Thursday, 28 April 2016

From If to How and What

A 5:00 am wakeup call followed by a 6:08 am train (immediately preceded by a queue of 10 people in front of me at the coffee shop, all wanting lattes) meant I arrived at Sixty-One Westminster at 8:40 alert and cheerful, ready for the traditional pre-conference coffee, pastry, laptop, handbag and conference guide juggling act.
This alertness served me well in the day – the agenda was packed beyond belief. Admirably hosted by the Rt. Hon Lord Knight of Weymouth, 16 speakers were herded through highlights of their contributions to the field.
Some I’ve seen before, and deserving of research if they are new to you:
  • Bob Harrison highlighted the Blended Learning Essentials course
  • Lynne Taylerson offered the Heart of Worcester SOLA model and Blended Learning Consortium
  • Stephen Heppell covered the expectations and future needs (using desktop links to files in a nicely flexible alternative to powerpoint)
  • Matt Rogers talked about Open Badges and the Open Badge Academy – we’re already using Badges in GC for our Work Related Activity, but he proffered some ideas about students designing their own badges which were exciting
Some quick ideas/ observations which cropped up throughout the day and I’ve attempted to accredit correctly:
  • Richard Smith, Educational Consultant, Amazing ICT If you don’t have time for a case study, try a pilot project. Run the project, pick out 10 points that work, feed those back.
  • Caroline Wright, Director General Designate, British Educational Suppliers Association Three main areas of concern for teachers adopting Digital Tech in the classroom  
    • Training and CPD – teachers need time to understand innovation & tech and preparing to use it effectively.
    • Reliable technology – 42% of schools still say they have problems with broadband.
    • Security (data security/ CEOP, etc) and Management
The speakers I was most excited by (the yellow highlighter came out!)
  • Professor Peter Twining, Co-Chair, Assessment and Accountability Group, ETAG and Professor of Education (Futures) is investigatingWhat are students’ digital practices outside school and how are they informing practices inside school?” This is hugely exciting work – students don’t want the classroom to operate in the same way as their social life, but we can avoid barriers or disruption if we have a greater understanding of how they integrate tech into their lives.
  • Ty Goddard, standing in for Ian Fordham of Edtech UK gave a presentation on the future of policy and practice which inspired several paragraphs of enthusiastic typing on my part. He is adamant wooing policy makers will get us further than the confrontational stance we currently display. He’s also adamant we need to stop talking about “If” we use tech, and move to “how” – stop talking like evangelists and instead be clear, precise and rational in our speech. Edtech UK are looking for people to contribute to their discussions.
  • Paul Campbell, Early Years and Primary Teacher, Ed.D Candidate and District Secretary, Overseas, ATL discussed his real experience in the classroom and steps we could take. I was utterly enthralled, and my notes suffered, but I heartily recommend reading his work.
The key point I took from the forum is: The technology adoption model is very clear – when a new technology appears the people who engage with it are the Innovators and Early Adopters – the Evangelicals, if you will, who then promote its uptake to others in the field. The idea of Digital Learning has been around for a long time and our teachers are adopting it in various guises. We don’t need to be Evangelical any more. The focus, as Ty says, should move from If to How. And as Paul, enthusiastically supported by Peter, averred, we should move one step further still to “What”.
Everything we do with Digital Technology should be done not because it is possible, but because we have a clear “how” to use it and “what” we want students to achieve.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Failure is always an option

"If we are truly invested in helping our learners become 21st century ready, we need to empower them more and then support them in their success and failures. In this way, they will learn to cope with both of those experiences in meaningful ways."
From an EdWeek blog by Starr Sackstein on March 3, 2016 4:55 AM

Failure is important. One of the advantages of delivering learning online is that - if a student gets it wrong - they can be told it's wrong and retake the question without having either to wait for teacher feedback, or turn to the back of the book to check their answers (and in the process being given the right answer).

Please note how I resist the urge to follow this tangent and discourse at length on the inconsistency of teachers who are happy to provide students with a textbook containing all the answers, and think students aren't trustworthy enough to log onto an online system to work.

Please also note how there is a whole other conversation to be had here about how many people lose the option to "get things wrong" in the workplace, and how much responsibility we have to prepare students for that.

