Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Rising Tide of Games in Education

This blog post was inspired by Karl Royle and Scott Colfer’s comprehensive and very accessible paper on Computer Games and Learning which I revisited in the wake of a depressingly pointless Panorama programme on games addiction.

Whilst reading the report, I was reminded many times of the aphorism "There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come" (which tells me was coined by Victor Hugo) – the overwhelming sense the paper leaves you with is that no matter the direction set by the UK’s current administration, games based learning is irresistibly inching up the beach-head of mainsteam education.

“The Secretary of State for Education may be exposed as a modern day Cnut (not a typo), wagging a finger at a relentlessly rising tide.”

If you are questioning why games should play a role in the UK’s schools, I recommend a quick read of pp13-14, which set out the case admirably, linking a range of vital C21st skills and behaviours (all desirable in the nation’s youth) to the affordances of GBL. Why wouldn’t we want to make use of engaging tools which will help develop a future society of lateral thinking, creative, resilient team players?

The main reason for optimism about the rise of gaming in education is the extent to which our culture is now saturated with games playing. The point that the lives of our children are informed constantly by computer games is well made; the report (p6) cites evidence that 99% of boys and 94% of girls are gamers. That’s more than attend school daily.

But more vitally, the spread of gaming beyond what some would snootily regard as an adolescent pass-time is also made clear; the average age of UK social game players is 43 (p7). Michael Gove was born in the summer of 1967, placing him front and centre of that demographic, but I am not anticipating the imminent integration of Farmville into the English Baccalaureate.

The way games are accessed is also changing dramatically. I remember well the disappointment I felt at not being remotely able to afford the BBC Micro required to play Elite in 1985, when gaming was pretty much the preserve of the technology-rich. The revolution in gaming platforms seen in the 90s (computers to consoles) is being repeated today, with 23% of gaming now done on phones. We’re probably only a year away from another dramatic jump in this figure, as smart phones become the standard and affordable handset of choice for all teenagers, as they already are for those who pay their own contracts.

Despite the undeniable ubiquity of gaming in modern life, this isn’t yet reflected in our schools, which in many other ways are a faithful macrocosm of society.

Royle and Colfer explain that “42% of teachers never play computer games for their own leisure” (p25), a significant barrier to adoption within schools. I’d suggest a couple of reasons for this disconnect; 1) they’re too busy 2) the demographic profile and social background of the average teacher (both obviously generalisations). This profile is changing gradually and the work of several high-profile GBL evangelists (e.g. Dawn Hallybone & Ollie Bray) within and outside the classroom is also helping to create momentum.

More importantly, a shift is needed in policy before GBL can achieve anything more than peripheral success: “to make these initiatives part of a wider engagement with the digital age, systemic change is required that aligns curriculum objectives and outcomes with the process and product skills engendered by engagement with digital culture” (p24). Basically, school should be about real life, not outdated notions from a mythical educational golden age (anyone for Latin?). I fear that this won’t alter in the lifetime of this Government. In fact, the current direction of change is backwards.

This must be understood by policy makers as a massive risk to the relevance of education offered by our schools. Royle and Colfer explain this adroitly; “When ten year olds can play a computer game that allows them to manage Barcelona Football club at an operating profit and make complex decisions on a regular basis it is unsurprising that learning in school leaves them disappointed and less engaged” (p27)

The Secretary of State for Education will no doubt continue to cite PISA data and demand a return to robust measures of success in core subjects, but this policy will inevitably expose him as a modern day Cnut (not a typo), wagging a finger at a relentlessly rising tide. Irresistible change is coming.

Dom Norrish
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Monday, 8 November 2010

The impact of capital cuts will be felt most keenly by learners

If rumours are to be believed, part of the 60% cut to capital spending on schools is to be found in the dedicated ICT funding all new builds and refurbished schools received under BSF and other programmes.
ICT funding for Academies and BSF projects has for the past few years been based on a formula which saw schools receive £1450 per-pupil for ICT equipment and £225 pp for infrastructure. The two sums were kept separate, the infrastructure money typically attached to the main budget, with the build partner delivering the ICT passive infrastructure (cabling and containment, mostly) and an ICT provider being procured through whom to spend the £1450.


