTC's tools, particularly on parental engagement. As I was writing / redrafting / fussing over the piece, knowing it would be edited and thatIcouldn'tfiteverythingIwantedtosayinto800words - in fact on the day I submitted it - I heard Graham Linehan's appearance on the Today Programme to talk about his adaptation of The Ladykillers. You can read about his experience on his Posterous blog or an expanded version on the Guardian's Comment is Free opinion site. Essentially, Linehan thought he was going on the programme to discuss the issues concerned with adapting a film for the stage, with Michael Billington from the Guardian there to provide a wider context. The crux of the issue is in the Guardian piece:
The style of debate practised by the Today programme poisons discourse in this country. It is an arena where there are no positions possible except for diametrically opposed ones, where nuance is not permitted and where politicians are forced into defensive positions of utter banality. None of it is any good for the national conversation.
You can listen to the exchange here, though I'm not sure for how long - but Linehan's irritation with the staged conflict is obvious. I'm not comparing myself to the man who wrote Father Ted and The IT Crowd, nor would I associate Dominic with either Linehan or Billington, but it struck me that we found ourselves in a similar position (I'm not sure what Dominic felt).

I'm not suggesting that any SecEd debate is somehow poisoned - it's not that strong. However, it struck me that having an "either/or" debate on something fairly crucial to schools who want to develop isn't that helpful for decision makers in those schools, who almost certainly won't follow either path, but instead plot a course between. We have plenty of schools who used to use commercial learning platforms and now use Moodle, and there will be schools who change the culture of their school using Moodle and then spend a sizeable budget on another tool in the future. I would loved to have had a constructive exchange of views with someone like Dominic, who is aiming for the same outcomes, using similar approaches, albeit taking a different path to that which I'd recommend. I often find the most interesting opinion pieces in newspapers are those which take the form of a thoughtful exchange of emails or letters from two contributors - which is where the "nuance" that Linehan alludes to might become more clear. If and when I can find a link to an example of this more constructive opinion piece, I'll replace this sentence with a link to it...

Anyway, here's the article as I originally wrote it (the formatting was changed slightly - to fit SecEd's publishing tool? I'm not sure) and some parts were edited out. It also includes direct links to the references. You can see Dominic's piece alongside this (well, underneath, which isn't significant) on the SecEd site, and I recommend that you read both.

Why choose an Open Source option over a proprietary Learning Platform?

When an author or commentator wants to highlight the differences between “commercial” and “open source” tools, some standard statements are often made about these broad categories to attempt to reinforce differences between the two. Such statements normally take these forms:
  • “Commercial products are well-supported, proven, popular and are the route you should go down if you’re serious about [insert whatever function the tools in question are supposed to perform]. Quality and usefulness are directly proportional to how much you pay for something.” 
  • “Open source products are unsupported, flaky, unreliable and unproven. They are interesting, but only if you are at the geeky end of the spectrum, or have a room of tame geeks at your disposal. They’re cheap - and remember, quality and usefulness are directly proportional to how much you pay for something. Using something which is non-commercial is an indication that you’re not serious about the task that it’s trying to perform.”
This is a false distinction for a number of reasons, so let’s deal with some of them, starting with the “quality and usefulness” one. It goes without saying that any school can take on an open-source tool and use it well and effectively, or do the same with a commercial tool. However, to read some of the marketing from commercial learning platform providers you might think that you can parachute a glossy product into your school and transform learning without the need for good leadership, thoughtful & committed staff and an inquisitive and dynamic learning environment. In such an environment any tool, used well, can make a difference [1] - even the ones which don’t involve your bursar signing off on a five- or six-figure contract.

The “open source vs. commercial” dichotomy is a false one, as to use an open source tool effectively requires spending at least a little time or money - and “commercial” simply means “someone makes money from it”. A better way is to see it as a choice [2] between “closed source” (where you as a user have a negligible influence over the direction of what you’re using - if at all) and “open source” (meaning you as an educator can influence,shape and, if you want to, even help build the world’s most popular online learning tool). Imagine asking Microsoft if they wouldn’t mind changing the way PowerPoint works because your staff or students always struggle with an element of it - unless your surname’s Gates or Ballmer (or maybe even Jobs) that’s unlikely to happen. With an Open Source project, you can really influence the direction of travel.

