Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Digital exams - the future of assessment

I write as a serendipitously successful product of the school system and as an individual who found examinations to be, if not fun, then at least a satisfying opportunity to demonstrate how hard I had worked, but I recognise that this makes me a bit weird and not representative of the wider population. So, reading about Ofqual's announcement in last Thursday's Times that children entering primary school next September will sit digital GCSE and A Levels when they reach Key Stages 4 and 5, I was briefly filled with hope that one of the major bastions of our nineteenth century education model was being slated for (very gradual) demolition. Hopeful that is until I read the public's comments at the foot of the story.

The criticism centres around two highly charged points. Firstly that all this will be cheaper for the exam boards to administer, the implication being that for an assessment system to be of value it should be paper-heavy, unwieldy and bureaucratic; I don't pretend to understand this point of view. Secondly, voices of dissent were raised over the effect of online exams on the nation's handwriting. I'll have to admit I'm struggling with the import of this one too.

On the plus side though, potentially thousands of children with perfectly functioning and useful brains but who've otherwise been failed by poor literacy (think screen readers and voice recognition software in tests), social pressures or nerves (imagine exams taken whenever and wherever the student prefers), short attention spans or small memories (with learners able to demonstrate what they can do, not what they know) may just be able to emerge from school with something to show for it. Other than neat handwriting, of course.

Despite the impotent fuming of the Times' readership (and if ever there was a neat demographic overlapping successful exam-passers with those with a vested interest in the status quo, this is it), online examinations seem to be an international trend. The BBC report that the Danish government are also of the opinion that "if the internet is so much a part of daily life, it should be included in the classroom and in examinations" and I find it hard to disagree. Information has been truly democratised (a movement started by Gutenberg in the mid-C15th and continued by Google in the late-C20th) and is available to all, irrespective of an individual's capacity to retain it, so for me one of the key challenges in education over the next decade is to devise assessments which measure how well students do something with all this information. This is indeed the Danish ambition, where the students are "no longer required to regurgitate facts and figures. Instead the emphasis is on their ability to sift through and analyse information"

In my opinion, the most salient argument for open-laptop exams is that the current system does not reflect 'real life' and thus is not really measuring anything that's of use to society. An example from the world beyond school is illustrative here; take a medium-sized organisation (a government department, say), which has occasional tasks or problems which present themselves (e.g. a report which needs to be researched, written, checked and released to the media). Such tasks could be identified, I am certain, in any work context across the UK, but in none of these real contexts would the task be sprung on single employees who are then stripped of their access to the wider canon of human knowledge and experience, quarantined from others and sanctioned against collaborating, given tools which constrain creative thought, speed of work and their ability to manipulate language and told to get it done in 3 hours. No; for the C21st century skills of creativity, problem solving and team work, a different model of examination will be needed.

Real life just isn't like that, so why is our exam system so restrictive? The answer, of course, is *history* (for which read 'inertia' and a fair degree of "If it was good enough for me..." See Times comments above...). Written examinations are a paradigm of assessment dreamt up in the C18th by scholars who lived in a culture and a time where learning and intelligence were judged by one's ability to memorise facts. It's worth remembering that this was an age where books were mankind's only way of storing its collective knowledge; developing human receptacles into which a lot of this information could be poured, stored and rapidly searched & recalled was highly prized and these individuals' storage capacity needed measuring. The written examination was first used in the 1850s to promote social mobility (cue bitterly ironic laughter) but today remain only a demonstration of studiousness or memory, and in some cases both (though not in mine!)

Epistemologically, exams are the logical result of projecting an empiricalist philosophy onto education and politicians love the scientific purity of this; the numbers speak clearly to the voter in the street. However, you don't need to be a genius to work out that there is no 'provable truth' in anything as diverse and organic as a school, you just have to have worked in one, which may explain why this approach remains so enduringly popular in government. Still, this news represents genuine progress and if a career in education has taught me anything, it's that progress in this sector is gained a foxhole at a time. To horribly paraphase a former PM, this is not the beginning of the end but it may be the end of the beginning.

Dominic Norrish, B in GCSE Religious Education ('achieved' by reading St Mark's Gospel the night before the exam).

Follow me on Twitter @domnorrish

Monday, 9 November 2009

Lies, damn lies and quantitative analyses of teachers' perceptions of technology use.

Both BESA and Becta have released reports in recent months which present statistical evidence of how technology is used in education. Putting aside the validity issues surrounding reporting respondents' perceptions as reality, I've been struck again by the (annual) message that change in the national profile of educational use of technology only ever inches forward. Will the pace of development be fast enough to meet the challenges of the next few years?

Purely looking at kit, the growth of desktop PC numbers has slowed (and fallen in Primaries), whilst the number of laptops that schools own continues to rise steadily (BESA report). This may indicate a shift to more mobile models of access and a gradual abandonment of the concept of ‘going to the ICT room to use computers’. It may simply be that laptop prices have fallen to a level where, compared with the associated infrastructural costs of putting in fixed machines, this approach makes financial sense first and foremost. Either way, I’m pretty sure that laptops will soon be regarded as the metaphorical ‘phone box’ between the ‘landline’ of ICT suites and the ‘iPhone’ of, er, students’ iPhones. None the less, if the growth of laptops is enabling schools to experiment with agile spaces and student agency over learning style and outcome, this can only be a good thing.

Combined with improving ratios of computers to pupils (now 1:4.2 in secondaries), the ‘average’ school is now not far away from achieving a theoretical ‘virtual 1:1’ ratio, where quantities/ mobility of devices mean that a computer is available whenever its use is appropriate for learning. The 12% of secondaries that don’t have a wireless network yet must also make this leap before personalisation through ICT can be equably extended to all.

An interesting side point from the BESA evidence; a decreasing number of schools are indicating that their Internet access is 'good' (dramatically down to 41% of secondaries, compared with 73% in 2008). This, in the face of ever-better infrastructure and RBC offerings, can only mean that practices are changing and contention is increasingly an issue. Now, the challenge is to ensure the shift in practice that has seen more kids with laptops accessing video/ Flash on the web is actually focussed on genuine learning activity, rather than edutainment.