These levels of funding (about £1.8m for the average sized secondary) have proved time and again in my experience to be just sufficient to achieve the school’s/ LA’s ambitions for learning, granting schools the freedom to innovate with the interface between space and technology in ways which would otherwise be out of reach for most. New Line Learning, a federation of Academies in Kent, is a particularly good example of this.

However, from talking to several interested parties (builders, ICT equipment providers), the whispered consensus is that this £1450 equipment funding is regarded by the Government as overly generous and will be reduced to somewhere around £800. Presumably this is predicated on the generalisation that ICT is ‘well embedded’ in UK schools and doesn’t require additional investment. Quite how this applies to new builds I am unsure.

This will inevitably impact disproportionately on learners. The cost of server infrastructures, wireless network, smart cards, Management Information Systems and a host of other ‘must haves’ don’t scale very neatly; they cost what they cost. Schools’ only real option will be to reduce their expectations of the number of mobile devices, visualisers, projectors, cameras, etc which their students will benefit from. They’ll simply be able to afford less stuff for learning. The first casualty of this funding skirmish will be innovation, as ‘luxury’ of experimentation will no longer be affordable when set against the harsh alternative of having some spaces lacking even the ability to project, for example.

Some will offer the specious logic that even now some schools don’t have technology in every learning space, but I just can’t see how that has any relevance to an argument about how we should be building (today) the absolute best environments for the next 25 years of children to learn in.

It is probable that the £225 for infrastructure will also suffer similar cuts, which will only serve to hamstring the new environments & approaches it is supposed to enable. Even under current funding conditions, build partners invariably resist schools’ requests for floor boxes (to provide flexibility away from dado trunking) and redundant cables (e.g.providing capacity to expand wireless in future) on grounds of cost. The common number applied is 1.5 data points per student, which is just enough, in my experience. If the £225 becomes, say, £150, I fully anticipate the next round of new/ refurbished schools will be built with partial networks (them::“What do you need it in the sports hall for?” me: “Um, to improve learning in sport through technology?”) and an over-reliance on wireless, in a landscape of ever increasing data demand from a personal devices and changing behaviours. It’s a recipe for unreliability, unavailability and continued reliance on traditional methods. Which is probably the point.

Dom Norrish

Follow me on twitter @domnorrish

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Self Review – someone still loves you

This post is about the importance of self review and touches on both the Self Review Framework for ICT (SRF) and Ofsted’s Self Evaluation Form (SEF). My contention is that they have never been so useful as now.

As you will no doubt know, the Government recently removed the SEF from the Ofsted inspection process for schools. Many saw this as a Very Good Thing.

The SEF had been widely criticised by school leaders for being onerous and bloated so, in a further strike against Gove’s current bĂȘte noire, it has gone the way of other ‘bureaucratic’ hindrances such as Becta and the QCDA. The sound of supermarket-brand Cava corks popping was heard from staff rooms the length and breadth of the land.

A couple of facts which can be easily forgotten in the initial rush of euphoria should be noted though;
Firstly, schools were never actually required to submit and maintain a SEF by Ofsted. Admittedly to pursue this route you had to be pretty gutsy/ have bullet proof exam results.

Secondly, schools still are required to self-evaluate their performance actively as not only is this by far the cheapest way for Ofsted to get close to understanding a school’s performance, it’s also a pretty rewarding process for the school to undergo. Physician, know thyself.

It seems to me that the SEF is a pretty well designed tool for precisely this, one with which schools are very familiar and which has been further sharpened by the knowledge that its more peripheral chunks can now be safely discarded. My advice is to keep the SEF, or at least it’s tenets, at the core of your schools’ self-evaluation process and use it to continue the detailed discovery and evaluation which leads to school improvement.

meeting Image:

And so to Becta’s ICT Self Review Framework, the SRF. Those of you who did battle with this tool in its original incarnation will know whereof I speak when I say that the words ‘repetitive, tedious, tangential and fussy’ don’t come near doing it justice. Luckily for me, it’s a big part of my job so I must have been through it with a dozen schools over possibly hundreds of hours.

However, it has recently been revised (from 8 elements and 72 questions down to a more manageable 6 and 57 respectively) and is infinitely improved. Gone too are the same questions asked in 7 different ways (and so poorly worded that it’s hard to tell what they’re asking). In short, it’s been made user-friendly.