I believe two core principles matter when failing is deliberately included in education:
  1. failing is good as long as it is correctly followed up
  2. we should always gear our online learning towards the concept of failure for learning
With online learning you don't have someone to correct you. Imagine a scenario where a student has a question on a screen "Name the two core principles I've chosen to follow today." The student has a text input box which they fill out and submit. On the next screen, regardless of their answer, they are given the two core principles.

So what if they were wrong? In a classroom, if a student provides an answer you discuss it, trying to get them to identify where they got that answer from and correct where they went wrong. In this example though, all you get is a flat contradiction which would be viewed with horror by most teachers.

So what are the options?

Short of Artificial Intelligence, there aren't many that I can think of.

So here's my failure. Do you have any ideas?

Friday, 5 February 2016

Preparing for Employability

Employability for our students has always been the ultimate goal, but lately there has been a lot more talk about it - which in my opinion is good. If you don't talk about your goals, there is a chance it will become lost on the journey. It has to be said though, when it comes to digital technology and employability, there's a lot to talk about; over 180 pages going by Jisc's Technology for Employability report.

And for those of us who don't have many, many hours of spare time they've also provided:
There really is a lot to talk about.

The trouble is, I'm finding it hard to pick a point of focus. I attended most of the presentation live and revisited the slides today. I've looked through the Summary and checked a few case studies and, frankly, I'm beginning to feel overwhelmed.

So I've chosen two points to put above all else (which I admit are partly chosen out of desperation to have boiled all this down to something I can work with) mostly because they resonate with me.
  1. We aren't just looking at employability. We're looking at lifelong employability.
  2. We should be developing a connected curricular which actively develops independence, responsibility, self reliance and maturity in our students.
Lifelong is an important qualifier here. I think we have all heard of Shift Happens by now and the core tenet of that holds true - we don't know what the world will look like in 2, 5, 10, 20+ years time. How can we make sure our students aren't just employable at the point they leave us, but employable forever?

The answer (and I don't pretend it's mine) is by ensuring they are adaptable. That they can evolve and grow continuously. Give students the self knowledge to take charge of their own development, and give them the tools and motivation to learn whatever they want to, or even things they don't want to when they need to.

Did you just think: but if we do that then why would we need schools, teachers, an education system? It's ok, you can tell me if you did, and you wouldn't be the only one. It's what a lot of people are thinking.

But this is my blog, so I'm going to say that's the wrong thought. Illustrative story time:

I overheard two young people talking about a teacher they were dissatisfied with. One opined that he was a terrible teacher because they always found everything difficult. He should make it easy they said and one of them had clearly raised this with him because his response (and I suspect this conversation was edited to make him look bad) was that he wouldn't be taking the exam. The girl then went on to say that if she failed, it would be all his fault because he hasn't made it easy for her.
Sadly, they then left the room, so I couldn't follow it up.

To me, that perspective highlights an important point. Teachers are *not* the ones who take the exam, or do the assignment. Yet they are still needed. Teachers are *not* the ones who do the learning and yet they are still needed. Teachers are *not* the ones in charge of a student's lifelong learning and development. No mater how much ownership a student takes, a teacher *will be needed*.

Similarly with online learning. We can give students tools, techniques, independence and understanding. But at the end of the day, they will still need a teacher.

And the best teachers? They aren't the ones teaching from a pack of bought-in lesson plans and activities. They're the ones who take ownership, who know how their activities fit together and what the students should learn at each stage. They know where the student should be and can not only assess for it but reconstruct their teaching if the students aren't quite there yet.

Online learning isn't an add-on you can buy and screw into your teaching if you want it to be successful. It requires work. It requires developing students to become independent, responsible, self-reliant. It requires knowing what stage students should be at when they have completed a session.

It also ties-in beautifully with employability skills so all that reading really is a good idea. Probably. I haven't done it all yet.


Friday, 29 January 2016

Classroom tablets

On occasion you come across an article or report that states something so blindingly obvious that you have to consciously restrain yourself from making a comment along the maturity and eloquence level of: "Well, duh."

Today, that moment came to me courtesy of an article entitled "Tablets: the correct prescription?" by Steve Wheeler which I read primarily because the title suggested the same conflict I feel about the value a class set of tablets provide. And what did I find?
Clearly tablets and mobile devices were designed to be used as personal tools, and as such can be best used for personalised learning
Well, clearly.

Then I took ten seconds to reflect on it.