The “free” aspect of Open Source is often cited as a demeaning characteristic - if I had a pound for every time I’ve been told that we as a Local Authority only offered Moodle (an Open Source tool and the world’s leading Virtual Learning Environment) to our schools “because it was free or cheap” I’d be a rich man - actually, I’d probably have enough to pay for about a week’s subscription to some of the more expensive commercial alternatives to Moodle. We use Moodle due to its quality - not because of its lack of licensing fees. Choosing Moodle has given us genuine freedom - over our own destiny. We can change it or implement it if and when we want to and pair it with what we like (integrations with SIMS [3], other MISs, Google Apps for Education [4], Microsoft’s Live@edu [5], Adobe Connect [6], Microsoft Office [7]  and many other tools are available). Our schools can start to use it when they are ready to, not simply because they’ve paid out for a significant contract whose clock is ticking.

Using Moodle as an example, you can pay for as much as you’d like to, including:
  • training - someone to help or show you how to best use the tool;
  • hosting - a third party to host the software - unless you want to host it in school;
  • support - someone on the phone to talk you through how to do something;
  • or none of these.
You’re in control. The critical thing is that you’re not paying for all sorts of things which won’t benefit you and by definition you don’t need - that glossy marketing campaign in a part of the world you and your students don’t inhabit, the you’ve bought our product for n years and feel obliged to use it so please pay through the nose training sessions, or the needs of shareholders and venture capitalists who pumped money into a company when the winds of Government were blowing funding towards Learning Platforms. As a long-time advocate of Open Source options for Learning Platforms one of the most interesting times for me was February 2010, when the parent company of the StudyWiz learning platform hit the financial rocks [8] - and what this meant for those schools and LAs who had backed that particular horse in the Learning Platform Stakes. A school using Moodle via a commercial host which encountered the same problem could simply move its data to a new host & carry on, as they are using what is effectively a lingua franca of online learning..

I’ve had the privilege of supporting all sorts of schools in using Learning Platforms effectively and have lost count of the number of staff I’ve worked with who have used Moodle in Singapore, Spain, France, Belgium to name a few countries - and been able to bring their resources with them to schools in England, without having to recreate them anew. In Australia, Brazil, the US, Sweden, South Africa, Finland and all around the world a community of learning teachers and educationalists can (and are) shaping the way in which new pedagogies are developing across the globe. Some, like the Open University, LSE, & hundreds of huge institutions [9] invest time, money & resource in Moodle knowing that this will feed back into its global community of users as well as benefiting their own. Others - small primary schools, voluntary organisations, faith groups, individuals - teach and innovate using the same tool on a more organic scale. Both ends of the scale contribute to and gain from a global project that’s open in all senses of the word. Whether you buy into the latest Government strategy [10] or not, most people would agree that this constitutes a pretty big Society.

Complete reference list.

How not to apply for your own job

ParentsPstcrd_120309.jpg by Carolyn_Sewell - used under a Creative Commons license.
A previous post looked forward (if that's the appropriate phrase) to the end of the process of applying for my own role in the Buckinghamshire School Improvement Service, and was written the evening before my half-hour interview. So what happened?
Well, the outcome was that I didn't get the post I applied for (School Improvement Adviser) but was instead offered a post of School Improvement Consultant with salary protection for three years. This is definitely a mixed blessing - of course, I'm incredibly fortunate to have a job at all in the current climate, but to say I was disappointed would be an understatement and, according to the postcard above, a way of wimping out. I'm angry with myself for not having done a better job, and in some ways angry at... what? A system that doesn't recognise work that it can't categorise? My employer for not realising how obviously great I was/am? Hmm, probably neither of those two, so it's probably just myself - and the second one wasn't meant seriously by the way...
That said, I know there are many, many other people facing similar situations right now or in the near future, so I hope this post might be helpful to someone. I've always been a fan of schools and individuals sharing practice - not just "good practice" but also "bad practice" - the "don't do what I did" sort of practice, so if you're facing a similar situation, whether in a school, Local Authority or any other organisation then I hope there's something you can glean from this.