What remains is very useful – a simple framework for a school to examine how it uses technology to be more effective across every aspect of its business. It still requires a considerable and coordinated effort to make judgements about each aspect and provide evidence, but it is unlikely to induce homicidal thoughts towards those well-meaning bureaucrats in Coventry anymore.The future of the SRF is still unknown, though Naace are keen to take it back.

Of course, knowledge gained from the SRF can feed into wider school self-review processes (see above) but by far the most beneficial outcome is a Strategic Development Plan which identifies the gaps and sets out achievable steps to bridge them in the coming 2-3 years. For some reason, it’s this step which many schools falter at. What’s the point in self-review which doesn’t lead to change? That’s just narcissism, surely?
All this reminds me of one of my favourite quotes, which puts the case for self-review with a wonderful clarity;

“To understand is hard. Once one understands, action is easy." Sun Yat-sen

Dominic Norrish
Follow me on Twitter @domnorrish

Friday, 27 August 2010

Immersive language learning through technology

I have been working recently with a centre which is being established for the learning languages which are rarely taught (in the Secondary sector currently, at least) – Russian and Arabic being two examples.

The centre aims to provide a really rich offering for local schools (whose pupils might study there part time) and nationally, for distance learning. One of the guiding principles of the centre is that language learning is easier, more enduring and deeper overall if students can be immersed in the language and culture in question. It’s palpably true even for language dimwits– a weekend in Paris and I’m bonjouring and shrugging disinterestedly with the best of ‘em.

Technology is seen as a key enabler of this immersion and I thought I’d share a couple of the ideas which we’ve been developing with the centre’s staff to hopefully achieve this.

The centre is very keen for visiting learners to have a fun experience and to not feel like they are at ‘school’ (not that those two concepts are mutually exclusive, obviously). For this reason, one of the immersive technologies being developed is a serious game for language learning, set in the rich context of the target language’s native country and based around an engaging mission (for example, arriving in a city and trying to track down a long lost friend, encountering challenges and twists along the way, naturally).

tactical pashtun Image:

The concept is that learners will play the part of the game’s main protagonist and their progress through the game’s challenges will depend on their accurate understanding and use of language, both textual and verbal, through the use of keyboard, mouse and microphone. Other characters will react differently to learners based on the skill with which they speak and their observation of cultural cues. Varying levels of scaffolding will be available for learners (e.g. English language translation of possible responses) and teachers/ peers will be able to play the part of other characters, to offer help to players. Sub-games will build skills/ vocab and a smartphone application may also be spun off from the main game. Similar games have been developed, mostly with military customers in mind, but this FPS will be more First Person Speaker!

There are lots of little immersive touches (such as target-language console games in the student social area and digital room signage which alters to match the right context) but a second ‘big idea’ is the use of digital facades in one of the large spaces to recreate a street scene in which various interactions can take place.
Footage of shop fronts and interiors will be projected onto and around existing architectural features such as the space’s windows to create the illusion of a living street, assisted by various pieces of furniture and props. Fixed discrete cameras and microphones will help learners record evidence of their capability in various scenarios.

QR code Image:

The use of QR codes, and an integrated MS Surface-like product to recognise them, will enable objects to be used creatively by the educators planning uses for the space. For example, at a KS2 level, the activity could be around buying ingredients to produce a local speciality dish. Procuring various tagged food objects being ‘sold’ on the street would be the basis of an extended role-play between learners of different abilities/ adults. Successful interpretation of the recipe, negotiation of the buying process with the various ‘shop keepers’ and placing the full set of items on the smart surface would result in an output from the surface’s screen; instructions on how to prepare the dish, perhaps (which would then move this group’s activity to the centre’s kitchen facilities). Equally, if the output could be a hint on where to find the missing ingredients (and the vocab to use).

The above example is just one that occurs to my (History-teacher-who-covered-the-odd-period-of-French-when-Madame-was-on-a-course) mind; the opportunities to create engaging, collaborative language use scenarios for students of all ages are vast for talented MFL specialists.

The project is still at a relatively early stage, but we’re approaching the point at which we’ll go to market (excuse the unintentional pun) for the ICT solution to deliver the centre’s aspirations. Watch this space for updates!

Dom Norrish
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Monday, 5 July 2010

Back to the Future for Schools?

