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Thursday
Mar182010

In Praise of Silliness

I am all in favour of the experiment by an ATM company in London which sees instructions in rhyming slang on some of its cash machines.

People tend to be too serious, and sometimes you can achieve quite a lot in terms of making people think, or even improving learning, through the interjection of a bit of mild humour.

I’m not suggesting that these ATMs will educate people, but that a similar principle might be introduced into the school environment. When I was running an ICT department in a school, I sometimes used to put up silly notices along the lines of:

Is you is or is you ain't printing? If so…

(From the song Is you is or is you ain’t my baby?)

OK, so it didn’t produce guffaws, but then it wasn’t meant to. Just about every ICT suite has notices saying what you can’t do, what is forbidden. The overall effect is to put people on edge, in my opinion. You can grab people’s attention with an unusual and slightly humorous headline, and then state a few rules. I believe that the light-hearted opening puts them in the right, ie receptive, frame of mind.

Humour is fine to use in other places too, especially when the work can get pretty intense. I tweaked a spreadsheet once so that at the top, in the title bar, it read:

Mr Freedman says: Get on with your work!

I also had a button which said

Click here in case of an emergency.

Inevitably, clicking on it caused a message to pop up stating:

This is not an emergency! Stop messing about!

My coup de grace, however, was recording myself saying "Stop that and get back to your work", and assigning the sound file to one of the windows events on a stand-alone computer. It was quite humorous to see the reaction of a pupil experiencing it for the first time!

Of course, it goes without saying that such frivolity will not work if you have not already established classroom discipline and have really interesting work for the students to do. My aim was to try to replicate a workplace environment, in the sense that in a normal, healthy work environment people work, have a bit of a break, exchange some banter, and get on with their work. Why should school be any different?

Related article: Fings ain’t wot they used to be.

This article was first published on 26th August 2009.

Wednesday
Mar172010

Web 2.0 For Rookies: Music While You Work

When I was a teacher I used to play music in the background, whilst the students were working. Not House, or Funk or whatever the current fad happened to be, but baroque music such as, and especially, Vivaldi.

I found that the music calmed the students down if they were a bit 'hyper', and they also worked better, and for longer. I didn't know it at the time, but there is, apparently, some research which shows that this was not a figment of my imagination. Listening to baroque music is not only soothing but it also, or so I've read, makes the brain waves more coherent, ie work together, like meditation.

If you think about it, that is, counter-intuitively perhaps, exactly what one needs when working on a highly logical problem such as the ones encountered in ICT.

Notwithstanding such benefits of this type of music, was I abusing my position of authority by not allowing the students to listen to the music they liked? I don't think so, because the purpose of the exercise was not for me to enjoy 'my' music, but to create a calm, ordered atmosphere in which we all get on with our work. Much as like the deep bass drum, hi-hat and general 'groove' of House music, I have never heard anyone argue the case for its being conducive to quiet, serious work.

If I were teaching now, I would involve the kids more, simply because the technology allows it. For example, I might ask them to compile playlists based on users' preferences. That would entail compiling a questionnaire, collating and analysing the results, coming up with a solution (or set of solutions) and then  seeking client feedback. It would also entail examining copyright issues, an whether it's worthwhile paying for advertisement-free versions of services like Spotify, rather than make do with the no-cost version.

In short, I would be able to integrate the use of background music into the ICT curriculum in a way which would not have worked as well when the selection was confined to my CD selection. How come? Because ultimately, whatever solution my students would have come up with would have been unfeasible unless I happened to have those CDs in my collection, and we had the time to record, mix and compile a physical playlist – illegally. In fact, unless I had the CDs in my possession, or the local library had an extensive selection, even sampling different sorts of music or artist would have been far too cumbersome a process to be viable.

With Spotify or Last.FM or similar services, you can easily find different types of music, find out what others rate as worth listening to, try out different combinations of tracks (another example of modelling) and come up with a draft solution to run by the client.

And at the end of the whole process, the whole class can work with their own playlist going on in the background.

If that isn't an incentive to approach the work seriously, I don't know what is!

Tuesday
Mar162010

Web 2.0 For Rookies: Projects to Try Out

So far in this series we've looked at various types of application that fall under the Web 2.0 umbrella. But what does a Web 2.0 activity actually look like, and how can you go about setting one up?