I'm aware that this isn't a perfectly rounded or objective post, so if I have anything not-quite-right then please be patient!

The context

I've been in post for six years now (really?) - I was originally appointed with a brief of making a web site for the School Improvement Service but rapidly moved into supporting & advising schools with the practical aspects of E-Learning - specifically through the use of Moodle and Adobe Connect. (Sometimes when I'm speaking about this work I revert to the "we decided to do this" form of language. Actually, much of it was just me at first.) This was before Becta started the Learning Platforms Framework and before 98% of schools knew what a VLE, Learning Platform or accessible videoconferencing tool was. I was not an adviser, but not a consultant either, but was appointed on an adviser's pay scale, so I guess if you had to call it, you'd say I was an adviser. I remember my two-part interview vividly - the first part was three headteachers and the Head of Service (who'd previously moved from Hertfordshire and asked me to apply for a role in Bucks) and the second part was four senior advisers. I was appointed outside of the curriculum ICT team and was line managed by one of the senior advisers - which meant I very much had a "School Improvement" focus rather than an "ICT" focus. Having someone with a self-professed lack of understanding and experience of technology to support learning and school improvement as a line manager, I started to use this blog as preparation for line management and appraisal meetings - which helped me focus on writing things that could be read by anyone, even if they weren't familiar with the environment and issues my work focused on.  Around 2008 the position of my role changed abruptly - without warning I became part of the curriculum ICT team and was line managed by the county adviser, which changed the game (!) significantly. My post went from being core funded by the Local Authority to being paid for from the Harnessing Technology grant - which didn't seem significant at the time. At the same time the focus of the ICT team became less on curriculum ICT and more on e-learning-like activities, since that's where the funding was. Of course, with the seismic changes to funding for all kinds of school improvement-type work, plus swingeing cuts to Local Authority budgets, and the decimation of the Harnessing Technology budget in line with the Coalition government choosing to give that funding to Free Schools, those chickens came home to roost in a "you are all at risk of redundancy" meeting just before Christmas. Hence the recruitment process...

Being interviewed for your own post

I won't go over everything that happened, but on reflecting on what I did right and wrong I can pull out what for me are some important points for anyone having to interview either for their own role, or a similar role in an organisation that's being restructured, but essentially remaining similar to how it was before. These are particularly relevant if your skills and experience are in areas which are seen as "non-traditional" to whatever it is that your organisation does.
  • Be aware that few people will know the detail of what you do - before the interview processes started I sat down with a senior manager within the Service to go over what the process would entail. He explained that the interviews would be short - 30 minutes - since "we already know you and what you do". Well, on reflection I guess that wasn't true. I assumed that they knew the large-scale, planning, delivery and advisory work that I've done within Bucks and beyond, and therefore chose a small, school-based project to present on to provide a balance to that. It turns out that, for whatever reason, the single school-based project gave a picture of working in small, individual projects and not setting policy, or guidance, or anything more significant - hence (I was told afterwards) the offer of a Consultant post rather than that of an Adviser. This may be peculiar to me (and you) - I'm often told I don't talk about what I've done in glowing enough terms - but on reflection my advice would be: don't assume knowledge of anything you've ever done, even if you've made the papers for years, been asked to write for the same paper, been on the news, won awards, whatever - it'll count for nothing when some harrassed people are having to interview their entire workforce because they've been told they have to make yet more significant cuts/savings.
  • Those who appreciate what you do (and the way in which it reflects well on your organisation) won't be consulted about how good or otherwise you are at your role - this is stating the obvious, but in the education context, unless your work is almost exclusively with headteachers, those who see the best of your work won't communicate this with anyone who'll be involved in evaluating you. You're almost certainly working in a different strata (heads of departments, senior leaders other than the head, class teachers, governors) and even something that's significant on a whole-school or LA level might not seem that significant unless a headteacher cites it. I'm not sure if giving them as references would help - our recruitment process involved interviewing over a hundred people in less than two weeks - another reason (to my mind) for the shorter than usual interviews. I'm currently working on a project using out Adobe Connect service to, er, connect two primary schools to work on The Big Write together. The deputies from both schools are involved and have been incredibly positive and encouraging in their responses to the work I'm doing, but I know that, unless I were to ask them to, this response won't get back to my line manager(s) and Those Who Matter in the School Improvement Service. That's not a complaint, that's just The Way Things Are.
  • Beware being a prophet without honour - this sometimes archaic phrase comes from the Bible and, as the page puts it, refers to having more respect among those who don't know you as well as those who are around you all the time. One of my bordering-on-bitter reflections at the end of the process was that my own Local Authority didn't want be to be an adviser, but there were plenty of other people beyond the County boundaries who did. Now that's not completely accurate, but in some ways how you feel about being in your job equates with how it actually is, as it's the feelings that are overwhelming. Being wanted beyond your own boundaries is always flattering, but carries little or no weight with those who currently employ you - unless it earns your Authority a significant amount of funds in consultancy fees.
  • Emphasise the breadth of what you can do, rather than how much you know about a particular area - particularly if the area you're involved in falls outside of what the current Government's definition of "things which will improve schools" is - or the area that (it turns out) your employer is going to focus on.