This afternoon’s announcement by Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Education) of the strange death of Building Schools for the Future, a twitstorm raged across the ether as various educators, architects, technologists and seemingly anyone with an interest in this nation’s future expressed their incredulity at the savagery of the cuts. The DfE’s press release is charmingly titled as an ‘overhaul’, in reality it’s the coup de grace on a programme that was, in truth, just too New Labour to be allowed to survive.

For me, the tweet of the day came from @photocritic : “In 'Back to the Future', Doc sets clock in the DeLorean to a day 25 years in the future. Today is that day.”

This co-incidence of policy and zeitgeist is too sweet to ignore.

In 1985, as Michael J. Fox was portraying the time-travelling Marty McFly on our cinema screens, the UK had;

  • A Conservative government bent on retrenchment and tradition
  • An education system focused on the transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next
  • An economy failing to adapt to the needs of a changing world market
  • A decent national football team

Many things have changed in the interim (well, at least one of those things) but are we any closer to achieving a leading place on the (no longer futuristic) world stage? Are we now well positioned as a nation to provide the next generation of team workers, creative thinkers, collaborative investigators and independent problem-solvers which will characterise the successful economies of the next 25 years?

My personal view is ‘no’. And less so today than yesterday. BSF wasn’t just about school buildings you see, it was about transforming education, it was about producing different outcomes – and this, I feel, was the real target of Gove’s axe. ‘Transformation’ implies change is needed, which is an ideological bridge too far for an Education Secretary on record comparing rote learning of poetry to iPod ownership. Seriously.

BSF’s greatest potential contribution to the UK’s future was in changing what it like to learn at school, providing choice, agency and investment in their education to a swathe of disaffected young people to whom Miss Havisham (Nick Gibb’s barometer of educational success) is an irrelevance, but who nevertheless need to find their place (and a job) in the C21st UK.

£5Bn was saved in a stroke this afternoon, a short-term quick win for a tough-guy Government. The continuing inappropriateness of our education system in the face of technological and global economic reality will cost an awful lot more by the time Back to the Future reaches it’s 50th anniversary, however. Will the Government realise this in time? I doubt it; as Marty McFly says after introducing his parents’ prom dance to Johnny B. Goode “I guess you guys aren't ready for that, yet. But your kids are gonna love it.”

Dom Norrish

Follow me on twitter @domnorrish

Monday, 24 May 2010

Why Becta's demise is a disaster for learning with ICT

The new ConLib government today announced that Becta, the lead agency for ICT in education, is to be scrapped, perhaps as early as November.

I first blogged about this last August, when the sabre-rattling began. What follows is an update to that content:

First up, let me declare an interest; I've worked with several people from Becta 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, this is offered in the spirit of common sense.

The job of  Becta is/ was 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. The pace of this change is the basis for many criticisms of Becta. 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 tool to achieve this, and Becta is doing a pretty good job of pushing schools on this front. It's not fashionable to say it, but I am sure that there are some schools who will take their foot off the gas without this external pressure. The head of steam which has gradually been building will dissipate and progress will stall.

Similarly, working in an industry where it is pretty evident that other organisations are very keen to do things 'their way' (especially if there's a 'saving' to be made), Becta have made themselves fairly unpopular by insisting on a level of standardisation, both technically and in terms of approach. Their guidance on developing visions, for example, ensures that schools think about the full gamut of local and national priorities. Their work on establishing a common framework for MIS data (SIF-UK) will make data transfer between providers effective and timely. Becta's Technical and Functional Specifications have formed the basis for the evolution of many schools' systems. Unless these and similar functions are transferred elsewhere, what we will very quickly see in the Educational ICT Landscape is a return to the 'islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity' situation, as excellent schools continue to excel and those in different circumstances are left to flounder.

Another 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. And this is the nub of the issue; the incumbent government value the latter and barely acknowledge the former.

Stephen Heppell (@stephenheppell) has rightly and pragmatically declared this an opportunity for the "many wise and helpful bloggers and podders and tweeters that are already providing a mass of inspiration and effective practice for others – a bottom-up army of authentic practitioners" to take up the baton. Let's hope their efforts can be shaped effectively by some kind of structure (Naace perhaps?) and pointed towards the Greater Good, rather than personal hobby horses. Most importantly, any ground-up, crowd-sourced approach has to be adequately separated from the distracting attentions of suppliers and other commercially interested organisations... You know who you are!

Follow me on Twitter @domnorrish

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Is there any more of that BSF left?

