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Wednesday
Mar102010

FITS For The Purpose

If you had to think of one aspect of the development of information and communication technology (ICT) that is either not addressed, or which is addressed as an afterthought, you'd almost certainly
come up with the answer "technical support". Yet a moment's reflection is enough to make anybody realise that achieving the government's aim of embedding ICT in the curriculum would be impossible without a robust infrastructure and hardware set-up to support it. And that is, if you think about it, a fairly mundane aspiration. Once you start to consider the more visionary aspects of ICT in education -- building schools for the future, the classroom of the future, the Every Child Matters agenda and the
education, e-learning and digital strategies -- it surely becomes apparent that without a rock solid foundation, all such dreams will remain just that: dreams.

There is another wayIt has long been the case that the teacher in charge of ICT has been expected to keep everything ticking over with virtually no budget and very little time -- especially in primary schools.
Part of the reason is that the true cost is often hidden: such is the professionalism and dedication of teachers that they will often work before and after school -- and through their lunch break -- sorting out problems such that colleagues often seem to assume that the systems run themselves.

To add insult to injury, it's a truism that nobody ever picks up the phone to say, "the network was working great today!", and they don't make those sorts of comments in the staffroom either.
So, whilst the ICT co-ordinator is slowly but surely driving herself into the ground, the word on the street is that the systems are unreliable and the ICT co-ordinator is useless.

It doesn't have to be like that.

It's generally assumed that technical support is a purely technical matter. However, like any other aspect of school life there is a management side too. Whilst reliable equipment is obviously an important factor in the smooth running of the ICT facilities in a school, it's not the only factor. Indeed, in certain circumstances it is not even the most important factor.

There is a law of physics which states: nature abhors a vacuum. This adage applies just as much in human affairs as it does in the physical world. In short, if you don't have proper systems in place for ensuring that technical problems and maintenance are handled efficiently, a system will develop anyway. And it might not be the one you would willingly choose.

For example, how do staff let you know there's a problem with a computer? Chances are, they will grab you in passing in the corridor and tell you. Their faith in your powers of memory is truly touching, but the only outcomes of this so-called "corridor culture" are wrongly prioritised jobs and disenchantment.

For example, you fix a printer jam and put the little matter of the network crash on the back burner. And then, when you forget to act on one of these chance encounters, you start to get a reputation as someone who does not deliver.

A variation of the corridor culture is the senior manager syndrome: exactly the same scenario, but with a deputy headteacher pulling rank. That's how the deputy's colour certificates for the ping pong championships somehow get printed before the SATS revision material is uploaded to the school's
intranet.

In the long run, of course, the same problems occur time and again because nobody has the time to step back and look at how often particular problems occur, or in what circumstances. Basically,
there is no planned system, and no strategic overview, just constant reaction to one near-crisis after another.

There is another way.

Becta has devised the FITS -- Framework for ICT Technical Support -- programme to address all of the problems mentioned, and more. 

Taking a system that has been developed and refined in industry over twenty years, Becta has come up with a set of systems which can be implemented in a school methodically and even reasonably quickly.

There are ten FITS processes altogether:

  • Service Desk
  • Incident Management
  • Problem Management
  • Change Management
  • Release Management
  • Configuration Management
  • Availability and Capacity Management
  • Service Level Management
  • Service Continuity Management
  • Financial Management

 

I don't intend to go though all of these processes in any detail -- there is hardly any point in attempting to replicate what Becta have already so admirably done. But it is worthwhile picking out one or two elements in order to give you a flavour of what's involved.

The important thing to note at the outset is none of these processes is a technical one, even though some of them involve technical aspects. They are all management systems.

Another point to make is that the systems you implement don't have to be hi-tec. Let's face it, a paper record of what equipment is in which room is infinitely better than no such record, and a way for staff to report faults, involving a form and your pigeon-hole, is far better than the corridor culture discussed earlier.

Finally, these processes are for the most part a menu rather than a sequential list. For example, your school's financial management for technical support may be perfectly sound, but change management may be non-existent.

Having said that, there is an inherent logic in the order, or at least parts of it. For example, you may think that setting up a service desk in the school office would not be as useful as hiring an extra technician to cope with network glitches, but in one school the helpdesk now deals with 60% of the calls that would have previously landed in a technician's lap (assuming they were sitting down long enough for it to land there).

Another example is the distinction between incident management and problem management. In essence, if a particular incident keeps occurring often enough, you've got an underlying problem. That much is obvious, but how does an incident get escalated to a problem?

I had an interesting example of this during a school inspection. One of the computer rooms was generally regarded as unreliable because the network kept crashing in that room alone. I asked the
technician what he was doing about it and he replied that he deals with it by rebooting the system. That is, to say the least, a short-term solution; but nobody in the school had actually gone much beyond recognising that there was an underlying problem and working out what its causes were. There was no plan in place to actually do something about it, and no doubt in ten years' time the technician will still be rebooting the network every couple of days.