Final reflections

On reflection, it's clear that among all of the upheavals of budgets, and the killing changing of the relationship between Local Authorities and schools, that what the LA wants to focus on is a traditional "School Improvement" role, in which those at adviser level are a hybrid of link adviser (who advises the schools on a broad area of school improvement issues) and subject/area adviser, with consultants who could deputise and effectively shadow the adviser. This rules out there being much of a space for those who perform roles that  fall outside of those core services LAs are being made to pare down to. With that in mind, I guess it was a stone-cold certainty that I wouldn't have ended up as an adviser. Even as I write that, I'm aware that it's an attempted "get oneself off the hook" manoeuvre to make up for my poor performance, but it's all I've got...

What next?

The restructuring of the School Improvement Service in Bucks means I'll no longer be part of an ICT team, instead I'll be part of one of three teams focusing on supporting schools in different areas of the County and different elements of the education system (Pupils, Schools and County-wide issues). I'm not sure about how this will work out, but we'll see. In the meantime, I've lots to do with both Moodle (looking at when we upgrade to version 2.n) and our Adobe Connect service (the use of which is really taking off, particularly among primary schools in the County). I hope I'll be able to explore those areas in which we've innovated, and done something that in many ways has been a lead at a national level (and reasonably well-known beyond UK shores) and continue to do interesting things and have equally interesting ideas for as long as I'm wanted, as I hope I've a lot to offer anyone who'll have me. Whether that's possible will depend on all sorts of things, many beyond the control of those in my LA.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Giving up for Lent?

Black Chair
Black Chair by Alex @ Faraway - used under Creative Commons
Shrove Tuesday is the day when, for some people, things are done for the last time before the liturgical season of Lent. This year, there's a chance I might be giving up something for longer. For a couple of months now I've been officially 'at risk of redundancy' - changes in government funding, plus the view of the Secretary of State that Local Authorities (and their staff?) appear to exist as a "bureaucratic intervention" (which I assume he doesn't mean in a positive way) - and so last week I put in a brief application form for my own job, or one like it. The post is School Improvement Adviser - a generic post (rather than a specific one like "ICT", "E-Learning" or "English"). If I don't get a job I can be considered for a job at a lower pay range, but if I still don't get a job then I'll be made redundant. If (for some reason) I'm offered a job but turn it down then I'll be considered to have resigned. Naturally I'm competing with colleagues for a number of roles that's less than the number of people applying - some will have applied for voluntary redundancy (I haven't) and some for potential reduced hours (I have). I know in some ways I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to apply, rather than (as appears to have happened in some LAs) being taken out the back of a County Hall and put to sleep with a mumbled apology - I've read the Redundant Public Servant ("News from the front line of deficit reduction") so I know what could (have) happen(ed).
It's an odd situation - when applying for most roles (other than in a brand-new startup, I guess) you'd have some idea who your colleagues would be, plus who you'd be working for, plus the broader environment in which your organisation is working... all sorts of things that I don't know for a variety of reasons. Maybe the startup analogy is a good one - the push of the White Paper is clearly to strip away responsibilities from Local Authorities, reducing their role to that of commissioners - to change the landscape and hence the nature of the organisations operating in it.
I'm not quite what the role of commissioner means - there are plenty of examples of commissioned services which haven't worked and even a cursory read of the Government's proposals sees many things which I'm already part of or have (in some measure) instigated being encouraged. You want schools working together? got it. Want innovation? Yup. Want examples from successful schools being used in those on the road to outstanding? Got it.
My chance to get a job lasts thirty minutes - a five minute presentation (no visual or audio presentation aids which is as - as anyone who's sat through anything I've ever presented knows, I can talk/bore for England) on a project I've worked on recently (that'll be Chick Cam then) - with a reflection on how problems were overcome and how I'd measure the success of it. Then twenty-five minutes for questions (of me). I'll know the four people interviewing me, and if my calculations are correct they are interviewing over 100 people in seven working days. Yikes.
So. It's the night before. I've read the White Paper and summarised what I think are the pertinent sections, gone over what the project's about (in that respect writing a blog post helped) - what else is there to do? Ah yes - iron a shirt. Tomorrow is supposed to be a lovely sunny spring day - do I spend the morning sat indoors worrying about what's happen at 2.30 in the afternoon? I'm tempted to dig the garden... anyway, see you on the other side. Maybe.
Daffodils by Danielle Boyle Photography. Used under Creative Commons.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Mixing Moodle and Connect with a side helping of eggs for Year 2