Those were the kinds of questions I set out to answer when I embarked on the Amazing Web 2.0 Projects Book activity. Previously, I had compiled a list of around 60 projects that teachers had undertaken, using Web 2.0 applications. That proved to be quite popular, and it met my aim of wanting to spread ideas and practice.

A truly amazing collection of project ideasNotice that I didn't say 'spread good practice'. Clearly, it is not my intention to spread bad practice, or even mediocre practice. But it seems to me that the very terms 'good practice' and 'best practice' are value-laden. What I, in my circumstances, may regard as 'good' may, given your students and school set-up, be fairly pedestrian as far as you're concerned.

So, this updated collection of projects are largely self-selected. I invited contributions, and    quite a few came in. I asked would-be contributors for answers to specific questions, such as 'What challenges did you face in introducing this project into your school, and how did you overcome them?'

Where necessary, I emailed people individually to obtain further information. I was very clear in my mind that I wanted the projects to be replicable. So, even if providing a website for people to look was out of the question for safety reasons, I made sure that the description of the project, preferably with accompanying screenshots, made it possible for the reader to get a very good idea of what it was about, and what it looked like.

Although the book is arranged in order of student age, starting with All Ages and then from  Primary to Adult, I believe that any project can be used at any age, with a bit of tweaking obviously.

Certainly, the challenges people faced, the concerns people had, and the contributors' recommendations are not differentiated by age group.

I hope you will find this resource useful. If nothing else, it will give you a good idea of how some of the applications we've looked at in an abstract sort of way have been put to use by real teachers, in real classrooms, with real kids.

Enjoy!

You can find out more about this free resource by going to our Free Stuff page, from where you may download it.

Stop Press! At the time of writing this, the Amazing Web 2.0 Projects Book has been downloaded by 2,142 people.



Monday
Mar152010

Web 2.0 For Rookies: Mashups

A mashup is the combining of two or more sources of data to form a new data set. In principle, there is not really any difference between a mashup and the situation in which you trawl a few websites for data, paste the data you find into a spreadsheet, and insert some formulae to work on the data to yield different, and potentially more interesting and revealing, results.

The kind of mashup we're talking about here is (usually) on the web, and is updated automatically in real time.
A kind of low-level mashup is, I would say, inserting an rss feed into your home page so that people can see what you've been saying on Twitter, or the comments people have been making about your articles. If you think about it, that meets the criteria for a mashup which I have just outlined: it's on the web, it combines one set of data (the comments) with another (your blog's front page) to yield information that is updated in real time, ie immediately.

You could argue that this isn't a real mashup in the sense that it doesn't reveal anything new, and certainly doesn't give you anything you could not have found anyway. However, by adding the comments to the front page of your blog, it provides the visitor with a richer experience and, furthermore, saves you and them time: why go looking for the data if if you can have it delivered.

More adventurous mashups combine data from sources you may not know exists, or does so a lot faster than you could without assistance.

Take Trendsmap, for example. This takes Twitter trends and places them on a world map. Want to see what's hot news in British Columbia right now? Look no further. Is this a solution looking for a problem? Not if you're a journalist or a blogger wishing to write about the latest news on everyone's lips.

It should be obvious by now that this sort of application does not merely present you with two or more sets of data. By combining the data sets in new ways, the information you obtain is itself different to what would otherwise have been the case. Anyone who has ever used a pivot table in Excel will know exactly what I'm talking about: by mashing up the data, you start to see patterns that were hitherto hidden.

This has business and social applications too. The UK government has recently made publicly available sets of data in ways that techies can use them to create mashups, as described in Hacking For Good Reasons. Mashups which let you see what jobs are available locally without having to stir from your kitchen table, or which tell you which areas of your town are safest, or what was in the news when your local politicians were waxing lyrical to the press -- all these things matter to real people.

As far as business is concerned, mashups can form an essential component of a company's data-gathering armoury. The real-time characteristic of mashups can even be put to use for defence purposes.
An interesting exercise for students might be to ask them to come up with ideas for mashups. They can explain why they think the mashup would be useful, and who for, and what data sets they would need in order for it to work. They would not necessarily have to create the mashups, although as part of a unit on sequencing (programming), or in an after-school club, such an exercise could be very interesting indeed. The idea would definitely fit in with the section in the National Curriculum (in England and Wales) which looks at the effects of technology in Society and the importance of client feedback. Other curricular include similar demands.

In many respects, mashups are among the most exciting of Web 2.0 applications -- not least because they are all different from each other.