The emphasis in FITS is on service and systems. Past attempts at dealing with technical support have focused on the question of how many technicians are required to provide a good service. Depending on how you work this out, it could be none or, more realistically, one, if you have a managed service; two or three, or, for a large comprehensive, an army of twenty. The truth of the matter is that any such estimates, which are based on the equation of how many computers a single technician can support,
are doomed to failure because the better the service, the higher the level of expectations: in short, you will never have enough technicians if you adopt this approach.

However, a deeper analysis suggests that a more profitable approach is to change your paradigm or world view. Once you stop thinking about technical support as a matter of dealing with hardware and infrastructure like cables and hubs, and start to view it from a customer perspective, the concepts of a service desk and a service level agreement suddenly don't seem quite so strange.

It is not often that I wax lyrical about the ideas which emanate from our official bodies. However, having seen five out of six schools transforming their technical support facility by implementing parts of the FITS programme (the sixth one did nothing for various reasons), I would say that FITS works, and that you should definitely look into it.

Unless you enjoy being harassed in the school corridor of course!

The FITS website may be found at:

http://www.thefitsfoundation.org/

An earlier version of this article was first published on 17th May 2005.

 

Wednesday
Mar102010

Also on the web: 03/10/2010 (p.m.)


Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.
Wednesday
Mar102010

General Impressions of ICT in Singapore

#iCTLT2010 If I were asked to give a one-phrase description of education in Singapore, I should have to say that the overriding impression is one of faith and trust. Faith in the ability of the child to rise to challenges that we might consider beyond their years. Trust in the ability of the teacher to guide the youngsters and nurture their talents and abilities.

Faith and trust also in their ability to look at what other countries have done and experiment and come up with solutions all their own.

I am not naive. I understand that when one visits a foreign country, one will be shown the best, not the worst or even the mediocre. But seeing the best is actually what should happen: we need to see what our own students might aspire to given the right circumstances and ingredients.

Two mottos struck me as especially noteworthy. One is the Ministry of Education's ideal that teachers should teach less in order that students may learn more. Teach Less, Learn More, or TLLM, appears to be another way of stating the 'guide on the side' idea, but it seems to me to run deeper. The TLLM philosophy is not simply to leave the students to it, but to encourage and guide them in asking important questions, and then seeking the answers.

A great sentimentThe other motto is 'Every Child Ready for the World'. This strikes me as so much more positive than our own, unfortunately necessary, Every Child Matters. One of the strengths of our education system is that it considers the whole child; school is not only an educational (in the narrow sense) establishment, but the hub of the community and the locus for all sorts of services – police, social, medical – that may impinge on the individual child.

But that is also its weakness. As Michael Gove has pointed out, there is no official body in England that is solely concerned with excellence in school. We do not have a ministry of education, we have a department for children, schools and families. Even Ofsted, the inspection body, is not exclusively focused on schools, but in everything ranging from childcare provision to old age homes.

I'm not familiar enough with the Singaporean education system to be able to say whether they have cracked this dilemma, of striking the right balance between the academic and the social and emotional aspects of the child's experience. But certainly what we saw was impressive: students, even as young as 8, who were articulate about what they have done, and why; students who have worked with mentors in further education in extended projects; students who are able to work well with each other.

I don't think they have completely got it right. A teacher who has been doing very innovative work in science gives her class a pencil and paper test every six weeks. There is no slot on the curriculum for ICT, which is embedded in other subjects across the curriculum. Many will agree with this philosophically, but in my experience it's quite difficult to make it work.

Despite such doubts, for me the real issue is not whether Singaporean children are ready for the world, but whether the world is ready for them. 

Wednesday
Mar102010

Experimenting With E-Junkie

I've written several ebooks over time and am always interested in looking at different ways of selling them. The free ones are easy to deal with: I just upload them to my website and tell everyone where to get them. Ones for sale are more complicated, because you have to take into account other things, like:

  • Sales tax, in my case VAT.
  • Temporary URLs -- otherwise some people would just post the URL and effectively make the book available free of charge.
  • Shopping carts which are automatically updated as purchase requirements change.
  • A variety of payment methods.
  • An automated thank you email and/or redirect to a 'thank you' web page.
  • Bundles/deals, should one wish to offer them.

I've just started a free trial of e-Junkie. I've read a couple of articles in which people are singing its praises. One attractive thing is that, unlike many services, it doesn't take a transaction fee. Typically, that runs at a fixed amount, like one dollar, plus a percentage. That doesn't sound much, but if you want to make the books available at a fairly low cost you will find that hard to do: don't forget, PayPal, or whatever payment method you use, also takes its share.