Tablets and mobile devices have been causing me headaches in a classroom context for years. I think absolutely they are a fabulous learning tool. They are critically important for swift research, for individual thoughts and expression, and for a variety of points along the learning journey there's an app to support that!

But teachers worry about controlling a class full of teenagers with the internet at their fingertips. How do we maintain order? How do you ensure students stay on task? What if the devices are stolen or broken?

What if...? What then...? And why...?

I've been on this for a while now and looking around our classrooms I've seen success implementing personal devices for activities, I've seen failure, I've seen mediocrity. What I have never seen is an absolute, definite sign that this is the future of education and that "well, duh" moment showed me why.

The best and most valuable part of classroom time is interaction with the teacher. Some digital activities can be driven by the teacher using tools such as Socrative or BlendSpace, but many are independent activities. That's great for Directed Study time, or homework, or online learning or any one of a million varieties of learning *when not in the physical presence of your teacher*.

So what is the point of gathering thirty young people together to do individual activities? Why can't they stay at home?

Is the classroom really the best place for tablets?

On the flip side, I want there to be digital textbooks and for digital handouts and reference materials to become the norm. That isn't possible without tablets, and to access those materials in the classroom, the tablets need to be there too.

We need tablets to be a utility in the classroom, but maybe they are not the medium for a whole lesson teaching that people have been enthusing about. Maybe they can just be passive lumps that students occasionally glance at while the teacher drives things along. Maybe when the student is alone and struggling, then the active stuff begins.

I'd love to have thoughts on this topic because, as you can see, I am teetering to both sides whilst remaining firmly on the fence here.


Friday, 22 January 2016

Student deadlines

Online learning has been quite the buzzword around FE since the Feltag report was published [1] and one of the outcomes of this report is a shift in perception of what online learning is and how much (on occasion "if") it matters.

I have long been frustrated by the feeling that we (the digital technologists) are a nice extra to have, which lends an obvious bias to this blog post! I don't intend to apologise for this though - despite being a living, breathing embodiment of that particular British stereotype - because it is driving my enthusiasm for this opportunity to *prove* that online learning is a core part of the modern world and we absolutely should embrace it!

In light of the increasing number of challenges facing FE (take your pick: funding pressures, increased expectations, falling numbers of students or increasing quantities of minor natural disasters precluding access to our physical environments), online learning is being given its first real chance to shine.

We have the investment, we have reliable technology, we have a pretty reliable core infrastructure (recent Janet attacks notwithstanding) and in my humble opinion the best thing we can do is really mess with the status quo.

For instance, I just read this blog post "When students won't do the reading" by John Warner (aka @biblioracle) that talks about how we can encourage students to do reading in advance of class.

This resonated for a number of reasons:
  1. We are committing to 10% online teaching next year and we need to know our students are doing that work.
  2. The article picks up the repeating refrain that students *do not* have the independent learning skills that motivate them to take responsibility to prioritise their own workload.
  3. Students do not experience the same things as employees, despite our focus on preparing our students for the workplace. In this case, a variety of deadline types.
As John notes, the status quo for students is simple: all of their work has hard deadlines - when it has to be submitted for grading. Ungraded work is typically the stuff that students don't have time for.

For employees it is less simple: we have deadlines (once again using John's words) of varying priority: hard, soft, floating and non-deadlined.

John identifies that students would benefit from a variance in deadline types and, echoing Mrs Proudie, I agree with him. So how can we make it happen?

Luckily, we are already trialling this *smug zone entered*. I'll admit it's a side effect of another project, but the students it has been trialled with have responded really well.

I mentioned above we are committed to 10% online delivery next year. This is something we have been planning and working towards for a while now and this year all full time level 2 and 3 students had timetabled "Directed Study" sessions, where they were given work to complete unsupported by their teacher. This may have been online or classroom based, but all students were required to turn up to a directed study room as timetabled, scan in to complete a register and scan out at the end of the session.

Next year those sessions will be purely online. Students will be timetabled into a session in a dedicated Online Learning space, supporting students who don't have the ability or motivation to complete online learning at home. For the rest of the students however, these timetabled sessions aren't the smartest way to do online learning, despite the administrative benefits that come with the (theoretically) simple registration process.

This trial was run with Level 3 Business students and they are all, by default, marked as "present" at their Directed Study session. Their teacher sets them work for their session on the VLE, and releases it on a weekly basis (it's pages in a book, for those interested in the detail). They can complete this work at any time they wish before their timetabled session, but they always have to submit something on completion (into an assignment, complete with plagiarism checking). The teacher checks the submitted work five minutes before the start of the timetabled session and marks "absent" anyone who hasn't already submitted. Those students have to go to the Directed Study session and attend for the full hour.