Following on from my wild pre-election speculation about the future of BSF under a Conservative Government, the events of the last few days have led to Michael Gove becoming the Secretary of State for Education.

It is my opinion that Building Schools for the Future is a Good Thing. I'm sure things about it could be improved, but it's pretty hard to argue against the fundamental tenets of the programme (it's all in the title really). However, it wasn't the Conservatives' idea and apparently in politics this can be a problem.

If you are in any way involved in a BSF project, you may wonder what this means for you. Well wonder no longer, as I have put together a brief, equally speculative and definitely light-hearted


Take the quiz, find out what you could have won!

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Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Integrating ICT into a new build school (Part 3)

This series of blogs draws on my experience from various single-school and BSF new build projects in the UK over the past few years, the aggregated lesson of which is that many, if not all problems related to ICT can be easily overcome if identified and planned for at the outset. The inverse of this is sadly equally true - show me a design team which has failed to consider integration issues and I'll show you a 'new old school' which will transform very little about its students' education. There is a reason why on any Risk Register for ICT you will find, right at the top, next to a big red flag, a risk labelled 'Integration with Design'...


This week, dear reader, it’s the ever-enthralling topic of… integrating legacy stuff! Hang on in there though, as this is every bit as important as the shiny new kit.

Legacy Hardware

As the majority of new build schools are replacing a predecessor (and sometimes one whose buildings which will be providing interim facilities), it is probable, and a financially attractive proposition, that a proportion of the technology in use in the old school will require integration into the ICT solution in the new building.


The first thing to realise is that legacy kit may not necessarily translate into savings - there are always costs associated with the the integration of legacy into a new ICT solution (and its maintenance thereafter).

Legacy equipment and services;
•    may not be under warranty;
•    carry an increased risk of failure;
•    will require integration with new systems, which will have associated costs;
•    may not represent the best product currently available.

This isn’t to say that everything the school is currently using needs to be junked, just that schools should develop a sensible legacy protocol to sort existing kit based on the level of risk it represents;

•    Establish basic standards for devices which will connect to the network (e.g. 10/100 Networking)
•    Set a minimum specification for staff and student computers to be retained (e.g. meeting Windows 7 requirements)
•    Decide an age limit for each device type at which equipment might reasonably be judged too high a risk for inclusion within the solution
•    Identify legacy kit which can be used with minimal risk until it fails (e.g. peripherals such as voting devices, digital signage screens)
•    Ascertain if any legacy equipment not suitable for live deployment might provide cold spares during repairs (e.g. laptops) and redundancy for single points of failure within the system (e.g. switches), or even have a future with new owner, via eBay or similar

The worst thing that can happen is for capital savings to be made (e.g. buying less stuff and making use of inappropriate legacy) which end up costing the school more in the long run and impacting on what they can do with their revenue funding.

Legacy Software

Integration of legacy software can also carry hidden costs if the predecessor school was under-licensed or cannot, um, evidence its licenses, as the ICT integrator has a legal responsibility to only install licensed products. Put simply, if you can’t prove you own it, the supplier won’t touch it.

Up-licensing can be very expensive, especially if you ask teachers which legacy software is essential: the only answer I’ve ever heard is that it’s all essential. Use of an intelligent discovery agent programme to audit actual software use is recommended, to rationalise/ validate the requests of staff for the integration of legacy software. Often it’s a simple financial argument which moves thinking forward: choose between spending £10k virtualising that ‘must-have’ piece of 16-bit times table software, or spend £2k licensing something produced last year which will actually engage the students and do a much better job…It is often the case that the functionality of a valued legacy programme has been matched or surpassed, for a lower cost.

Some new build schools (such as Academies) open as a ‘new business’, meaning that many of their software licenses will become invalid and require repurchasing. This is of particular relevance in the area of Management Information Systems (MIS). If you’re being legally forced to spend £30-50k on a ‘new’ MIS, why plump for the one you’ve always had, just because you’ve always had it, with no further thought? This is an opportunity seldom given schools – the chance to really consider what you want your MIS to do and to pick one which delivers, freed from the ties that bind. Of course, the market-leader didn’t get there by accident and in this era of 14-19, the decision won’t only be about the needs of a single institution, but schools really should think about their requirements in this area just as they would for any other element of their ICT provision.