BESA’s reported drop in teacher confidence (down by about 10% across the Primary and Secondary sectors) is worrying. What does this represent? Is it that the warm glow of NOF training has finally worn off and teachers now feel in need of further high quality ICT training? I guess that’s an extreme possibility, but I suspect this issue has more to do with a growing realisation of the scope and scale of the digital reality; once you’ve peeked over the cliff edge at Web 2.0, handheld learning and student-driven anywhere anytime access to learning experiences, the height can be truly dizzying. In the words of Douglas Adams, it scares the willies out of me, so it wouldn't surprise me if many teachers felt anxious about the rise of increasingly in-your-face technologies.

Workforce issues have been the consistent Number 1 barrier to change I’ve encountered in any of the schools I’ve worked in and alongside. If we are ambitious for the ‘creeping change’ mentioned in the first para to turn into transformational strides, teachers’ exposure to new technologies, their willingness to experiment with them and to take the risk of using them in anger will be critical. I wait to see the full offering from Vital, but I’m fairly sure that until each school takes a structured, colleague-led approach to both sharing best practice and coaching teachers in the use of ICT, this problem will persist. For some evidence to back up this assertion, have a look at Davis, Preston and Sahin’s article on an ‘ecological approach’ to developing technological pedagogies (British Journal of Educational Technologies, 2009 Vol. 40, No. 5 pp861-878) if you have access to a University library.

Moving on, the growing use of ePortfolios seen in Becta’s research is encouraging, with 1 in 5 respondents reporting that all learners are encouraged to use this type of technology to record their achievements and capabilities. To me, creating a culture across our schools where evidence is routinely gathered, commented on, used to explore next steps and shared between staff, learners and their families is an absolute precursor to the long-overdue overhaul of England’s assessment paradigm. If we are ever, as a nation, to move away from summative measurement of the regurgitation of hastily learned content towards a process by which capabilities and soft skills are evaluated and accredited, schools’ successful practice with ePortfolios will be one of the tipping points.

Less positively, Becta’s analysis of Web 2.0 type stuff is characterised, I think it’s fair to say, by cautious pessimism; “Web 2.0 technologies and learners’ own devices such as mobile phones are used only infrequently in classrooms – there may be scope to further develop their use” (p11), “It may be difficult to reach the target for all schools to be making full use of learning platforms by 2010” (p12) and, commenting on the fact that the majority of teachers do not encourage the use of social software (and that 12% did not know what a Wiki was) “These findings will be somewhat disappointing to those who advocate the importance of the learning potential of social software and social media” (p22). Considering that almost all discussion of innovative practice centres around the use of social media, this is indeed disappointing.

The standout ‘must try harder’ area in my opinion is around Parental Engagement. The broad range of respondents to Becta’s surveys identified this as improving but also as having the greatest potential to have a positive impact if fully embraced. I suspect, however, that additional levers will be required if schools are to make the most of the ambition summed up in the concept of ‘live reporting’, such are the challenges of policy, practice and technical integration required to put meaningful information (e.g. more than raw numbers straight out of the MIS) into the hands of parents in a way which they can easily, intuitively and securely access. On a related note, when you consider how powerfully communicative a relatively low-maintenance web presence can be, I’ll admit to being stunned at the statement that 86% of schools now “have a website”. So that’s just 1 in every 7 which need dragging into 1997 then...

A further (and possibly sunnier) analysis of Becta's numbers can be found in Bob Harrison's piece for the NCSL; well worth a read.

Dominic Norrish (follow me on Twitter: @domnorrish)

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Can ICT help fight child obesity?

It is said that obesity is one of the biggest health challenges we face. With millions of children and millions of adults in this weight category it is clear that the excess body fat that these people carry will increase their risks of poor health. Statistics from the National Heart Forum illuminate the trends in this area.

There are many school based initiatives too with one reported in the TES this week about the work of Shotton Hall School in Peterlee, who are using drama to educate students on how to eat healthily.

Discoveries originating in Cambridge have changed scientific thinking in thisfield which are far too complicated for me to blog about here, but covered cells, energy, heat generation and enzyme complexes over 20 years.

Studies in the context of ‘inherent disorders of the human metabolism’ illustrate that some people who are in the obesity category are there through no conscious behaviour of their own. Researchers have found that a lack of a protein called leptin or the way the body uses leptin in the brain can lead to uncontrollable appetite. (p238 The University of Cambridge and 800th Anniversary Portrait). So, it’s clear that some people need as much help as possible to control their appetite.

We can’t begin to use ICT in schools to monitor effects at this level or indeed recommend treatments for students, that is down to parent and carers interactions with the medical profession. What we can do though is use to ICT to understand the relationship between the child we are caring for and their consumption of food in school.

Early cashless catering systems did only what their name suggested; catered cashlessly. What we are now seeing within the Electronic Point of Sale arena is more and more information processing and more and more integration.

More visibility is being granted, because parents and carers can set preferences regarding the quantities and items that a youngster selects for their school lunch. For example, schools, parents, even the student can also restrict certain items –where a child has a nut allergy or a maximum weekly portion number of ‘unhealthy’ food types

More integration is helpful, because systems will allow parents and carers to log in from home to add money to their child’s account and at the same time modify the selection preferences. We are also seeing card and biometric systems that are not only being used for catering but used for registration, access control and also at community kiosks for account creation, and to refresh passwords when they have been forgotten.

We should also remember that many of these systems are competing to evolve into a market leading position, so if you have an idea and the system doesn’t do it now, many companies will develop a functionality if it really adds value. Examples might be if you want to tie eating habits of youngsters to a particular sport to ensure they have the right type of nourishment ,or if you want to reward students with school merits for healthy eating automatically.

Clearly these systems are only one part of a bigger picture but they can certainly help to fight obesity when combined with other school initiatives.

Brendan Geoghegan

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

How Sustainable is ICT in Further Education?

A question I am often asked what difference in terms of environmental impact can we make when designing our ICT solution. This is something to consider for refurbishments as well as new builds. It is estimated that Further and Higher education has approximately 1.5 million laptops and PCs, 250,000 printers and about the same number of servers. Along with the couple of bob that costs for leasing/ purchasing comes an electricity bill estimated at over £100 million per annum.

Most Principals I talk to have an expectation that ICT will grow – and why shouldn’t they? After all, a well designed ICT system has the potential to deliver real gains and efficiencies for learners. With many future FE learners already enjoying the benefits of BSF investment in ICT, expectations are rising daily and FE is a prime area for augmenting learning and delivering flexible programmes through the use of online learning packages.