In terms of online learning it's working well. The students are at the stage where they are in a routine and pressuring the teacher to open the submission point once they finish. The plagiarism check means they can't get away with submitting "Copy+Paste" material and a file size check is enough to gauge a very rough idea of the content. Of course there is a marking and review element after the Directed Study session, but this was the choice of the teacher. Automatic marking is still viable in other areas.

The side effect though is the deadline management skill. Students have a soft deadline: to complete the work before the directed study session means they don't have to spend an hour in that room doing that work. If they fail to meet that deadline, they have a hard deadline: attend Directed Study AND complete the work by the end of the session.

Suddenly they have the freedom to prioritise their time at home against their time in Directed Study. For students who like a lie in, want to finish early, or just fancy hanging out with their friends in the middle of the day, it's a no-brainer. For those who think it's more important to keep their evenings free to focus on other things, that's an option too. And for those without access to online resources from home, whatever the reason, there's no penalty.

I really do love online learning.


[1] Recently things have quieted there, but at a meting with Paul Feldman towards the end of last year I was assured that Jisc intend to pick it up and run with it again.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Count all activities on Moodle

It's that time again - I get to produce a report from the Moodle database.

The purpose of this blog is more or less a placeholder. I've written up my SQL:

SELECT `mdl_course`.`fullname` as 'Course Name'
, as 'Course ID'
, sum( as 'Assignment'
, sum( as 'Chat'
, sum( as 'Choice'
, sum( as 'Data'
, sum( as 'Forum'
, sum( as 'Glossary'
, sum( as 'HotPot'
, sum( as 'Quiz'
, sum( as 'SCORM'
, sum( as 'Survey'
, sum( as 'Wiki'
, sum( as 'Workshop'
, sum( as 'Feedback'
, sum( as 'TurnitinTool'  
FROM mdl_course

join mdl_course_modules on = mdl_course_modules.course
join mdl_modules on mdl_course_modules.module =

group by 'Course name'


and as you can see it's very pretty and sensible and should (theoretically) return the number of each activity type that features in courses on the site. What actually returns is:

Course NameCourse IDAssignmentChatChoiceDataForumGlossaryHotPotQuizSCORMSurveyWikiWorkshopFeedbackTurnitinTool
GC VLE10302310289724715898929911122391501655

While this is surprisingly handy, it has to be said it is

  1. inaccurate - we have many assignments. But I think this is a result of the assignments now being a wholly separate situation from the other module types, and therefore not being registered on the module list. I need to look into this again.
  2. not what I need. I need each course to be listed and the activity types *per course* to be clearly identified. 
I have absolutely no idea why it isn't working as it should, but I have a feeling my joins are causing the issue.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Digital Technology activity ideas

I recently delivered a session on using technology in teaching English. Most attendees were delivering GCSE English to vocational students who were retaking the subject.

I knew going in that I didn't want to stand at the front and tell people about available technology. While hearing about tools automatically makes me wonder what I can do with them, it's difficult after a hard day's work (this was an evening session) to focus long enough to process an understanding not only of what a tool's function is but what you can use it for.

Text taken from Wikipedia. Clipart taken from PowerPoint.

So I wrote a mini list of example activities and tools to cite and planned to sit back and let them do the thinking.

We covered a few common activities and below are the few that stuck in my mind:

  1. Using Twitter for... well, pretty much anything.
    1. Define words
    2. Describe an idea
    3. Tell a story
    4. Re-write a paragraph to fit into 140 characters
  2. Using Facebook for characters and stories
    1. Create character profiles
    2. Interact with the profiles to rewrite the story
  3. Using video in class
    1. Split into groups and set a task. Each group videos the culmination of their task and plays it back to the class at the end of the activity.
    2. Split into groups for a large class project. At the end each group produces their piece and a video of the whole group can be used to review the project at the start of the next class.
  4. Using comics
    1. Ask students to use a comic generator to interpret a scene from which all descriptive text has been removed. Compare their interpretation to the original text and see if it has changed.

I really enjoyed the session and although there was nothing unique discussed, I think the attendees got a lot more out of it than they would if I'd told them what was available.