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.

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