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.