With these imperatives we may be expecting (or investing in) a level of growth that is unsustainable (both environmentally and economically). So how might this be mitigated? To some extent we can look to improvements in the technology over time but more importantly we need to make the right choices in system design and utilisation. This, however, assumes that a College is capable and engaged with taking a medium to long term view in implementing their ICT strategy. History teaches us this is has not always been the case, with systems developed using sporadic bursts of funding. The BCF programme offered a real chance to for a College to take a strategic view and design an ICT solution from first principles. Yes, I know ‘strategic’ is one of the most over used words in ‘management speak’, but how many colleges look to five years ahead and identify the goal and put together the plan/ steps/ funding stages to achieve that goal? The following are key areas for consideration:

* Conduct an audit of computing needs for each department
* Establish a percentage of needs that could be met by energy efficient thin client applications (which are rapidly gaining in efficiency and effectiveness and can significantly reduce the refresh cycle)
* Review storage requirements, both current and projected, and consider alternatives to high energy ‘always on and spinning’ in-house storage (a space saving measure that may lead to regaining floor space)
* Assume some servers need to remain on site but move also towards virtualisation of servers
* Prepare to blend these with Cloud-computing and Software as a Service (SaaS) hosting.
* Consider ways to automatically ‘turn off’ the ICT infrastructure when not in use
* Be rigorous in monitoring energy use and balance this with system capacity
* Reduce printing by moving to strategically placed high efficiency multi function printers and print release tracking systems
* Move further to paperless systems using document handling systems that effectively copy and file existing paper documents (and consider how much floor space that would release!)
* Make an informed estimate that within very few years, all learners will bring a WiFi enabled device to college for personal use, and build a system that will allow them access to learning materials whilst protecting your systems
* Make another informed decision that learners like to access materials remotely and at time that suit them. 24/7 learning offers colleges real opportunities.
* Save petrol. Explore the role of Skype-style video for small group tutorials. Lecturers can deliver this from college or home. Also a great support for distance learning and extended hours.

So if that is some of the meat in the sandwich (there is more and much can be done without buying lots of kit) then how would it be achieved?

Well, it’s not news that it has to be a top down and bottom up approach. Whilst that sounds just like the posture one might have to adopt to connect a device to the back on your PC, it really means that there is often an imbalance between the management agenda and that of other staff. An ICT strategy has to be shared and owned by all before implementation. It is relatively simple to set this up but it requires a targeted effort that includes all staff and particularly departmental champions.

Ultimately all parties need to accept that ICT is ‘mission critical’. There can be no 21st Century education without ICT. If this premise is accepted then management, departments and individuals can begin to fully engage in driving that agenda in positive and sustainable steps that all parties can buy into.

Stephen Norris

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Why do some educationalists not recognise the benefits of ICT?

I don’t for one minute believe I can answer this question in a few short sentences and I will not set out to. I do hope to illustrate some benefits recognised by those outside education yet supporting it.
Who wants to sit at a computer all day? Certainly not me!
Who wants to take longer than necessary to do a task or activity? Certainly not me!
Who wants to expose themselves to physical danger through a lack of knowledge or preparation? Certainly not me!

Although it is unpleasant to sit at a computer all day it has to be recognised in life, in business and in education that sitting at the computer is not only necessary to communicate but it is necessary for the production of many business outcomes. It is also necessary to improve the speed of production and the quality of these business outcomes. Very often the nature of the outcome is vastly enhanced too by the use of the computer.

At one time the computer associated with my work was a luxury for doing critical path analysis in new product development instead of working on paper. The computer beautifully and automatically identified key moments in development to make sure the right thing was being done to enable the new product to hit the market smoothly.
The computer then became an important device to support me at the end of the day whilst processing my evidence from classroom observations and interviews whilst inspecting schools.

It has now become an integrated part of my working life with ongoing connectivity for communication throughout the day for discussion and document sharing, a way into online documentation and national guidance, a tool for creating documents and presentations, a tool for capturing the views of staff and youngsters in schools and a storage device for the many agendas and meeting minutes.

There are some within education that do not value the contribution that the computer can bring; why is that? Do these people have a good understanding of the computer’s capability? Do these people appreciate the importance of the individual to effectively integrate with a computer when they leave school or college to operate productively in a business, scientific, technological or other employed or self employed environment?

If a student is not fully exposed to the wide range of functionalities of the computer they will not be ready and they will be disadvantaged. Students need to be able to engage effectively with the computer environment and in some cases be comfortable to learn using the technology in self motivated and self directed way. This doesn’t happen on its own!

Developments are ongoing to improve the technology available and also to improve the way technology is used. Within the last 10 years we have seen an incredible shift from the point where complex modelling software needed to run on a local PC, to the point where modelling can quite happily take place on the internet with real time cause and effect displayed well.

The Royal Society of Chemistry and Pharmaceutical Company Pfizer have teamed up to create the ‘Discover Chemistry Programme’. They are concerned about the future of the chemical industry and wish to promote skills in this area. One area of focus in this respect is an initiative linked to Bristol University to distribute Labskills software. This software allows students to experiment ‘virtually’ in the first instance and become familiar with the experimental environment and safety issues. The idea being that students are more confident when they enter the lab, and engage with the chemistry in a more meaningful and safe way.

Some in education would think it a surprise that the Royal Society of Chemistry would promote such virtual working. However, the educational environment is not ideal for all students and time constraints can inhibit the effective progress of many. It is seen very much as a supplement to real practical work.

I hope those in education that fail to see the benefit of ICT will recognise the benefits seen by the Royal Society of Chemistry and also be thankful to the commercial organisation Pfizer for their investment and similarly thankful to Bristol University for recognising the need and developing a virtual environment to make this happen.

I hope that the software is used in the spirit for which it is intended, is used appropriately and supplements the ‘real’ practical work of students. It would be a shame for students not to be able to use the software; it would be a disaster if it replaced real experiments through financial or curriculum constraints.

To read more about the Discover Chemistry Programme visit;


Brendan Geoghegan

Monday, 12 October 2009

Naace's Autumn conference 2009

This year's Autumn Naace conference took place last Friday and Saturday and, as it was my first experience of this, I thought I'd share a couple of things I learned.