Monday
Mar152010

Free Web 2.0 Projects Book Now Available!

At last! The Amazing Web 2.0 Projects Book!

  • 87 projects.
  • 10 further resources.
  • 52 applications.
  • 94 contributors.
  • The benefits of using Web 2.0 applications.
  • The challenges of using Web 2.0 applications.
  • How the folk who ran these projects handled the issues...
  • ... And what they recommend you do if you run them.
  • What were the learning outcomes?
  • And did I mention that this is free?!

To download it now, and to pick up a badge you can use to promote it (if you want to), please go to the Free Stuff page.

Saturday
Mar132010

Hacking For Good Reasons

We tend to think of hacking as bad, and hackers as evil. But as well as the ones wearing white hats, ie the ones who are on our side and checking out vulnerabilities that others might exploit, there are the techno-geeks who are all dressed up and with nowhere to go.

Until now.

On the 11th March, the UK's Home Office, Cabinet Office and Ministry of Justice opened their doors to 10 technical experts from http://www.rewiredstate.com who used data.gov.uk and the web to develop tools and services that help people.

I've had a look and these are mash-ups -- the combining of two or more services -- with a difference: they are actually useful to people in helping them deal with important life issues.

At the moment, not all of the newly-created projects are working, but we are promised that they will be by the 13th March. Hmm. An IT project delivered on time? Let's see!

Some of them look very useful indeed. For example, One Click Organisations will make it possible for you to generate, at the click of a mouse, the following:

  • A constitution written in plain English
  • An official legal structure so your group can open a bank account
  • A list of group members that’s automatically kept up to date
  • A voting system to help make group decisions
  • A record of every decision that’s been made
  • Easy ways to modify the constitution as your group develops

Just those first two items alone would make it worthwhile using this app, although I think I would still want to have the legal stuff double-checked, just in case.

Moving There and other sites will prove useful to anyone looking to move into an area, in order to check crime and other stats, whilst Job Centre Pro Plus helps you find jobs in your locale. Several apps are concerned with transparency in various contexts. I especially like the sound of Voxpomp, which will collate statements made by MPs during Parliamentary debate and cross-reference them with news stories of the time. The Companies Open House ("Open 24/7, unlike Companies House") works well, allowing you to look up the details of a company unrestricted by the time of day.

There are also fun applications, such as Crime and Punishment 1707 versus 2007, described as "A slight but delightful project mashing up "The Old Bailey online - 1674-1913" and "Ministry of Justice Quarterly sentencing statistics" to compare sentencing for various types of crime." Can't wait for that one, as it will give grumpy old men like me, who think that criminals are given 32 ways of being let off, something else to rant about.

There are more of these 'Hack Days' coming up. In the meantime, to look at the apps I've mentioned in this article, and other examples of what the 'semantic web' might look like, check out the Rewired State website.

Friday
Mar122010

Why schools cannot ignore Web 2.0: Social Factors

#iCTLT2010 Based on my recent talk at the ICTLT2010 Conference, this short series looks at the social, technical, commercial, economic and educational factors that I think together mean that a compelling case can be made for schools to fully embrace Web 2.0 technologies.

Starting with social factors, I think we can see a number of trends at the moment.

Social networking statistics

Firstly, more and more people are online, and using Web 2.0 applications , especially social networks like Facebook. For example,

  • 400m people are on Facebook (more since I wrote this!)
  • 74.3% of Singapore’s internet population aged 15+ belong to social networks.
  • 23m Brits in social networks (1 in 3)

Social networks are used badly -- by adults. Take a look at these statistics from an article in the Sunday Times back in 2007:

  • 83% of people give their full name.
  • 38% give their Date Of Birth. Bear in mind that your name and date of birth is pretty much all anyone needs in order to steal your identity.
  • 63% make their email address public.
  • 78% of social network users are adults.

Expectations

I think we also have to consider people’s expectations. Given how widespread wireless access is, together with the trend towards people wanting to be consulted and involved in decisions that affect them, and to doing so many things online or at least in a collaborative way, it seems strange to imagine how schools could not embrace Web 2.0 in the long run.

Internationalisation

Along with this goes internationalisation, by which I mean it’s easy and almost unavoidable to interact with people in other countries when you have free and easy communications applications like Skype available.