E-Junkie was easy to set up. I only needed to look at two things in the documentation: how to enable the VAT charge for EU residents, and how to set up the API settings for PayPal to handle payments. And that was only because I didn't look at the set-up page to start with. I have to say that so far this is the easiest set-up of this kind that I've implemented.

The transaction side of things appears to be just as easy. When you make a purchase you are redirected to a page with a download link straight away, and you also receive an email with the same information plus a receipt for your records.

Now that I have set up the PayPal link, and other 'fixed-cost' items, uploading new ebooks should be easy.

Fingers crossed!

It seems to me that this sort of service could have use in a school setting too. Some schools sell DVDs of school plays and that sort of thing, to raise money for charity or to offset the cost of school trips for poorer pupils. At $5 a month for the lowest entry level, e-Junkie may be just what's needed. I notice, for instance, that you can set up tax rates for individual countries and even individual states in the USA. It may be worth giving it a whirl for a week.

Wednesday
Mar102010

The Tyranny Of Relevance

IMG_0836

#BloggersCircle In a recent address called 'What is education for?' to the Royal Society of Arts, Michael Gove bemoaned the fact that there is no government department in the UK whose sole remit is the pursuit of educational standards.

According to Gove, education is not regarded as a good enough end in itself, but as something which can help to achieve some other goal.

In his exposition of his views in favour of liberal education, he used the term 'the tyranny of relevance'. Although he wasn’t talking about Information and Communications Technology (ICT), this phrase did strike a chord with me. In the continuing debate over whether ICT should be taught as a subject in its own right, is there perhaps too much store set by 'relevance'?

I’ve noticed (although, curiously, I’d never consciously noticed it before) that whenever people tell me that they think ICT should be taught through the context of other subjects, they always cite 'relevance' as a factor. They almost always throw in a reference to kids having to suffer boring lessons on spreadsheets and databases. They seem to think that having lots of lessons on e-safety and plenty of opportunities to use blogs, Google and Wikipedia will somehow turn out youngsters who can use their knowledge of technology and ability to transfer their skills to excel in subjects right across the board.

Perhaps I have overstated my case slightly – but only slightly. Like Gove, I happen to think that the best kind of education is one in which students develop a deep knowledge of subjects. I like the idea of cross-curricular themes, and of making subjects 'relevant' both to each other and a wide range of issues and circumstances. However, I do not think you can achieve that without mastering individual subjects. To summarise, I regard the following statements (which are mine, not Gove’s) as axiomatic:

     
  1. It is important for students to gain a deep knowledge of ICT, because only by understanding key issues (such as the difference between data and information) can they protect themselves against some forms of hype.    
       
    More positively, an understanding of how ICT can be used for 'provisional' activities, such as drafting and modelling, and an ability to appreciate the importance of precision in language (as required, for example, in 'sequencing' or programming, is essential for being able to avoid being subservient to a computer system’s apparent will.    
       
    However, even this is falling into the trap of looking for 'relevance'. Why can't ICT be studied and enjoyed for its own sake?
  2.  
  3. Far from being boring, spreadsheets and databases can be extremely interesting, even beautiful. I don’t mean just to look at, but in their design and construction.
  4.  
  5. Any teacher who makes spreadsheet or database lessons boring either has not had the time to develop interesting lessons, or does not really have a deep grasp of, and appreciation for, these areas themselves.
  6.  
  7. What we need are teachers who have a deep love of ICT. I think to achieve that we have to encourage teachers to join communities in which important subject-related (not necessarily education-related) issues are debated (such as the RSA or British Computer Society).
  8.  
  9. To help promote #4 we need to ensure that teachers have the time, and the authority, to develop teaching resources of their own.
  10.  
  11. As part of that, teachers should have the flexibility to be able to teach topics they have a deep interest in.When I started teaching economics, something I was especially interested in was road pricing. I usually spent around 2 weeks on that topic alone, but in doing so I was able to touch on a whole plethora of concepts that I knew would prove relevant throughout the rest of the course.
  12.  
  13. Finally, there needs to be an entitlement for top quality professional development, and the funds to back it up. For example, why shouldn’t teachers be able to apply for a ‘scholarship’ to attend national or even international conferences about educational technology?

I strongly believe that if we are to tackle the oft-cited lack of computer programming courses, say, or the sometimes perceived 'dumbing down' of ICT as a subject in its own right, we have to address the 'tyranny of relevance'.

The video of Michael Gove’s talk may be viewed on the RSA website.

This article was first published on 2nd July 2009.