1. The Home Access programme, for all its potential pitfalls and doubtless negative future press ("Barmy Becta's mobile devices sold for glue" etc) looks like it could be a truly transformational initiative, making a real difference to disadvantaged families. This is, after all, what central government should be all about. Becta's Steve Goodman gave details of the offer (device + support + connectivity + software + assistive kit if required), who was eligible (Free School Meals families, essentially, starting with those in KS2 + 3) and the news that they plan to get 270,000 households safely across the Digital Divide by late 2011, regardless of the looming spectre of Gove et al. My opinion is that if these devices are to most effective (most will be mobile), they need to integrate successfully with any Managed Service being offered by BSF projects. This is partly a challenge for MSPs but it would be reassuring to know that Becta had thought about it too (perhaps through a basic set of standards all devices would comply with?). In summary though; looks exciting!

2. Vital Skills (a DCSF-funded regionally-delivered project from eSkills UK and the OU) is positioning itself as the antidote to NOF, which is good because I'm still suffering recurrent symptoms. I was hoping to leave this session with a clear understanding of what Vital's concrete offering would be, but I'm still a little hazy about this. Here's what I hope will be the cornerstones; school-based, colleague-led, practice-driven initiatives which go far beyond 'training'. Debbie Forster and Peter Twining raised this very interesting question however; why we as teachers spend so long developing brilliant practice for helping others learn, but revert to the simplest and least effective of didactic methods when engaging in professional development ourselves...

3. Twitter at conferences; It's a good thing if contributions are evenly spread across a diverse audience. I liked Chris Gerry's suggestion that people offer live criticism of his section, so that he could rebut it there and then!

4. New Line Learning. I already know a fair bit about this project (these two Kent Academies are clients of Novatia) but I was blown away by the clarity and scope of Dr. Chris Gerry's vision for how ICT should be impacting on students' lives. The Business Intelligence model he described (essentially getting to grips with as much knowledge about learners as is possible, from a range of sources, and using similar historical data to see which interventions work best with these groups of young people) has the potential to fundamentally change how the education sector uses data; honestly, it's an information revolution in the making. Talking to a fellow delegate on the way out, we wondered why the big MIS players hadn't addressed this before and concluded that it must have been down to the market's appetite for such a product. But if New Line Learning can get it to work as described on the tin, I can't think of a school in the world that wouldn't want to buy it, such is the ability to intervene and change lives it will afford.

Congratulations to Naace and all the contributors for two very illuminating days.

Dominic Norrish

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Smart phones to overtake PCs by 2011... School use to follow?

Becta's TechNews service (which is excellent by the way; digestible and just technical enough) recently commented that recent trend analyses indicate that more smart phones than PCs will by sold in 2011.

This is staggering, but quite believeable once you consider all the people you know who have iPhones* who, to be fair, aren't exactly members of the technorati. OK, so my mum may still be clinging onto her Nokia 3210 ("It makes phone calls, why would I change it?"), but in every meeting I attend there are at least 3 iPhone-toting ladies and gentlemen of *ahem* advancing years whose interest in technology seemingly plataued with Pong, happily sharing photos of various grandchildren.

Smart Phones are probably best understood as miniature computers with the additional capacity to make telephone calls. Mine has wi-fi for the internet (and has thus become the weapon of choice in settling arguments over obscure TV actors) as well as 3.5g access to mobile data when I'm out and about. It checks my emails and synchronises with my calendar and tasks. I runs downloaded programmes (it comes with Word and Excel already). It's got a bunch of videos from BBC iPlayer of Charlie Brooker getting angry about stuff for when I'm stuck on the tube. It plays music and could replace my iPod touch if I could be bothered. The GPS is fantastic too - I was in Paris this Summer and it enabled me to navigate my way around, checking Wikipedia entries wherever I went (Coco Chanel was a collaborator? Zut alors!) and see photos of the street view to help me recognise things I was looking for. In short, it's a thing of beauty and joy and just 2 years ago, did not exist.

Education would be mad to ignore this. Once virtually every learner has in their pocket a device which can access the internet at high speed, run programmes, display video and audio, the posibilities for how this could impact in schools are incredible. I'm working with several new build schools at the moment and it's amazing to think that the laptops they are planning to purchase are really just an interim solution to bridge the gap between the ICT suites of yesteryear and tomorrow's student-owned device promise.

The challenges are considerable however. Inappropriate use of phones is a real and constant issue for schools now and technical solutions are needed to help mitigate this risk before schools can be realistically expected to embrace the technology. This can be partially addressed at the policy/ sanctions level but it would be interesting to see if management software for phones could be created to automate this, just as exists to control the use of the school's PCs currently.

For me, the real hurdle to overcome is that of input; yes, the iPhone has a touch-interface keyboard, but you really wouldn't want to have to enter your rambling blog entries using it. Equally, my E71 has an ultra small form-factor querty keyboard. It's my normal form-factor fingers which are the problem. Unless this issue can be solved (projected keyboards?), Smart phone use will probably remain nomadic and ad hoc, but useful none the less.

I'd give my E71 to my mum when I next upgrade if it wasn't for her response to my request to upgrade the family TV to colour in 1986; "I'm just waiting to see if they've got it right before I try it out".

*other smart phones are available

The National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services –Formerly the National College for School Leadership

The National College for School Leadership has an expanded remit and has become the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services.
This evolution of the responsibilities of the college should provide a really useful catalyst to continue the evolution of thinking and action around the Every Child Matters agenda.

Joined up thinking and services are a key aspiration to ensure that each young person gets the support they need, when they need it. Some youngsters require more from support services than others, some for short periods and some for long periods of time.

Advances in ICT integration and infrastructure provides the opportunity for up to date key information to be available 24/7 to the professionals involved with each child. But how joined up are systems and how joined up are the decisions made by professionals when dealing with youngsters and their very individual issues?

Within the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, consideration of the Wider Children’s Services is a key strand of the new Partnership for School’s ICT Output Specification. School priorities and Local Authority Priorities for this strand require articulation to ensure that a prospective ICT Partner who will be providing the ICT services, will deliver a system to do exactly what is required.

Why wait for BSF though? Our engagements require clear Strategic Thinking around the use of ICT in schools and its integration with the Wider Children’s services. Much of this thinking can take place early within existing organisational reporting structures on policy and practice. A well thought out Educational ICT Strategy will ease the path to progress through the BSF programme and help to ensure that the right support gets to young people when they need it.