In fact, you could argue, as Neil McLean of Becta has, that if a student is learning a foreign language, they should be able to expect to have a conversation with a native speaker of that language at least once a week, and whereas at one time that would have been unthinkable, it is now entirely feasible.

Levelling the playing field

I think there is also a sense in which the playing field has been levelled, so there is less deference to authority in the traditional sense. The obvious example of this is Wikipedia. I’m not saying this is good or bad, just that it is, and I think schools should be helping students to navigate this new world by helping them understand how to recognise authority, and how and when it is appropriate to put forward your own opinions and views, and how to evaluate information you find on the internet.

Companies are using Web 2.0

And more and more, companies are using Web 2.0 ideas to relate to, and engage, their customers. Here are some examples.

The Beano is a children’s comic in the UK, and one of its characters is Denis The Menace, who is always up to mischief and getting into trouble.

What they’ve set up is an area of their website where you can create your own Denis The Menace comic strip and save it to the website, so that other people can comment on your efforts.

Coca Cola has a fan page on Facebook, and Kodak has issued a booklet on how to use social media like Twitter to best effect, because Kodak maintains a presence on Twitter and elsewhere. So does British Telecom, which seems to have a customer services team looking out for comments about its service. A few months ago I heard of a case in which someone who had been trying, without success, for months to speak to a high level manager about a mistake on the bill she was sent, had a response within 15 minutes when she posted a comment about it in Twitter.

I had a very similar experience with another company.

Other companies like Ford, Toyota and Proctor and Gamble have entered the Web 2.0 world. In fact, Proctor and Gamble has an interactive and very engaging site called Being Girl which gives advice to teenage girls on a range of issues, and invites them to contribute, and which also promotes Proctor and Gamble products. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – after all, I promote my own books on my website! But I think schools can help youngsters develop economic literacy and commercial awareness, as well as meeting expectations, by getting on the Web 2.0 bandwagon themselves.

Last year, Toyota worked with MySpace to launch a competition that attracted 18,000 entries, and which far exceeded the company’s hopes for brand promotion.

It’s not only big companies that are involved. There is a flower shop in London that has a Twitter account so that its followers can easily be alerted to when there are special offers. In fact, a recent survey found that in Britain, 17% of small businesses have a Twitter account.

I find it hard to believe that anyone looking at this collection of information could believe that Web 2.0 is not entirely relevant for schools today.

Since writing this I have come across Why Schools Should Learn To Use Online Services Like Facebook & YouTube Rather Than Banning Them, via Steven W. Anderson's blog.

Friday
Mar122010

Cool Tools For Ed Tech Leaders: Spreadsheets

No, wait! Don't stop reading just yet! I know that spreadsheets sound boring, but they really aren't. Used properly, they can be essential tools in your planning toolbox, because they have three brilliant features.

Brilliant feature #1: The sort facility

Using this, you can re-order the spreadsheet by deadline, to see what's coming up, or by  person, to see who is meant to be doing what, or by area of work, to see if everything is being covered. Using the sort feature is easy, as long as you have designed the spreadsheet sensibly. That means, having a separate cell for each attribute of each task, ie date for completion, area, person responsible, and so on.

One tip: format the dates as yyyy-mm-dd (or, in USA, yyyy-dd-mm). Why? Because that's the only way you can make sure everything is listed in chronological order, if that's what you need.

Brilliant feature #2: Sumif

This is a great feature that's available in Excel, Google Spreadsheet and in OpenOffice's Calc. What it lets you do very easily is to perform the following kind of calculation:

If this item comes into category A, add it to the total, otherwise don't.

You can use Sumif to find out what you're spending money on, or where your team's income is coming from. For example, you may have categories like software, hardware, printing, and so on. Using Sumif, I once determined that 60% of my department's spending was going on photocopying worksheets. I asked my team to print off multiple copies instead (if they needed print-outs at all), which resulted in savings of hundreds of pounds over the year.

Brilliant feature #3: Conditional formatting

Use this to create the traffic light system: green for 'yes, done that', amber for 'we're getting there', and red for 'there's been a glitch'. The traffic light system gives you an instant visual summary of how you're doing as far as meeting targets is concerned.

Conditional formatting can work on either numerical values or text, or a formula. For example, you could have a column called Progress, and set up the conditional formatting to turn a cell red if it contains the word 'no', green if it contains the word ';yes' or amber if it contains the word 'partly'. Or you could set it up based on a formula 'today's date minus target date'. If the answer is less than zero, the cell goes red, and so on.