Wednesday
Mar102010

Web 2.0 For Rookies: Instant Messaging

Instant messaging, or IM, is the name given to communicating with someone else, via a keyboard, when that other person is online at the same time, as you can see in the screenshot below. In this respect it differs from emailing, tweeting or texting, where the other person may pick up your message later -- when perhaps you are offline.

IM is great for sharing informationWhen IM first appeared on the scene it achieved notoriety because of the way some people conducted themselves in chat rooms in Yahoo!, MSN and other providers. In fact, in the teen rooms especially, but also in 'adult' rooms, some people would use IM for writing sexually explicit content. I found that the sensible rooms were sometimes quite useful, as there were rooms for all different interests, but because it was always a bit hit and miss as to who was going to be online at the same time, these were never as good as today's communities and the ability to 'friend' or 'follow' someone.

There was also the ever-present danger that, because IM is text-based, you could never be certain that the person you were speaking to really was who they purported to be. Not that that particular danger has gone away, as the recent Facebook murder story sadly illustrates. However, there are ways of teaching youngsters about this sort of thing, as Dughall McCormick illustrated in Computers in Classrooms last April.

Today, many of the original chat rooms have disappeared, and those that remain seem to be overrun by spam. However, IM has entered the mainstream, insofar as anything Web 2.0 may be termed 'mainstream'. You will find it in applications such as Skype, streaming video, Facebook, Google Wave.

The reason is that IM is a brilliant way of communicating with someone else instantly. You can quickly share an opinion, ask for a file, give them a useful URL. Used sensibly, IM can provide a rich extra dimension of communication whilst engaged in another activity such as taking part in a discussion or watching a video.

Like anything else, such as text messaging, just because IM has been abused, does not mean it should be abandoned all together.


Tuesday
Mar092010

Conversation is sometimes better than reading

At six am on the morning of my second Spotlight presentation in Singapore, I opened my hotel door slowly and gingerly put my head out. The corridor was empty. Excellent. Creeping to the lift, and walking in the shadows, I was able to get right into the dining area, have a bowl of cereal and a glass of orange juice, unseen and unspoken to. Wonderful! I took out my presentation notes and started to read.

It was then that I made the mistake (or so I thought at the time) of glancing up, because I spotted Junko Yamamoto, whom I had been talking to with David Warlick the previous evening, at a networking reception. I am nothing if not a gentleman, and I offered to join her. She accepted.

In a very short time, I was as delighted as I had previously been disappointed to find myself in company rather than alone. Although I had not been able to read over my notes one last  time, the conversation, on the relevant topic of '21st century skills’ was so stimulating as to make such last-minute revision unnecessary. There is no doubt that the talk I gave was enriched by this unplanned exchange.

I was not alone in being thus affected. Junko, who arrived 15 minutes late for the morning’s keynote address, explained to me afterwards that she had been so stimulated by our conversation that she had to rush back to her room and start writing a paper.

You sometimes hear of all sorts of goings-on at conferences. I think that if the effect I have on women is to make them want to race off and write an academic treatise, my wife has nothing to worry about!



Tuesday
Mar092010

Also on the web: 03/09/2010 (a.m.)

  • I'm looking forward to reading this. At first glance it looks like it proposes a similar set of arguments to the ones I used in my tak on why schools cannot ignore Web 2.0, which I gave recently at the ICTLT Conference in Singapore. I have to say that words like 'leverage' put me ff a bit, but still. I think the subject matter is worth reading and discussing. I wonder; is this the USA answer to the UK's Harnessing Technology'?

    tags: Learning with technology, educational technology, netp2010, ICTLT2010


Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.
Monday
Mar082010

5 Minute Tip: Using Your Phone As An E-Reader

How can you read stuff digitally on the move if you don't have an e-reader and don't want to use a laptop?

I have just returned from Singapore, where I was invited by the Ministry of Education to give two Spotlight presentations at the ICTLT2010 Conference, on the subjects of introducing Web 2.0 into your classroom, and into your school. Because of weight restrictions and for the sake of convenience, I didn't want to take reams of paper with me, and I didn't want to have to read everything on a laptop either, as the one I took with was a fairly large one.

The solution? I used my phone instead.

Who needs an e-reader?

I have a smartphone, meaning that I can synchronise appointments and contact details with my computer. It also comes with a suite of applications like Word, and Acrobat Reader. I found that trying to read documents on the small screen is a challenge: you either need microsopic vision, or not mind scrolling furiously every few words.

However, I found that reading my presentation slides in pdf format worked very well indeed. The file was much smaller than the original PowerPoint version, and was perfectly clear, as you can see in the illustration. It meant that I was able to look at my slides very easily and without any fuss, whilst in situations like drinking a coffee in the airport lounge. I would highly recommend this.

Here's what I did (I'm using Office 2007).