To learn about the work of the National College visit;

Brendan Geoghegan

Friday, 18 September 2009

iPod Touch - enhancing learning for all

Following on from my post about the latest iPod Touch’s screen reading capability, the very size of this device offers a lot to schools. We often talk about the affordability and functionality of devices when selecting technology to enhance learning. What about the ergonomics of the device or the size and bulkiness of devices in particular in relation to portability?

I think about this in relation to the use of technology in a crowded classroom setting and all youngsters wanting to use devices at the same time and in many cases wanting to use them as they move around the classroom or around the school.

Youngsters grow at different rates and it could be rather challenging for a slightly built secondary school student to carry their personal device around all day and en route to and from school. Even more challenging for youngsters in the primary phase!
It is great to see the smaller devices extend and improve their offering in relation the technological functionality and also in relation to educational software that supports youngsters in their learning.

A school has recently used the iPod touch with a full class of youngsters in the primary phase and they have been really impressed by the way they were used.
The devices were configured to run through the school wireless system with appropriate filtering in place and pupils confidently and independently learned about elements of History and the demise of the wives of Henry VIII. Not only do the youngsters use the devices as instructed, they intuitively explore additional functionality and learn to select content from the internet and edit it in a word processing application.

The use of these devices would help all discussions with architects regarding heat generation and power consumption if they can accommodate the required educational needs in the many learning contexts.

The iPods have certainly captured the imagination of the youngsters, they learned to use them quickly and they clearly enjoyed their learning. Don’t take my word for it, have a look for yourself on the Learn 4 Life website.

Brendan Geoghegan

Monday, 14 September 2009

Latest iPods help the visually impared to access learning

Access to technology requires very careful consideration for many users and for many reasons. For some the reason may be a physical difficulty or a physical attribute that they as an individual do not possess.

I remember doing my Masters Degree in the late 90’s and feeling challenged myself when it came to using the keyboard quickly enough to get the 20,000 words of my thesis into the machine. I looked at voice recognition at this time and found it so ‘clunky’ that I realised my keyboard skills were perhaps more developed than I realised, even if some way short of a press correspondent or company secretary competence.

For many, Access considerations will require the purchase of additional hardware or additional software but for some, support can be provided through the configuration of the device in its standard form.

One such example is the iPod touch (3rd Generation) Voice Over. This device has a set up function that enables a blind person to hear about the part of the screen and the functionality they are engaging with. This feature, combined with additional user gestures, enables a blind person to access the device and its functionality. It does it in a way that enables the user to understand the context of their engagement rather than in a bland list of functions or commands enabling the blind person to build up a good mental picture of the electronic environment.

This feature is incredibly available in 21 languages currently too and the speed of the voice is adjustable to suit the listening capability of each individual.

So, when carrying out user assessments to improve accessibility, don’t forget to consider all of the functions that many providers include within products as standard features.

To read more visit http://www.apple.com/accessibility/itunes/ipodtouch.html

Brendan Geoghegan

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Nokia Booklet 3g - a breakthrough for anywhere anytime learning in (and out of) schools

‘Anytime Anywhere’ learning permeates many documents related to the visions of new Academies, within School Strategy for Changes and local Authority Strategy for Change 2 documents within the BSF programme but providing the technology to support this aspiration has always been a challenge.

Affordability and device functionality are key compromises within the battle to meet this ‘Anytime Anywhere’ aspiration and also to support sustainability through maintaining refresh levels in the ICT Managed Service provision.

Learners will use many types of device in their learning. In some contexts a small handheld device is sufficient to provide the information or functionality required. In other contexts, large screens and significant processing power is required and provided through a large desktop device.

Mobile phone functionality has increased significantly in recent years and I personally have got on really well with Mobile devices that run Windows Mobile Software (Versions 5 and 6) with synchronisation to Web based email and Outlook services a real asset.

My laptop use in the field is enhanced by the use of a 3G ‘Dongle’ to provide connectivity to web based services and resources. I have also had to enhance my laptop by adding a supplementary battery which replaces the CD/DVD drive when in use. This helps me to be productive for longer in the many situations where I am unable to plug into mains power.

Youngsters have these same difficulties and frustrations where technology is short of the mark in terms of connectivity and battery power. Functional Specifications go some way to ensuring that the right performance is provided during the procurement stages and it is good to see the many framework providers offering a comprehensive product range.

So it is combinations of technology that help us to be successful as a Professional and as a Student.

Other products developed to help us to select ‘fit for purpose’ devices included the netbook. Original designs offered cheap methods of browsing the internet, but less functionality than that offered by a laptop computer.

This product range is now developing further and will require additional decisions about the most appropriate combinations of technology to be selected. Personal preferences will play a big part along with functionality here.

A recent development soon to hit the market place is the new NOKIA BOOKLET 3G. The specifications have not been revealed to us yet but we do know that it is of notebook size and has some additional attractive features to influence our thinking and decisions.

One feature is integrated connectivity functionality to avoid the need for external dongles that I mentioned I used earlier. Another feature is significantly longer battery life reported to be in the order of 12 hours. Both of these features go a significant way to supporting the ‘Anytime Anywhere’ aspirations for learners in 21st Century Schools and I look forward to hearing more about this product when it arrives in the market place.

Follow the link to have a look at the promotional video but please note the small print that *specifications are subject to change.


Brendan Geoghegan

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

802.11n: pushing wired networks to the edge?

Draft 11 of the 802.11n Wireless LAN specification was published on the 23rd of June 2009 and looks set to be ratified in September. What does this mean for schools implementing wired and wireless networks? Does the promise of faster wireless signal the demise of wired networks and cost savings for school construction? This is a more technical post …

I’ve been reflecting on the wired vs. wireless debates we regularly encounter in BSF and Academies and recalled the battle for market supremacy between Token Ring and Ethernet in the early days of LAN technology. Back then, in the blue corner was IBM (and a company called Proteon) and in the red corner was everyone else. Ethernet was a descendant of a radio technology called ALOHAnet where users would ‘shout-out’ and compete for access to the network whilst Token Ring used a ‘pass-the-parcel’ technique more suited to IBM’s sense of order.