So, lots of things to think about in relation to legacy but if I had to boil it down to a single sentence of advice, it would be this: consider legacy kit and software just as carefully as you will the shiny new boxes (with blue neon blinking LEDs, naturally) which glitter so alluringly from the pages of suppliers’ catalogues…

Dominic Norrish
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Monday, 29 March 2010

Integrating ICT into a new build school (Part 2)

This series of blogs draws on my experience from various single-school and BSF new build projects in the UK over the past few years, the aggregated lesson of which is that many, if not all problems related to ICT can be easily overcome if identified and planned for at the outset. The inverse of this is sadly equally true - show me a design team which has failed to consider integration issues and I'll show you a 'new old school' which will transform very little about its students' education. There is a reason why on any Risk Register for ICT you will find, right at the top, next to a big red flag, a risk labelled 'Integration with Design'...
In a previous blog in this series we covered integration with design, specifically making sure you have thought through the spaces required to enable ICT to work properly and to be accessed flexibly. This time, it's integration with third parties:

I know what you're thinking, but such are the times we live in, so we may as well make sure it's not a total waste of money...

CCTV is typically provided outside the ICT contract and will be provided and specified between the Mechanical & Electrical people and the Builder. However, value for money as well as environmental and ongoing sustainability can be enhanced if the CCTV system makes use of the ICT structured network, rather than a proprietary cabling system or even (yes, it does happen) a separate IP network.

Liaison between those specifying the CCTV and those specifying the network infrastructure is required as early as possible. This is to identify the location and quantity of the necessary Power over Ethernet (PoE) network points and associated active networking equipment. The joy of PoE is the fact that it removes the need for small power - many CCTV cameras can draw the electricity they require straight down the same network cable they are using to send and receive data. This means that you can stick a PoE device (in this case a CCTV camera) anywhere where there is a PoE cable - and that's pretty handy in terms of future flexibility. The flip side is that switches capable of serving PoE devices cost more and this is bound to be a bone of contention - who should pay for the infrastructure to support CCTV? Should it be allowed to reduce the money available for student equipment? The answer seems stunningly obvious to me, but there is often fun to be had before various budget holders agree on it.

The location of cameras needs discussion, as this obviously has a knock on effect for the number of PoE switches needed. A good compromise, if future requirements cannot be accurately foreseen (imagine that!), is to provision a number of PoE outlets in likely spots or places which no-one can seem to agree on, but not to make them live (i.e. don't buy the switch to plug them into yet). This means there will be some future flexibility without too much initial outlay.

Access control
Electronic access control throughout a school has the potential to provide a token or biometric-based, secure and sustainable access strategy with layers of privileges based on role (e.g. student, 6th former, community user, teacher, site agent) - imagine no keys and a school which intelligently knows who should be able to get into each space. This principle can be extended beyond doors too - Lapsafe offer a pretty cool access-controlled laptop store, and things like the staff car park barrier can also be integrated into the solution. However, access control also has the potential to be prohibitively expensive if not intelligently designed in to the building/ grounds at the planning stage.

Schools are well advised to consider in detail a design which will allow their building to be zoned, permitting the easy and efficient locking down of areas when not in use, sparing the expense of mechanical locks and card/ biometric readers on every door. In a zoned school, only key doors are accessed controlled, reducing costs and enabling the school to focus money ensuring that certain important shared resources (e.g. laptop storage rooms, staff workrooms) are electronically accessed controlled, giving open access to these resources to whoever needs them, rather than who happens to have cajoled a key out of the caretaker. Failing to go through this thinking process this at the design stage an (in my experience) only results in one thing - access control is deemed too expensive and is removed or watered right down (e.g. only the front door or a separate system, not linked to the cards/ biometric tokens being used for other things like cashless catering).

Similarly to CCTV (above), Access Control can utilise of the structured network for cost savings and flexibility. Equally similarly though, the implications of increased PoE switching must not be allowed to detract from the educational impact of the ICT budget.

For both technologies, if the IP network is down or slow, so are the CCTV & Access Control. Who is accountable for designing/ configuring/ testing this aspect of the service and who takes the penalties for poor performance? These matters need to be discussed and understood by all parties.

Next (and last) time: legacy, cabling, M&E and FF&E

Dominic Norrish. Follow me on Twitter

Thursday, 4 March 2010

The future of BSF under a Conservative administration?

Whilst recent weeks have seen plenty of speculation on the future of the world's largest school rebuilding programme in the event of a Conservative government, facts have been rather harder to come by.