  1. In PowerPoint, go to Save As -> PDF or XPS.
  2. Select the Minimal Size (Publish online) option.
  3. Connect the phone to the computer, via a USB cable.
  4. When asked what sort of connection, select ActivSynch.
  5. Create a suitably-named folder in My Documents on the phone.
  6. Copy the file across from the computer to the phone in the usual fashion.
  7. View the file on the phone by going to Program -> File Explorer and then navigating your way to the file.

I shall be doing a lot more of this from now on!

Monday
Mar082010

The world according to Potter Part 2 -- Opposites Attract

In this brief series I am looking at the concept of "one-upmanship", as developed by Stephen Potter, and exploring how the observations he made 50 years ago might still be applicable in the world of educational technology today.

Background

As I said in the first article in the series (which contains much more background information), his books are concerned with the study of how to be "one up" on other people. Although they are written very much tongue-in-cheek, they are clearly based on real-life observation. I first came across them 40 years ago, and have read and re-read them over the years for their humour. However, I find myself more and more discovering that a number of aspects of modern life may be found in these books, despite the elapsing of half a century, a fact which I believe puts them on a par with other classics such as Parkinson's Law and The Peter Principle.

To summarise, the 4 main books he wrote on the subject were:

  • Gamesmanship, or the art of winning games without actually cheating

  • Lifemanship, which was concerned with the application of the principles of gamesmanship to everyday life

  • One-upmanship, which was a further extension of Lifemanship, and

  • Supermanship, or the art of staying on top without falling apart.

In Potter's world, the practitioner of one-upmanship, or Lifeman as he or she is known having completed the Lifemanship Correspondence course, has one overarching thought: that if you are not one up then you are, by definition, one down.

Looked at in the cold light of day it sounds ridiculous, I know. But Potter very accurately described people and practices that you and I see almost every day of our lives. So suspend your disbelief and bear with me, as today I look at the law of opposites.

Presentational dissonance and self-contradictory names

As I have said in the past, in describing activities for which I coined the term "presentational dissonance", some practices are inherently conttradictory. Examples that spring to mind immediately are:

  • Authors who write books about self-publishing -- for a publishing company, and

  • A lecture I attended once which lasted well over an hour -- on the importance of participatory learning techniques.

  • More recently, one might add those globe-trotters who visit different parts of the world to deliver lectures on the benefits of e-learning and the interactivity of Web 2.0.

But there is a far more powerful manifestation of this sort of thing: the conjuring up of names for initiatives which are really the precise converse of what the initiatives are actually about.

For example, three or four years ago in the UK there was a welfare initiative called "Supporting People". Under this initiative, the hours of work of wardens in sheltered accommodation were cut, and sometimes reduced to zero, thereby placing at risk some of the most vulnerable people in our society. When I enquired why this was being done, I was told that the organisation concerned had chosen to do it: apparently, it was not an inherent part of the policy itself. Well, maybe it was, and maybe it wasn't, but the point is that once Supporting People came on the scene, some people stopped being supported.

A more recent initiative, this time in the Health Service, is called Fit for the Future. Note the clever play on the word "fit", which in this context means fit as in healthy, and fit as in suitable. Apparently, in the future there will not be traffic jams, and there may not even be accidents and emergencies. Why else would my local Health Trust be using Fit for the Future as a means by which to axe perfectly good locally-based Accident and Emergency units in hospitals, and force people to travel to a modern hospital that can barely cope now, let alone when that happens? In other words, like "Supporting People", "Fit for the Future" seems to me to mean the exact opposite of what it sounds like it was supposed to mean.

But the prize must go to "Building Schools for the Future". I am not referring to the programme itself, which has achieved some success, but the name. If you think about it, it contains the seeds of its own failure, making success that much more difficult to achieve. After all, if one were to really start to think futuristically about education, one might hesitate to think in terms of schools at all. And as for building, would that even merit a mention, except perhaps as a footnote?

The Potter dimension

So where does Potter fit in with all this? Well, before I tell you, here is a little more background information which will prove useful to you. Potter's "day job" was English lecturer in the University of Oxford. So there is a kind of in joke running throughout the books whereby Potter gives spurious academic-sounding names to types of behaviour. I'll go more into this in another article, but to give you an idea of what I mean, he came up with such immortal terms as "Trojan Horsemanship", "Book Reviewership" and "Derby and Joanmanship" (with its associated phenomenon of "still-ridiculously-in-love-with-each-othering"). It will therefore come as no surprise to learn that Potter came up with a very apposite term for what I've just been describing.

In the Supermanship book, there is a riotous exposition of the natural one-upness of babies, and how to counteract it. In one paragraph, he says that as well as being undermined by the baby itself, parents will also start to be got at by external forces in various guises. He writes:

"Baby Literature makes itself felt first, and Baby Instruction. Many prettily got-up booklets start with the dictum 'Enjoy your baby'."