Token Ring was a superior technology; its ‘token-passing’ approach yielded 80% effective throughput under load compared with Ethernet’s measly 40%, and it used star-wired hubs with self-healing trunks. But Token Ring’s cleverness and IBM’s near-monopoly came at a price and that, ultimately, was its downfall. Ethernet chipsets were cheaper to produce and vendors then addressed Ethernet’s other shortcomings using smarter hubs and switches as transmission speeds over UTP cabling increased from 10BASE-T to 100BASE-T to 1000BASE-T and now 10GBASE-T. The rest, as they say is history.

So what does this jaunt down memory lane have to do with the wired vs. wireless debate? Ironically, 20 years on Ethernet might appear to be under threat from another contention-based radio technology; more specifically the ‘soon-to-be-ratified’ 802.11n which WLAN vendors would have you believe – citing transmission speeds of 600Mbit/s - will do away with wires for good. If you’re involved in a school capital rebuild or refurbishment you could also be on the receiving end of pressure from builders to install the minimum of UTP cabling to slash their M&E budget and hub room sizes. “Everyone has a home wireless network, so why can’t a school?”. No-one would argue that wireless LANs are incredibly convenient for home and mobile use but they simply can’t match wired network performance for ICT-rich learning so be prepared to stand firm!

The two fundamental constraints of WLAN technology which still exist in 802.11n are the contention for use of the Access Point radio and the propagation behaviour of RF transmissions. Both factors mean that effective throughput drops with increasing users and distance. 802.11n draft 2 products are already deployed, certified by the Wi-Fi alliance, which suggest that 100-120Mbit/s is the likely real-world throughput for a single 802.11n Access Point. Admittedly more access points and clever proprietary features can improve this capacity and resolve cell design constraints.

With plenty of ifs, buts, and some careful network design a single Access Point can give a ‘class’ of 15 laptops a learning experience broadly similar (at 8Mbit/s) to a decent home broadband service. Is it educationally beneficial though to impose this constraint within a 21st Century school? Probably not. Should schools be aspiring to serving up media-rich content up to 100 times quicker; the difference between a human runner and a jumbo jet taking off? Well, probably, yes. Especially when they’re investing a large portion of the ICT budget in user devices which can exploit Gigabit Ethernet interfaces.

For now wired networks still have the edge in other areas too including traffic control and end-point management. WLAN security is a moot point where WPA2 AES encryption is in use - but still a concern in poorly-controlled environments - and there’s an increasingly vocal lobby pressing for removal of wireless from schools altogether on health grounds.

Fortunately wired and wireless networks aren’t mutually exclusive so the best new school designs have hybrid networks that do both; horses for courses; wireless for convenience and wired for performance. Clarity about the function of learning spaces is the key to getting this balance right; avoiding over-reliance on wireless and over-engineering of wiring. A broad principle is to provide robust ‘blanket’ wireless coverage throughout the building environs and also wire every structured learning and admin space according to expected device occupancy. Additional ceiling cabling allows wireless capacity to be added later as more densely populated spaces mature. Less structured learning zones and open plazas also need wiring precisely because of their intended flexibility and often the best way to provide this is using floorboxes (cue sharp intake of builder’s breath and words like ‘slab’ and ‘screed’).

Will wireless LANs ever kill off wired Ethernet in the way Ethernet did with Token Ring? Well certainly not within the lifetime of the current round of capital investment in schools, especially with Ethernet heading for 10Gbit/s speeds, and not if we have to unplug wireless networks as a result of a Health & Safety scare. I’ll post more on 802.11n deployment, 10G Ethernet and WAN bottlenecks in a later post. My advice for now? Stay wired.

Rich Torr

Friday, 14 August 2009

Becta comes under fire as a Schools Quango too far

I usually save feelings of worldweariness for stories I read in a copy of the Daily Mail picked up in error from the tube seat next to mine, thinking it was a Metro. However, the BBC's coverage of a thinktank report on educational quangos yesterday made me just as depressed. And anyone who knows what an irrepressible optimist I usually am will be shocked by that revelation.

The innocent-sounding Centre for Policies Studies (front page of website: video of Dave Cameron) has written a report calling for 11 educational quangos to be culled, amongst them Becta and PfS. I won't even start on the logic behind getting rid of bodies such as the NCSL and QCDA (after all, who needs skilled school leaders or an appropriate curriculum?) but will instead focus my attention on the technology-facing bodies. Ray Fleming's Microsoft UK Schools blog also talked about this topic - go and have a look if you don't already subscribe.

First up, let me declare an interest; I've worked with several people from both bodies on new build school projects and have even freelanced on some research for Becta back in the mists of time when I was an ICT teacher. However, what follows is offered in the spirit of common sense.

Becta first: the job of this body is to develop the use of technology in schools and colleges and through things like their Self Review Framework, ICT Mark and the targets set for the take up of Learning Platforms, things are (slowly) changing. Schools must bear some of the weight of responsibility to engage in these processes too, though. It is recognised by all the teachers I know that to meet the needs of the '21st Century learner' schools' offerings need to be much more engaging and relevant. ICT is a powerful too to achieve this, and Becta is doing a pretty good job of pushing schools on this front.

The criticism always levelled at Becta is that despite all their work, little effect on exam results due to better use of technology is evident. Despite this being not (quite) true (see here), this argument is akin to criticising Usain Bolt for not winning gold in the mixed Dressage - effective use of ICT is only ever going to have a tiny impact on something as structured as the formal summative assessment of what 16 year olds can remember about the Agricultural Revolution... If our assessment system measured creativity, problem solving, the ability to work with others, or working to a deadline and to high standards, I imagine Becta's work would be seen in quite another light. Curiously enough, these kind of 'soft skills' are exactly the type of thing most employers value over a C in GCSE History. Becta's response to the CPS report can be seen here by the way.

Anyway, moving on: Partnerships for Schools. I won't go into detail, I think brevity will aid the point here - my informed and personally-experienced opinion is that without PfS, it's structures, processes and the very talented people behind them, there isn't a snowball's chance in hell that any Building Schools for the Future project would every be transformational or amount to an effective use of public money. Newly built schools would be architecturally splendid but educationally vapid and within them, the teachers further disillusioned and the children robbed of an appropriate preparation for life in the modern world. Now there's something the Daily Mail would really get hot under the collar about...

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

eAssessment for schools - millstone or life ring?

Gerald Haigh's '5 Things To Think About' is an excellent blog from the NCSL covering all things BSF. Sign up to the RSS feed if you don't already.

