Sunday, 31 January 2010

Touching the heart of tech-enhanced education

January has proved to be an interesting month for me and the whole issue of e-learning within school.

VLE's and all that

Currently, we have Moodle as our VLE. It's free to use, but of course there are internal costs in terms of deployment, management and maintaining the service. It was introduced some years ago in response to the threat from Avian flu. Consequently, there doesn't appear to have been much discussion with staff about the pedagogical implications or benefits of using technology to enhance learning; especially in terms of how a social constructivist approach can help students become better independent learners. The fact that Moodle can ingest work from students and if set up properly mark the work for you seems to have been a lost message too.

So, we have Moodle, we have Outlook for mail and calendars, although its use as a collaborative management tool isn't widespread amongst teachers, and we have deployed iSAMS, an excellent reporting and student data management tool at the start of the academic year. This is a web-based solution and allows teachers to see timetables, student information, write reports, see exam data analysis, send group emails (either to students or teachers of students), award merits, and a host of other tools. Its easy to use interface has made it an instant hit with colleagues.

Rationalising tools to improve learning

However, this legacy of adding tools to match needs as they arise has led to both confusion and inefficiency. Moreover, as we've discovered in the last few weeks, having rolled out email to our sixth form students, we have inherited a system that doesn't always want to talk to itself. We've found that user names for Moodle don't always match user names needed for iSAMS and Outlook. Consequently, we've had to start a program of digital ID harmonisation.

It's clear that over the coming years we are likely to move more towards virtualised and cloud-based systems of communication and learning. With that in mind it's vital that we can move our database of users from one place to another with ease, and put in place the wherewithal to make this happen with the minimum of fuss.

Against this rather convoluted backdrop of data clear-up, we're also looking at the school's digital strategy and how that might play out in the future.

At the recent BETT educational technology show we focused on learning platforms. We were impressed with Frog, who offer an integrated Web 2.0 solution, in a gorgeous interface, that combines learning platforms, email, parent portals, external facing websites, access to shared areas, and even remote terminal server type services, that allow users to access the software on school computers remotely. All of this sits on a custom built server, that sits alongside a school's existing provision. I was particularly impressed with the way templates are eschewed in favour of an Apple/iGoogle drag and drop widget based design system. It appeared to be easy to use and powerful. The Head of ICT from a school that has implemented it, who demonstrated Frog to us at BETT, was delighted with its take-up by technophobic staff and students at her school.

Frog isn't cheap but when considered in terms of the services it offers it does represent good value for money, especially in a large multi-campus school like Berkhamsted.

Plotting a future proof strategy

However, is this the way forward? What is it that we hope to achieve pedagogically? The deputy head who line manages me, Greg, and I have been speaking at length recently about this question. We recognise that while a whizz-bang solution like Frog will tick a lot of boxes, and staff will like it, is where education is headed? As our Principal, Mark Steed, said to me, 'Isn't it possible that the VLE is dead? Maybe they've become too static and don't represent the mobile driven world of our students.' It's a fair point. I've been keenly aware that more and more of our students are coming to school with iPhones and Blackberries. It's fascinating that a business comms tool has seeped into the teenage market so effectively. And yet, we shouldn't be surprised. To many teenagers, having access to email, Facebook and Twitter is de rigeur. And a smartphone is just the ticket to keep them in touch with their digital world.

With that in mind , Mark's point is that perhaps we should be seeing students as connected nodes in a learning network, towards which we can push relevant data. Do we need a learning platform, when what students really want is access to information, in a timely way, whenever they desire it? And if we take that view, then the parameters begin to change.

For starters, we're looking at ways of making wifi available to students, so that they can access material using whatever web-enabled device they choose. It might be a laptop or netbook, it could be an iPhone or Blackberry. Either way, we think that anywhere access to the Web, email and other services is essential, especially for older students. We do have a good provision of IT labs and PCs located in classrooms and libraries, but their number can't match the number of students for whom web access is becoming an crucial part of their learning experience. Thus, by making access available we aim to enhance learning.

And that brings me back to my earlier question: what are we hoping to achieve pedagogically?

An App for all seasons?

Last June we heard about the benefits of Google Apps for Education. It's a free to use suite of tools, that offer web-based alternatives to Word, Power Point and Excel. In addition, it combines a powerful calendar tool, plus interactive groups and Google Sites, which allows users to create websites, into which content can be embedded and or up/downloaded. Documents created in its suite can be converted and downloaded as Microsoft or PDF files. It has drag and drop functionality. More importantly, any document can be jointly edited. Google's GMail is also provided.

What it offers is a suite of collaborative tools, in which students can find space where they take control of their learning and work together. For me, this represents a powerful educational benefit.

Although it's free to set up, and Google provide the means for schools to securely add and maintain a list of users, all of whom receive a Google email account, re-branded with a school address, we wanted to see if the service would work with our students. Therefore, I set up a couple of trial groups and sites, using Greg's Politics class and a sixth form Classical Civilisation class with another colleague.

What we found was that students took to it like a duck to water, and in both cases we were surprised to see students accessing the site, asking questions of each other and making a real effort to extend their learning beyond the classroom. Even over the Christmas break the sites remained active. Other colleagues have followed suit and even a couple of technophobic teachers have had a go and managed to produce some lovely looking sites. I've added some images below.

So where do we go now?

Having been impressed with these early trials, and bolstered by the fact even the Open University, which has over 200,000 users, is switching to Google Apps, we've decided to deploy it. But that still leaves us with the question, 'what do we do about VLEs, access, and improving learning from a pedagogical perspective?'

After much discussion Greg and I think that a combination of Moodle as a static repository for schemes of work and other material, coupled with Google Apps as the place where students and teachers go to discuss, learn and share, is perhaps the best way forward for now. We'd like to see what Frog can offer for us, although at present they don't seem to offer support for data transfer with iSAMS.

It might seem counter productive to add yet another tool to the box, but we think that Google for collaborative learning, Moodle for course data, and iSAMS for reporting, represents a good mix that also remains affordable. We have a lot of material on Moodle already. The issue with it is its perceived complexity in terms of uploading and managing dynamic content. Google will get around this, due to its ease of use. iSAMS has proved to be a godsend for the back end data management and reporting that we do. Keeping that data separate from the day to day work we engage in with students is a good idea.

We're hoping that we'll have Google Apps for Education up and running in time for the second half of term. After that, we'll roll it out to staff and see if the wider learning community at Berkhamsted finds it as useful as those who have taken part in our trials.

I'll let you know.


Don said...

Yowza! Great post. What I liked was how you captured the question driven train of thought that led you to a robust, informed decision. I love a good question, and it sounds like you and your decision-making cohorts have teased out some good ones.

I like the saying, "If you don't like your solutions, maybe it's because you're asking the wrong questions."

Again... great piece: informative, well-written, and well-reasoned.


Sacha van Straten said...

Thanks Don.

It wasn't quite what I was planning to write, but once I started to type I found that my mind wanted to coalesce and communicate a whole rsft of ideas that we've been chewing over for a while now.

Thanks again for your support - it really helps!