To this last point is appended a footnote which states:

"This is known in Yeovil [where the Lifemanship Correspondence College is based] as 'The Petrification of the Implied Opposite'."

If the term "Building Schools for the Future" is not a superb example of the petrification of the implied opposite, I don't know what is. Another example we might cite is "e-learning credits" which, when this form of funding first appeared at least, had everything to do with digital content and nothing to do with e-learning, and involved no type of credit in the usually-understood meaning of the term.

Implications for educational technology

So what does all this mean for the educational technology subject leader? I'm not interested in having a dig at the names of initiatives just for its own sake. After all, things have to have names, and the pithier and more evocative the better. But from the point of view of, if you like, the consumer (ie us), we have a responsibility to try and tease out exactly what any new initiative entails. Does it really mean what we took it to mean at first glance? What does the small print say? Is it deliverable? And is it even worth delivering? Can we deliver it with our existing policies rather than spending time and energy setting up new structures?

And let's be clear about this: some initiatives really do do what it says on the tin. Harnessing Technology is about finding ways of harnessing technology in the service of learning. The Hands-On Support funding of a few years ago was very much concerned with providing practical, in-class, support for teachers using educational technology. It's only by scrutinising the various policies, strategies and initiatives that we can get behind the soundbite of the title to determine what it's really all about, and sometimes what we discover is actually good!

And if it does turn out to be an example of the petrification of the implied opposite, it is our responsibility to try to ensure that the initiative lives up to its promise, rather than down to our lowest expectations.

This article was first published on 31 October 2007.

Thursday
Mar042010

Managing Change: The Importance of Vision

Back in the 17th century, if you were unfortunate enough to have had a vision, and stupid enough to admit to it, you'd likely be burnt at the stake or locked away on the grounds of insanity. But these days, having a vision is de rigeur if you are to bring about change in an organisation effectively.

There is a lot of research which shows that if you want to transform educational ICT in an organisation, you must have a set of guiding principles -- a vision -- in place. You have to know what it is you're striving to achieve, not in terms of the nuts and bolts of what technology will be used and how, but in terms of the educational experience of the students, teachers and parents.

Moreover, the research, and experience, tells us that the vision has to be shared by all, not just the lone ravings of a madman. Ideally, then, it should have been developed by all.

Three of the things I always check when I'm evaluating the ICT provision of a school, whether as an ICT Mark Assessor or an independent consultant brought in by the school or the Local Authority, are as follows:

One, does everyone, including parents and, of course, the youngsters, know what the vision is?

Two, did they have a hand in framing it?

Three, is the school achieving it?

Interestingly, I find that much of the time the parents and students know what the vision is if you ask a question like, "What do you think the school is trying to achieve?". If you ask them about visions, they give you a kind of sidelong glance that suggests that they think you're slightly unhinged. It's a salutary lesson: most of the world does not speak in corporate jargon.

If a vision is good to have, having two or more must be even better, right? Unfortunately, no. Researchers Peck and Sprenger, in their chapter on one-to-one educational computing in The International Handbook of Information Technology in Primary and Secondary Education (Springer, 2008), which I shall be reviewing, advise against falling into the traps of naive innovation. One of these is having too many disconnected initiatives.

Even Ofsted, the UK's school inspection body, said in a recent report on the impact of the National Strategies, that:

... the frequent introduction of new initiatives had led to overload and diminished their potential effectiveness.

Try telling that to the people and organisations who are continually coming up with new initiatives and projects to make educational ICT even "better". A couple of years ago, I worked out that there were forty educational initiatives, policies or projects that involved ICT in some way, that affected schools in England and Wales. There may have been more, but when I reached 40 I stopped counting.

Perhaps our 17th century ancestors weren't entirely wrong after all!

Wednesday
Mar032010

The world according to Potter Part (1) Going Metric

In this brief series I'd like to see how the writings of Stephen Potter might be applicable in the world of education -- and, in particular, educational technology -- today. Writing predominantly in the 1940s and 50s, Potter codified the art and science of "one-upmanship". In so doing, he not only inspired a generation of undergraduates to put his theories to the test and invent new "ploys" and "gambits", but inspired the making of a film ("School for Scoundrels") and, perhaps more importantly, was taken seriously enough for the term "one-upmanship" to be cited in academic books.

His books are concerned with the study of how to be "one up" on other people. Although they are written very much tongue-in-cheek, they are clearly based on real-life observation. I first came across them 40 years ago, and have read and re-read them over the years for their humour. However, I find myself more and more discovering that a number of aspects of modern life may be found in these books, despite the elapsing of half a century, a fact which I believe puts them on a par with other classics such as Parkinson's Law and The Peter Principle.