Nick Gibb (shadow schools' minister) has come closest to letting the cat out of the bag during a couple of relatively low-key events, but the people who actually know the answer (Dave C and Mike G) are keeping their cards closer to their more experienced chests. Bob Harrison's coverage on Merlin John's website of Gibb's statements can be read here and here.

Personally, however, I'm not convinced the Tories will dismantle BSF, for a number of reasons;

  • Firstly, Gibb's statements have the ring of politicking about them - sabre-rattling without actually making any commitments or stating a policy position. I mean, the guy has got to say something, and "our policies are essentially the same as Labour's" doesn't sound that impressive, however accurate. Someone who really ought to know the truth recently told me that Gibb may have been 'off message' on this one. Indeed, one of his statements last week reveals a lot about his role in the decision making process; "I'm not shadow chancellor, and shadow ministers are told on pain of death not to make spending promises".
  • I'm not the shadow chancellor either, but I do know that one of the things even inexperienced administrations don't do in tough economic times is cut spending on public works as it only makes things worse, with unemployment jumping as (in this case) thousands of builders find themselves out of work. Ally this to the somewhat cynical view that the big building companies and core Tory support have, er, aligned interests, and a dramatic slash and burn policy seems even remoter.
  • Michael Gove has been quite clear on some of the targets of his axe - the National Programme for IT in the NHS and quangos such as Becta for example, but no mention has been made of BSF. If the programme was actually on the blacklist, I would have expected far more political capital to have been made from its high-profile 'failures' over recent months. 
What seems much more likely is a reshaping of the programme along Conservative lines. In my opinion, BSF under the Tories might look like this;

  • Sped up - a money saving tactic, which carries the risk of inappropriate/ broken outcomes. In my experience, unfortunately, it's the lack of time which detracts from projects' success even under the current time scales.
  • Slimmed down - in order to achieve the time savings above. The obvious way of doing this is to shorten the procurement process, and one route might be to remove choice and variety - school designs could be standardised and the 'architectural vanity projects' which seem to be the real focus of much of BSF would disappear. Expect many more refurbs and reuse of commercial properties, with far, far fewer new buildings.
  • Regionally delivered - this fits closely with a Conservative philosophy which militates against big government and as Nick Gibb said, the centrally planned nature of the programme "works against the direction we want to go in". PfS don't seem unduly worried right now, so perhaps a reshaped administration is possible?
  • Less emphasis on transformation - the very word implies that something is wrong with the way things are done, which isn't necessarily how Cameron et al see it. The emphasis may well be on, in their own phrase, 'benefits realisation' which roughly translates as 'better not different'. This is obviously worrying to anyone who actually knows anything about education in this country. The Conservative view has historically been backwards looking, which leads me to the final change...
  • Minus the 10% ICT investment - many commentators in the Twitterverse and Blogosphere have noted that the Conservatives don't 'get' the need for education to use technology, much less the fundamental change implied by putting students in control of their learning through ICT. It's a quick win, an easy way to speed up and slim down the process (removing the need for consortia of builders and ICT suppliers) and much less likely to result in lower tax receipts due to unemployment. It's also the only change which would pose a genuine threat to this country's long term economic security. Worryingly short sighted.
These are just my personal opinions; it will be interesting to see how they pan out over the next few months, should the Conservatives manage to rejuvenate their currently shrinking lead, of course...

Dominic Norrish
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Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Integrating ICT into a new build school (Part 1)

This series of blogs draws on my experience from various single-school and BSF new build projects in the UK over the past few years, the aggregated lesson of which is that many, if not all problems related to ICT can be easily overcome if identified and planned for at the outset. The inverse of this is sadly equally true - show me a design team which has failed to consider integration issues and I'll show you a 'new old school' which will transform very little about its students' education. There is a reason why on any Risk Register for ICT you will find, right at the top, next to a big red flag, a risk labelled 'Integration with Design'...


Integration of ICT with the Design
Lessons learned from previous new build projects recommend consideration of how ICT will impact on the building at the earliest opportunity to facilitate the accurate capturing of requirements in the architects’ Design Brief.

Unfortunately, I have worked on too many projects where this advice was only brought on board relatively late in the design process, the upshot of which being that decisions and assumptions had been made, many of which were incorrect or did not reflect what the school's staff and students actually wanted to do in the spaces concerned.