His most recent blog details some very interesting developments in the field of eAssessment, particularly the pioneering approach a region of Norway is taking.

This made me think about the problem, and the opportunity of assessment. In my experience of consulting on multiple BSF and single school capital build projects, getting heads and teachers enthused about the transformational potential of ICT is an exciting process, but almost always stumbles against the, er, mixed metaphor of assessment hiding in the long grass.

"This is all very well," the Head of English/ Curriculum Deputy/ Chair of Governors will say "but I've got 190 year 11s who need to be able to write a coherent exam essay within 45 minutes or our GCSE results will suffer". They're right to be concerned as this is high-stakes stuff - schools live and die by their exam results and the league tables they produce. And this is the sticking point - one arm of government is promoting innovation and transformation of pedagogies, whilst another is forcing schools to continue orthodox practices, because of the requirement to be able to measure schools' performance. Summative exam results provide easily comparable data to do just this.

A similar mixed message can be seen in the Harnessing Technology strategy, which promotes the development of ePortfolios as the ongoing, slowly-growing, holistic record of everything a learner has achieved and is capable of. As a method of demonstrating a lifetime of learning, transferable ePortfolios are surely a more accurate description of students' ability and experience than a summative test (often of learned facts) at the end of a Key Stage. However, currently very few qualifications make use of this type of evidence of learning and therefore progress at a school level in the use of ePortfolios is unlikely to reach any meaningful level.

Even more fundamentally, we as a nation need to consider summative assessment in the digital age. When the entire cannon of human knowledge is accessible via your mobile phone's internet browser, should the measuring of one's retention of facts have such a dramatic influence on your future life chances? Surely post-Google, it's how you judge the reliability of information and then what you do with it which is more important?

It seems clear (to me at least) that the solution to the Assessment conundrum needs tackling at a policy level. Examination boards are eager to progress eAssessment; schools are gradually implementing the infrastructure to support it; students are keen to utilise powerful, familiar tools and wider evidence of their ability; but direction and impetus is needed from the different layers of government in Whitehall but also it's agencies and organisations such as Becta and Ofsted. Until a clear and unambiguous direction is set, the potential of technology to transform assessment will be hobbled.

So, let's imagine a future education system with a mature eAssessment model;
*ePortfolios and online 'stage not age' access to examinations provide the means to accurately measure (as I don't think we're going to get away from this requirement) the success of schools in helping students to make progress.
*The nature of these tools offer a genuine picture of learning, not only exam technique or memorised facts.
*Schools are freer to concentrate purely on learning, not the evidencing of this, and feel the confidence to innovate and explore different ways of doing things.
*Models of learning and of teaching are challenged and transformed, without the fear of a 2% drop in GCSE results hanging over practitioners...
*...and learners benefit from a system which concentrates on their learning, not the measurement of it

Monday, 27 July 2009

Online Schooling in the UK?

'Learning without Limits' by Christine Van Dusen. EsN April 2009

Whilst I was reading this interesting special report in-school News www.K-12.com/educators, I was struck by the notion that although there seems to be some evidence that the nature of schooling is beginning to change in the United States, with 44 states offering some kind of online schooling within their public school provision, very little seems to be happening in the UK.

Online schooling is still seen to be very much as the domain of the sick, disabled or celebrity pupils who can’t attend normal schooling . Online students are thought to be considerably worse off and less well socialised than normal school pupils. However, the US experience seems to contradict this with many normal schools using online schooling to address greater personalisation and augment their curriculum to allow students to raise their attainment levels and learn at their own pace. This would seem also to reduce stress on fixed resources, allow for more flexible use of time, respond to pupils' learning styles and encourage motivation and engagement. The responsibility for learning can be shared between the teacher and the pupil as the basis of online schooling is greater interaction between teachers and learners and between learner and learner and allows for just as much opportunity for group work and collaboration as the traditional school.

As many local authorities are looking at rebuilding their school estate, now might be the time to consider the potential contribution of online schooling to the transformation of learning in the future. Schools are already heavily engaged in tackling the problems of more flexible working required by the 14-19 curriculum and online schooling may well help in this respect. School buildings could be smaller or schools could be appreciably larger but with fewer students attending the physical school at any one time. The virtual school could tackle the problems that occur through bad weather (two weeks closure every time it snows?!?) or what to do when there is a swine flu pandemic and all the schools are closed and enable learner with special needs to be truly accommodated. Students can access learning at a time, place and pace that suits them and the development of fully integrated learning platforms in every school ought to be key to the delivery of online schooling in the future.

As it is, the Government in the UK is currently suggesting that should schools have to remain closed in September to contain the spread of swine flu, students will be able to attend virtually. It remains to be seen how many schools in this country have the infrastructure and resources in place to accomodate this.

David Meaton

Games based learning or games-based teaching?

Paul Pivec July 2009 http://www.becta.org.uk 'Games based learning or games based teaching?'

Paul Pivec, an Australian academic who has a 20 year background in the IT and games industry, takes a critical look at current games-based learning and, in particular, examines the lack of rigorous research evidence whether cognitive training games actually increases the skills and knowledge of the players or simply teaches them the skills they need to play the games.

He makes an interesting re-assessment about the notion of “digital natives” and poses questions about whether learners brought up in a digital world learn in any different ways than those who are not, do they utilise technology in different ways than those of the teachers who are teaching them? Pivec suggests that it could be the technology itself and the way it is used that simply appeals to creative learners, and the digital native theory is simply a marketing ploy created focused around the game.

He claims that it is the teacher-led learning activity taking place around the game that has the real potential to make a difference and this is what he prefers to call games-based teaching. This article was commissioned by Becta as part of the 'Emerging technologies for Learning' series and can be found under Technology Research.

David Meaton

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Growing evidence of ICT's impact

I've just been reading Becta's interim report on the evidence on the impact of ICT on learning and was struck by a number of things;

*Impact2 (2003) really did damn ICT with faint praise didn't it?! However...

*The findings of the SWEEP study into Interactive Whiteboards in the Primary sector were interesting - it's very rare for girls (and high-achieving ones at that) to benefit from ICT significantly more than boys.

*Valentine et al's (2005) work looking at the impact of home access to computers and the internet should be heartening reading for the Right Honourable Jim Knight and his Home Access programme - the claims of a 10 point impact on GCSE results are significant. I assume this means spread across 7-12 actual GCSEs, so not perhaps transforming life chances from chip shop to Oxbridge, but positive nonetheless.