So, with no further ado, let's see what Potter has to offer the educational ICT (Information & Communications Technology) subject leader in a school, Local Authority or School District. For this to make as much sense as possible, imagine yourself to be of a certain mindset: that of regarding every waking moment as an opportunity to place yourself, or appear to be, in a superior position to those around you. It may all sound too far-fetched, but as you read on I think you will start to recognise people you know....

I have already written about this in the context of getting ICT embedded in a school. In today's article, I should like to explore the wonderful world of statistics.

I don't know if you have noticed, but every presentation by a Government spokesperson consists of at least 5 minutes (and often much more), of statistics. Whatever the topic under consideration, there is always a section that goes something like this:

"Since we were elected X years ago we have more than doubled the number of Y, and over the next 3 years we will increase this by a further Z percent".

We hear it all the time in presentations about educational ICT in the UK, but it appears in every other branch of public affairs too.

The thing about statistics, though, is that so much depends on context, even if the figures themselves are (a) accurate and (b) not subject to interpretation -- both of which assumptions are highly dubious for a start. For example, if an educational spokesperson were to announce that the Government will spend an extra £10m on in-service training for teachers over the next 3 years, that sounds impressive until you work out that, in the UK, that amounts to just over £22 per head, or around £7.50 (approximately 15 USD) per teacher per year. (See http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=1765 for the statistics on which I have based this calculation.)

Now, there is nothing startling about this per se, but what is interesting is the fact that it is completely disarming unless you (a) happen to know the underlying stats and (b) can do lightning fast calculations. The point is, by the time you have even had a chance to think about it, the moment is gone, and the speaker is on to yet another "fact".

Interestingly enough, Stephen Potter recognised the power of this sort of approach. In "One-upmanship" there is a chapter called "Doctorship", in which Potter discusses the important topics of medical studentship, doctorship, patientship and healthmanship. (I will be examining Potter's use of terminology in a future article.) In a footnote he says:

"An effective statement in the right context can sometimes be: 'I have had 140 days' illness in my life.' Listeners are unable, without a lame pause for calculation, to know whether to commiserate or admire."

So how does this apply in the context of educational technology leadership? The answer is that in today's world, metrics are all-important. I personally believe that that is how it should be, but it's easy to be fooled by statistics which sound good but which, on closer examination turn out to be less than desirable or even meaningless.

For example, I have no idea why any teacher would want their students to receive thousands of comments about their work, because not only is that volume of comments unhelpful, it is completely unmanageable, as I have already said recently (see, for example, the October 2007 edition of Computers in Classrooms, which is available via a free subscription).

I also think most RSS feed readership statistics raise more questions than answers, and that (for my website at least) Technorati's statistics are fictional. More importantly, the metrics given out by companies need further scrutiny.

For example, a technical support company that claims that 99% of its call-outs are rated excellent inspires no confidence in me whatsoever. If the company has 10 employees, each doing one job per day, it means that over a two week period one of those jobs or days will not be rated excellent. That sounds quite a lot to me.

Similarly, a web hosting company that promises 99% "up time" may actually be promising that you may have to put up with the site being "down" for 15 minutes a week, assuming a 25 hour school week. Even if we leave school out of it, given the global nature of communications, I don't want my website to ever be down, not even for 5 minutes a week -- and even then, I want it to be planned for so that I can put a notice up and warn people. Yes, I know I am asking for the impossible, but my point is that statistics like "99% up-time" are meaningless unless we understand the context in which they are cited.

As an educational technology leader, you should at least know some important statistics. When evaluating the quality of a school's ICT provision (at the request of the Head of ICT or the Principal), I make a point of asking a number of questions which involve facts and figures and which the Head of ICT should either know or have immediate access to. It is astonishing how many don't. For example, do you know if there is a difference in attainment in ICT between girls and boys in your school? If so, is it significant? Do you know the cause? What are you doing about it?

As well as knowing some basic figures, you should also know what they mean. Statistics are often given a spurious veneer of credibility by the addition of a graph. I recall one teacher showing me "before" and "after" charts to illustrate how much his students had progressed over the last term.

"But what were the tests actually measuring?", I asked.

"I don't know", came the reply. "But the point is that whatever it is, it has gone up."

Getting back to Stephen Potter, he was making a wry observation about the cavalier use of statistics. Although he wrapped it up in a humorous, not to say unlikely, package, he was alerting us all to be on our guard.

This article was first published on 20 October 2007

Thursday
Feb252010

Managing Change: Engaging The Teachers

I've been giving a lot of thought lately to the management of change, as I am giving a couple of presentations on the subject next week. I've been looking in particular at how whole schools can be moved in a new direction, and have identified several key factors which are essential for success.