The spreadsheet was one of the first applications developed for the personal computer, and it's more than just a glorified calculator. Pretty it ain't, but boy is it useful!

Friday
Mar122010

Web 2.0 For Rookies: Photo-sharing

"Upload your photos and share them with friends and family!" That's how photo-sharing websites such as Flickr are often promoted. But in education, there is a more serious side: photo-sharing sites make available a huge repository of pictures.

Pupils like to illustrate their work, but unfortunately all too frequently neither they nor their teachers seem to fully appreciate the concept of copyright.

Here's the deal: whoever owns a photo owns the copyright in  it. Just because they allow anyone to see it, does not mean they allow anyone to use it. Just because it's available through Google, doesn't mean you're free to use it. Bottom line: if in any doubt whatsoever, assume that you can't use it, and you should be legally safe. Do not be tempted to use something you have no legal right to. Not only might you get caught, it also sets a bad example to your students.

So at the very least you must look at the licence terms next to the photo you want to use. If it says 'All rights reserved', it means you can't use it unless you write the owner a very nice email and they take pity on you. Even better, find a photo that is free to use, usually for non-commercial purposes, and as long as you give credit to the owner.

My tools of choice are Flickr for the pictures, and the Creative Commons search engine for finding pictures with the right licence terms.

When you find a picture you like, if it has the legend "Some rights reserved", click on the text and see what you're allowed -- and not allowed -- to do. You will see something like the Creative Commons licence agreement shown in the illustration.

Find out what you're allowed to doRegardless of whether you make use of other people's pictures, I would always encourage schools to create their own repositories. After all, it's highly unlikely that other people will have taken photos of your street, your school or your neighbourhood. And even if they have, they may not be exactly right for your purposes. Flickr is free, or a modest amount for an unlimited amount of space, or you could use a dedicated hard disk or server in-house. Think about it: if each class spent one lesson a term taking photos for the school repository, by the end of the year you'd have hundreds, possibly thousands, of pictures that anyone in the school could use to illustrate their work.

You can even build in curriculum work. Depending on your subject and students' age group, have a session taking photos on the theme of shapes, or the colour green, or weather, or ... well, you get the picture.

If you do use Flickr, there are 3rd party applications which allow you to do more with your photos than simply share them with others. For example, you can create mosaics, or posters, or magazine covers. One of my favourites is Flickr Toys.

If you like the idea of making more use of photos, you know what to do: start snapping!

My photos on Flickr may be found here.

Thursday
Mar112010

A Reflection On The ICTLT2010 Conference

#iCTLT2010 It's interesting how people who are at the same event can have such widely differing opinions on the same thing. David Warlick and I were both at the ICTLT2010 Conference, for example, but our experiences of the penultimate keynote were not the same by a long shot.

He writes:

One of the best parts of her [Jenny Lewis'] presentation was her questioning of why we still teach safe themes in our classes, like dinosaurs, Eskimos, etc.  She then suggested that our students, within the context of curriculum, explore more important issues.

The list these 'more important issues', taken from a book called High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them,  includes the following:

  • Reinventing taxation for the 21st century
  • Biotechnology rules
  • Global financial architecture
  • Illegal Drugs
  • Trade, investment and competition rules
  • Intellectual property rights
  • E-commerce rules
  • International labor & migration rules

Wait a minute! Does Jenny Lewis seriously think we should tell five year olds that instead of looking at dinosaurs this year, they'll be considering global financial architecture? And does the usually sensible David Warlick seriously go along with that?

I have to say that I thought the statement a little silly, and actually detracted from what Jenny Lewis said, which for the most part was pragmatic and encouraging.In fact, until I saw that David had commented on it, I was convinced that I must have misheard it.

Here are four reasons to not jettison dinosaurs and other favourite subjects:

  • These subjects are fun. Isn't learning supposed to be fun? Global financial architecture doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs. What does it even mean?
  • These children are, erm, children. Aren't kids supposed  to be kids?
  • Let me get this straight. Our  generation totally messes up the environment, finance, world peace and 17 other problems, so we decide to steal the next generation's childhood so they can sort it all out for us? Let them grow up first! Then they can sort out our mess and create one all their own!
  • If dinosaurs etc are taught properly, kids will learn to think and ask the right questions for themselves. I'd have thought that that is exactly what we want.