*The link between eMature schools and schools which achieve well in measured outcomes is strong - Butt and Cebulla's (2006) study makes a convincing case for this, as does Ofsted's evidence (not cited in this report) that schools with the ICT Mark are 4 times more likely to be graded 'Outstanding'.

*And finally, the elephant in the room: that the process of learning is massively complex - it may not be possible to extract a single strand and demonstrate a consistent effect through current social research methods. If we've learned anything about ICT's impact in education, it's that it is only a part of the fiendishly tricky jigsaw which goes to make up a successful school.

The FE Capital Build Crisis

Following the freezing of funding for the Capital Build programme in December 2009, a recent investigation by MP’s on the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee condemned the "catastrophic mismanagement" of the college building scheme which now could waste hundreds of millions of pounds. The chairman Phil Willis has been quoted as saying: "It really beggars belief that such an excellent programme which had showed real success in transforming the further education experience for students was mismanaged into virtual extinction” and that "warning signs were missed and even worse, ignored. LSC didn't notice as the total value of the projects it was considering began to overshoot the budget and a review which could have prompted action was shunted around committees and policy groups."

The problem has been that the LSC encouraged colleges to bid for funds and approved projects it did not have money for. By last November, 144 colleges had together invested tens of millions of pounds in preparing bids and getting approval from the LSC. Recently, it was announced only 13 of those projects would go ahead this year.

The term ‘beggars belief’ certainly reflected Novatia’s thinking as the story unravelled. We were working at the time with a number of colleges and their design teams on what promised to be ground breaking projects to provide learning environments and facilities in tune with their young learners. It must be noted that school leavers are increasingly expecting greater control over their learning in line with the ICT rich environments and flexible learning they are experiencing within both the Primary and Secondary sector, each of which have their own Capital Build projects.

Another key student group was that of local businesses and their employees. We know that many are pressed to get staff trained to a suitable standard whilst maintaining the business. They require the facilities and infrastructure sufficient to deliver flexible programmes both on and off site for both groups and individuals. Colleges have put a lot of time into planning for this but for most, the planned builds will never reach the chosen design.

Where do colleges go from here?

Well in the first instance, the committee of MPs have recommended that arrangements for compensation for colleges and possible solvency issues are addressed ASAP. No doubt the regional LSC teams will be working hard on this with the colleges. Also the committee MPs are keen that colleges which want to press ahead by finding alternative funding be offered government help to do so. This offers some light and some exciting possibilities but we await more details on this. We can expect that even with this, colleges' funds will need to be spread further.

What can be achieved with less funding?

Increasingly ICT is central to the any college’s strategy to reach out beyond its traditional parameters and engage with learners, business and the community on a 24/7 basis. These days’ students young and old are more likely to engage with learning through a media rich environment. For example using video, podcasts, blogs, subject based wikis, online assessment supporting all learning activity. Tutorials groups can be formed around the use of these tools augmented by the use of low-cost tele conference software such as Skype for remote tutorial support, offering both tutors to student and peer to peer support. Whether programmes are full time, part time or designed for remote learning, ICT offers the flexibility to scale programmes in a responsive and cost effective way.

As colleges consider their physical estate, ICT offers the possibility of running programmes from any location, whether that is a low-cost unit, a semi permanent base for some programmes or a local employer’s premises. With the exception of more specialist spaces, learning areas require flexibility of furniture and ease of access to a range of ICT to ensure timetabling opportunities are maximised.

Starting with a Total Cost of Ownership/ cost benefit exercise, colleges can make informed choices on use of ICT to extend their reach, maximise use of space and save on space per student. A robust and scalable ICT backbone is required and Capital/ Revenue options are increasingly worth consideration as ICT as a managed service becomes cost effective. Colleges require more ‘bang for their buck’; from experience this is only achieved by effective strategic planning and consensus building, where education and training drive a clearly designed ICT solution that meets needs both now and in a 5-10 year timeline. That is why Novatia have emailed a helpful thumbnail guide for planning, to all college Principals who may be considering their 5-10 year plan for the delivery of their 21st century programmes, with or without help from the LSC. If you'd like a copy, email me at stephen.norris@novatia.plc.uk

Stephen Norris

Monday, 20 July 2009

The Home Access programme

The government have recently announced that following successful trials in Suffolk and Oldham Council (a Novatia client), the Home Access programme is to be rolled out nationally before the end of 2009.

In case you don't know, this is an evolution from the Computers for Pupils scheme, whereby the neediest families will be provided with up to £600 eCredit with which to purchase computing and broadband services from a range of accredited suppliers.

The big idea is that by bridging the 'digital divide' between well-off and less well-off families, every child will have access to 'anywhere anytime' learning and schools will be able to extend eLearning - and particularly their use of Learning Platforms - beyond the school day. The programme is beginning by targetting students in Key Stages 2 and 3. Schools will undoubtedly have a large (if unresourced!) role to play in promoting this scheme to the families they serve.

Novatia's stakeholder data (carried out with thousands of students in schools across the country) indicates that while significant numbers have sole access to a computer and most households are connected to the internet, there remains an equally significant proportion who cannot access school eResources from home. Whilst this disconnected and under-equiped strata of learners persists, it is difficult for schools to really embed their Learning Platforms across all aspects of their business and the potentially transformational benefits of a really eMature Learning Platform are hobbled. Perhaps this funding will provide the impetus needed to get LPs to finally take off in England?

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Windows 7 starts to sell

Microsoft today released Windows 7 for pre-order in the UK and is reported to be selling 3x faster than Vista did in 2007.

The beta version has been widely regarded as a success and Windows 7 promises to be more stable than Vista, run older school software, run on lower spec machines such as netbooks and improve remote file access. '7' will be missing Internet Explorer (IE) however, since the EU ruled that bundling gave Microsoft an unfair advantage over other browser vendors.

The physical product will ship in October and is already being integrated into solutions offered by educational suppliers, such as RM and Ramesys.

Novatia Newswire Inaugural Blog

Thanks to blogspot.com (aka Google) we can now bring you the Novatia Newswire as a live blog feed. In this blog you will find news and comment from Novatia's consultants working on ICT transformation and capital build projects in Education.