I've been involved in some work with the Headteacher at Grendon Underwood Combined for a while now, but it's been difficult to get the school's use of Moodle off the ground - the school has decided to use Moodle as their main web site, but hadn't yet used it as an important part of the pupils' learning. A couple of weeks before half-term I was asked to go in to the school to work with a class teacher to help her allocate her class of Year 2 pupils to a particular Moodle course to work on a special project...

Chick Cam setup
Chick Cam setup - laptop hard wired into school network connected to Buckinghamshire Adobe Connect server. Incubator containing eggs from 
It turned out that the project was a delivery of eggs (in an incubator) from The Happy Chick Company which would be with Year 2 for a fortnight. The original aim was to share some information about the project - and involve the pupils in any way possible. Getting pupils at Key Stage 1 to log in successfully is often a challenge, but there are plenty of examples of ways in which this can be overcome - and as with anything, practice makes perfect. Just before half term I took a Year 2 class with Miss Hair in which we introduced the Secret Project to her Year 2 class. The class was held in the school's ICT suite and so pupils could practise logging in and replying to messages on the forum.  In Moodle this was a forum set up as a Single Simple Discussion - the teacher said what she thought the surprise might be and asked the pupils to respond. There were a few Class Rules - held in a web page at the top of the Moodle course and read during the lesson - one of which was "only one smiley per message"! The class's task over half-term was to log in and respond to someone else's idea - not just saying why that person might be right or wrong, but also giving a reason why. In my experience this is really important when giving younger children their first taste of writing something online, so as to reflect the responses which would be hoped for in the classroom:
Forum set up as a Single Simple Discussion in Moodle. The teacher starts things off, and pupils reply to her and one another.
Considering the pupils were the first in their school to really use the VLE as part of a project, I was really impressed by the way they took to it. Miss Hair said that some of their parents reported that the children were a little obsessed with logging on to the VLE over half term - and for a typical Key Stage 1 class, their levels of interaction would put many secondary classes to shame. They also used Choices for a number of activities and there's a lot of potential to support their learning in future. This is by far my preferred method of introducing a class or even a school to using a VLE - it has focus, the pupils are actively involved (rather than simply clicking on links or printing off endless documents) and (by implication) the staff are active as well.
Activity report for the Year 2 "Surprise Project". On the left is the teacher's activity setting up the coruse, the pupils first accessed it on the 18th-19th February, the last day in school before half term. The eggs arrived in class on the 28th February.
While meeting before half term I suggested that with a little creativity we could use our Adobe Connect server to broadcast the eggs (and their potential hatching) beyond the classroom, since chicks aren't normally timetabled and therefore might not arrive during school hours. I'd used it in a similar way a few years ago to something I'd (worryingly) called PuppyCam (read that blog post), where a teacher in another of our primary schools had a dog about to give birth to puppies at home, and wanted pupils in the classroom to be able to see. The teacher had a webcam at home and a BucksGfL account, so I set up the room, created a logo, she pointed the camera at the litter, and we were in business:
The original Puppy Cam
You can watch a recording of PuppyCam here.
Grendon Underwood Combined didn't possess a webcam, but a quick visit to the classroom showed a flexible neck visualiser which (unlike some visualisers I've worked with before) was useable by the Flash Player, meaning that whatever it showed could be broadcast via a Connect meeting room.
Incubator in its original position
Well, the eggs in their incubator were delivered on the first Monday back after half-term, and I went in to school on the Tuesday. The incubator was out of the way of the class at the back, which presented a problem as the laptop (along with the only network point in the room) was towards the front by a window, so the incubator was carefully moved to the front, in view of a silent class of Year 2s lined up for PE all desperately hoping it wasn't dropped.
While the class went out for a PE lesson, I set up the room. Apologies for the lack of focus at the start, I had neglected to click my phone's screen to focus until a few seconds in...