Besides, call me a big kid, but I happen to like dinosaurs.

Thursday
Mar112010

5 Minute Tip: Having a Backup Plan

Anyone who has been using computers for a while knows that as far as something going wrong is concerned, it's not a matter of if, but when. To acknowledge that is, I think, to be realistic rather than pessimistic (though there is frequently little distinction between the two). And the sooner 'newbies' realise that, the better it will be not only for their students, but for themselves as well.

Why? Because teachers who have just started using computers and related technology almost invariably blame themselves when things go awry. If you do nothing else, tell them that it's par for the course, that all of us experience glitches for no apparent reason, and when least expected.

A different kind of technology: still usefulIt makes sense, therefore, to always have a backup plan. The beauty of having a standby activity is that when your carefully-crafted lesson begins to go pear-shaped, you can put plan B into action before panic sets in. Panic stops you thinking clearly. Having a plan B means you don't really have to.

Types of Plan B

There are several things you can do in the situation, in addition to calling for some technical support, but they all fall into one of the following categories:

  • Category A: Paper-based work related to the work in progress.
  • Category B: Oral work related to the work in progress.
  • Category C: Paper-based work not related to the work in progress.
  • Category D: Oral work not related to the work in progress.
  • Category E: No work at all.

Let's dismiss Category E straight away. I don't see why a technical hold-up should mean that students are effectively given a free lesson. Here are ideas about the sort of thing I have in mind for the the others.

Category A

  • Problem-solving exercises.
  • Tests.
  • Word games based on the relevant terminology.

Category B

  • Class-based Q & A session in which students ask about things they don't understand, and you and the rest of the class attempt to help them out.
  • Discussion about issues related to the topic.
  • Quick-fire Q & A session in which you ask individual students to answer your questions.

Categories C and D are similar, but just not based on the topic in hand.

Generating the contingency work

It's a good idea to plan for the lean times during the times of plenty. In this context, that means preparing one or two extra sets of notes or worksheets when you're planning a topic. If you are part of a team that makes it easy to generate quite a bit of extra stuff very quickly. When I was head of ICT in a school, I asked my team members to produce one contingency lesson plan and resource for every 'real' one. (Each 'one' was actually a unit of work comprising material for six lessons; what I did was ask them to plan for seven lessons instead.) Within a very short period of time we had a drawer-ful of contingency resources, some of which could also be used by cover teachers.

It may be hard to predict when the technology is going to let you down. It should always be predictable that the students will carry on working regardless.

Thursday
Mar112010

Learning Platform or Virtual Learning Environment?

What's in a name? I mean, does it matter if you call a learning platform a learning platform, or  a VLE? I have to say that until I visited Grays Infants School a few days ago, I tended to use the term 'Virtual Learning Environment' on the purely lazy grounds that (it seems to me) more lay people have heard of that term than the term 'learning platform', meaning that there was less explaining to do.

The Learning Platform is central to the school's activitiesBut Christine Terrey, Headteacher, had the very firm opinion right from the start of the school's virtual journey that the term 'learning platform' had to be used. Why?

"Because we wanted to retain the focus on 'learning'.", she says.

What we saw was a very good implementation of a learning platform. Paradoxically, what made it good was that the emphasis is not on the learning platform itself, but on its role in supporting and adding value to the work the school is doing anyway.

I recently started a series about change management, and three of the essential ingredients, which will each form the basis of an entire article, are putting learning first, collaborating with other staff and putting support in place.

Grays school exemplifies each of these aspects. Firstly, the learning platform hosts activities which the children do in real life, not just on-screen. Secondly, the staff have a monthly meeting in which they work on and share stuff for the VLE. Thirdly, the support staff have time built into their timetable for learning platform-related work.

Grays has even Nursery children, ie 3-4 years old, logging on with their own password, using icons, which affords the opportunity for the adult to discuss shapes. One big problem with schools that prepare their children really well for their digital lives is that all too often the children are let down at the next stage in their schooling. Doug Woods, in a recent comment on this website, vividly drew attention to this, citing the views of children as young as Year 6 (10-11 year olds).

The Headteacher at Grays has sought to avert this situation by working closely with the local Junior school, which uses the same type of Learning Platform.

The Learning Platform at Grays is clearly a central component of what the school does. As well as hosting the podcasts which the children make, it serves as a repository for summer holiday activities, and a meeting place, in the forums, for children, staff and parents alike. Parents are not only able to see their children's work, but are encouraged to comment on it through the wiki tool provided.