One of those factors, or conglomeration of factors to be more accurate, is teacher engagement. If teachers don't want to get involved, the change won't happen. Or it may happen in a way that ticks the boxes, but not much more than that. So how do you engage teachers?

I could write a book on that (and books have been written on it), but what it all comes down to is really quite simple: if the (proposed) change helps the teachers to achieve their aims better, they'll adopt it. As long as they can see that to be the case, of course.

Get smartOne way in which to achieve that is to make sure that the technology is used in a  relevant way, and not merely for its own sake. I saw some great examples of relevant use yesterday, when I visited Scargill Junior School in the London Borough of Havering. Interactive Whiteboards, Visualisers and a variety of handheld devices were being used in numeracy and literacy classes, and we also saw or were told about other inspiring examples in subjects like science and PE.

What especially impressed me (among many things which impressed me), was that much thought had gone into how each device and application might be used in a number of contexts, or act as a stimulus. For example, Nintendo Dogs led to a unit of work in which the children study the use of working dogs throughout history.

This kind of curriculum planning works. I saw it in every school I visited in the London Borough of Newham's multimedia project, involving seven schools, which I helped to set up.

Teachers are, on the whole, pragmatists, and dedicated to their work. Give them compelling reasons to adopt new technology and new approaches, and they will do so.


Thanks to Dave Smith of Havering for setting up the visit, and to Amanda (Headteacher) and Karen (ICT subject leader) for a most inspiring morning. Scargill was a winner at the 2008 Handheld Learning Conference: see this article for details.

For more information about how games and handheld learning devices are being used in education, see the forthcoming special edition of Computers in Classrooms, the free ezine.

Thursday
Feb252010

Ebooks: No Need For Publishers To Worry?

Still safe?Are ebooks merely a footnote to publishing? I attended a Society of Authors' conference yesterday afternoon, and the panelists seemed to take that view. Apparently, according to the latest stats, ebooks in the UK account for only about 2% of the published output, and next year it's not predicted to rise to much above 3%. From this, the panelists concluded that the book industry was unlikely to go the way of the music industry.

Far be it from me to question the experts, but it seems to me that a few things are not being considered here.

Firstly, it's generally the case that when there is a sudden transformation, it's almost impossible to predict that it's going to happen. There's even a theory to help explain such changes: catastrophe theory. A good example is boiling water: until the last second, there is almost no indication that anything dramatic is about to happen to the state of the water.

So, just because only two or three percent of published books are in the form of ebooks should not, in itself, give any comfort to publishers at all.

Secondly, it is now technically feasible to sell books in single chapters. It used to be the case that you had to buy an album, and hope that most of the tracks were OK. Now you can buy only the tracks you want. By the same token, why should I have to buy a whole book, when there may only be one or two chapters that are relevant to my needs? One of the things preventing this may be that there are not good enough micropayment systems around (I say 'may' because there wasn't the last time I looked; there may be now).

Thirdly, when it comes to niche publishing, the situation may be different. I wonder, for example, what the proportion is in educational publishing or, even more specialised, ICT in education?

Fourthly, and this was actually stated by the panellists present, it is essential these days that if you're going to publish a book, you have to make sure there is an e version. This advice probably comes naturally to those of us have been experimenting with print-on-demand.

Like a lot of people, I like the feel of a 'real' book, and I like being able to put physical bookmarks and post-it notes in it, and to annotate it (in pencil, of course). But given ebooks' convenience and lack of weight, and the growing ubiquity of devices on which to read them, I think the panellists were perhaps being more optimistic than may have been justified.

Monday
Feb222010

Are You Only Teaching Kids To Drill Holes?

Drilling holes? What’s that got to do with ICT? Possibly quite a bit….

A perfect hole. But what's it for?You can always rely on Niel McLean of Becta to come up with a fresh insight, and his talk at the Naace 2009 Conference proved to be no exception. I can’t recall the exact details of the story, but Niel related a conversation which took place at a parents’ open day:

Parent: What’s this machine for?

Design & Technology Teacher: It’s for drilling holes.

Parent: So why would you want to use it?

Teacher: To drill holes.

Parent: Yes, but why teach the kids how to use it?

Teacher: So they can drill holes.

People don’t always express themselves very well, and this is a case in point. What the parent was really asking was: Why would anyone want to drill holes?

The issue is, how far do we fall into the same trap?

Q: Why use SlideShare?

A: To create slides.

Q: Why use Audacity?

A: So we can edit a podcast.

Q: Why use a spreadsheet?

A: So we can do calculations.

We need to make sure that we have a rather better set of answers!

This is #16 in a series of 25 reflections on the Naace 2009 Conference. It was first published on 28th May 2009.