Well, all seemed good. We decided not to use the visualiser's built-in light (the one which flips down from the head) as it would cause too much glare on the surface of the incubator.
Visualiser with light (below) switched off
Visualiser (document camera) showing focus ring and flip-down light (not used)
This meant that we needed to decide how to light the room, as the laptop and visualiser would be left on all night - and the issues around glare meant that we had to close the blinds as the domed surface of the incubator could reduce the camera's view to being that of just bright reflected light. You can see in the images below the effects of having no lights on, one bank of lights on (of three banks) and two. No lights meant that the camera wouldn't be able to see inside the incubator - you can see what's visible by looking at the projected image on the IWB in the first image:
Classroom with no lights
No lights on (dark image on screen)
Classroom with one row of lights on
One bank of lights on
Classroom with two rows of lights on
Two banks of lights on
Perfect. The room was set up, and I left the school as Miss Hair went into a staff meeting, leaving herself   logged in to the Connect room via her laptop and broadcasting any happenings from inside the incubator. Unfortunately, it appears the caretaker forgot his instructions to please leave the lights on, as this is what was visible later that evening...
What happens when someone turns the lights out...
What happens when someone turns the lights out and it gets dark
I had knocked together the "Chick Cam Live" image in Fireworks and uploaded it as a JPEG into a Share pod in the Connect room. At the end of yesterday's lesson, after I'd demonstrated to Year 2 how they could access the live "Chick Cam" from home, we agreed that the room would be shut down to viewers at 8pm to ensure that parents weren't besieged with requests to "watch the eggs for just five minutes in case they hatch". Children (and parents, and possibly staff) could log in as Guests so it was a trivial process to prevent access - the Connect room has a simple setting to switch Guest access on and off, but we're planning on recording through the night so that no-one misses anything important. The recordings can be edited later so that pupils don't have to watch five hours of static eggs just to see a few minutes excitement near the end.
As I write this there has been a flurry of excitement all day, as the chicks conveniently started hatching at around 8:50am - which, even though the pupils were in the classroom, we had planned to record so that they could watch it later. Miss Hair started the recording without a problem, and you can watch it here (opens in a new window or tab). It takes 20Mb on the Connect server for a 30 minute recording, which isn't bad, and the recording is separate from the live meeting room. I'll be interested to see how big tonight's "overnight" recording is. (Edit: the answer: a 6 hour 28 minute recording takes 180MB on the server. Not bad.)
Connect server recordings
Connect server recordings - 
multiple recordings, each with its own URL, created from the Connect room.
Among other reflections is the one that I need to come up with names whereby children don't search for the names of young animals or birds on Google combined with the word "cam". That or schools need to start choosing different animals to work with.
There's a set on Flickr where I'll post relevant images to support this blog post, or you can view them as a slideshow here:

I love my job. The irony of having to complete an application form to apply for it due to being at risk of redundancy seemed particularly sharp today.Mind you, so did making a seven egg frittata this evening. Ah well, you can't make an omelette (etc)...