It was clear from meeting the parents that the learning platform, along with the children being able to take home internet-enabled netbooks, has made a huge difference to everyone. Not least, it has encouraged parents to get involved in their children's education in a way that the dry-as-dust term 'online reporting' could never suggest. Indeed, I suggested to Ray Tolley, who is organising a Think Tank for Naace on the subject of parental engagement, that he invite Mrs Terrey along as a speaker. He told me he already had.

The school is doing some great work, and a video of the visit will form part of Becta's collection of Next Generation Learning vignettes designed to inspire and suggest ideas to others. I will let you know when it's available: you will not want to miss it.

Thursday
Mar112010

But Where Are The Kids?

This is a modified version of an article written and published in 2009. I am reproducing it because it is still relevant, and I shall be referring to it in articles in the near future.

One of the big absences at most educational conferences, as far as I'm concerned, is children and young people. Let's be honest: you would have no idea, walking into most conferences, whether you were attending an event about education or one about how to improve the market share of widgets.

Youngsters remind us why we're thereIt is hard to get this right, without a doubt -- not least because of child safety considerations -- but the more I think about it the more important I think it is to involve young people in conferences in meaningful ways. After all, it is they who, in management-speak are our clients and, in marketing-speak, our final consumer.

I've been to a few conferences recently where young people were involved to a greater or lesser extent. First, take the Naace 2009 Conference. There were children in evidence, but in my opinion in an utterly tokenistic way. I don't mean this to sound as critical as it does. When I organised the Naace conference a few years ago, it was generally regarded as being very good indeed, but there were no youngsters there. In hindsight I regard that as a mistake, and think I should have worked harder to include them (we did try, but it was logistically difficult, because of the distances involved, to liaise effectively with local schools; also, I think it requires a more imaginative mindset which is easier to nurture once you're away from all the deadlines and other headaches involved in planning a large conference).

The youngsters were there to help represent their schools, which had been invited in order to receive the ICT Mark. Traditionally, this little ceremony takes place straight after the talk by the Secretary of State for Education, so that it is he or she who is, in effect, handing over the certificate.

Alright, the fact that there are children there reminds us that this is all about them, but it seems to me that here is a golden opportunity wasted. Why not go straight into a panel discussion in which the audience can ask the youngsters what difference, if any, the process of applying for the ICT Mark has made. If it has made a difference, the session might just be the thing that's needed to convince a wavering school that it ought to take the plunge. Also, and of more immediate importance and interest, it would help us see the process from the customer's point of view (I cringe from using such terminology, by the way, but it does seem rather apt).

On the subject of a panel discussion, last year's ASPECT conference featured a panel session in which a group of students of around 17 years of age really gave the assembled educational glitterati a run for their money. For example, one of them said, in response to a rather patronising answer, to a genuine question, to the effect that it was a nonsense to say that young people were left out of decision-making, "I notice that all the people in this room have been given briefing packs. But we haven't." Stunned, embarrassed silence: after all, you can't argue with something which is so visibly true.

The Dimensions conference run by the then Qualifications and Curriculum Authority went a stage further. As you arrived at the entrance to the building, students (from a school local to me (Mayfield School), as it happened) were there to greet you and point you in the right direction. They were also involved in a workshop about the BBC School Report event (which I hope to write about separately), took part in a panel discussion, generally helped out and, crucially, went around conducting video interviews of delegates.

In the workshop, two of the students were on hand to advise us oldies of what would be best to include in a news bulletin that would fire up the interest of people of their age (15-16). They were brilliant, somehow managing to combine brutal honesty with humour and courtesy. (Perhaps we adults could learn a thing or two from them.)

Here is the video they made of the day:

 

 

There are other ways in which youngsters can be involved. A lovely way of starting a conference, for instance, can be seen in the programme of last year's Game-Based Learning conference, the second day of which was opened by a performance by children from the John Stainer school. (That was nice for me on a personal level because I worked with the school a few years ago helping it to implement its Framework for ICT Support programme).

I think what I would ultimately like to see is youngsters involved at all stages of a conference:

  1. Planning.
  2. Attending.
  3. Taking part.
  4. Evaluating.

Difficult, perhaps, but surely a goal worth striving for?

A slightly different version of this article was first published on 7th April 2009.

 

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.)


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