Schools' voice in this process is surprisingly small and can be drowned out by those of the 'design professionals' - the architect, builder, mechanical and electrical people - and perhaps we shouldn't be shocked that the Headteacher or Deputy leading the project for their school is guided by these professionals. The thing to remember is that rarely do they have any firm grasp of what a C21st school should be like - this is the main thing school staff must repeatedly and loudly champion in the design process.

A lack of educational thinking becomes a real problem if the build contract is let without considering technology integration. If the builder has provided a price based on a set of requirements, it is understandable that they will robustly resist attempts to add items to the list without the budget rising commensurately, and this is essentially what happens if full consideration of ICT has not taken place prior to the main contract's tender.

An example would be if the builder had priced for every power and network point to be delivered via dado trunking on the walls (a common assumption - it's how it's done in many other sectors), only to be told a couple of months down the line that the school's requirement for flexible learning spaces means power and data needs to be served through floor boxes. In this scenario, only one thing happens, in my experience: the school is forced to curb its ambitions. It's labelled as a compromise. What it actually amounts to is poor project management leading to a constraint on the education of generations of students who will have to use this hobbled building.

So, with that cautionary tale in mind, let's look at three of the key areas to consider:

Server and Hub spaces
The quantity, sizing, construction materials, operational use, location, power supply and air conditioning of spaces to house server and edge network equipment requires specialist technical advice as mistakes or oversights at the design stage can inflict serious and ongoing risks to the school’s ICT service. Get this wrong (and I've seen them placed next to toilets and in damp basements) and a lifetime of network fragility beckons. Cable run lengths are pertinent here too, with 90m being the accepted technical limit for copper network cables. For example, your most distant outpost of the wired network (e.g. an external Wireless Access Point on the building's external wall) must be within 90m of a hub room. Obvious stuff, but often not fully thought through, resulting in genuine questions such as "What did you want wireless coverage outside for anyway?"

Shared technology spaces
The need to design-in open access areas for shared resources is critical. This provision can range from simple breakout spaces for groups, capable of hosting/ storing printers, cameras etc., to full plaza-style technology- heavy rooms with fixed and mobile devices, providing computing services for up to 90 students. The concept remains the same; local, open access to centralised resources reducing the need to duplicate provision in every classroom, promoting sustainability and optimal utilisation. The alternative to not thinking about this? ICT suites with 30 PCs around the periphery...

Without adequate provision for, e.g. a place to site shared printers, the inevitable result will be that users of every separate room will perceive a need for a local device; hardly an affordable or sustainable solution. Essentially, schools need to ask themselves questions about how spaces will be used; What kind of activities using technology might take place here? What happens once 300 students start concurrently using their iPhones in here in 3 years time? How many computers will need a wired connection to the network in this space? The answers to all of these questions (and more) have serious implications, e.g. for the quantity and location of network cables.

Mobile Device storage
School-owned mobile devices of some description are likely to form the core of flexible provision to computing resources in the medium term. These devices will need to be stored securely, especially if parts of the building will be open after hours and used by members of the community. Of equal importance is the need to charge devices without the resultant heat impacting on learning environments. Both requirements suggest the consideration at the design stage of defined charging spaces capable of being securely isolated from general access and mechanically ventilated. The result of not designing such storage in? 'Shared' technologies which actually never leave their host classroom, creating silos of good practice at best.

It's not all doom and gloom, thankfully. Most projects I have worked on have taken the time (or taken on the capacity) to take this step back and ensure that the building is designed around the collective experience of the  leaders, teachers and students who already know what its like to use technology in schools not designed to accommodate it.


Next time; CCTV and Access Control - how to save money and actually get the provision you want

Dominic Norrish
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Friday, 29 January 2010

Why innovation in education will remain an extreme sport

Reading Becta's Impact of Digital Technology paper from the end of last year I was struck by agency's use of the phrase "educational leviathan" (p21), a very refreshing if resigned admission that within this sector, pushing for change is exhaustingly slow and additional levers are needed. Or as Roy Scheider would have said, "We're gonna need a bigger boat".

It's not just that change leadership/ innovation is tough and lonely - it's dangerous too, with the hunter just as likely to become the hunted. Becta's report goes on to explain why we often see only small changes which “fossilise practice” (e.g. Interactive Whiteboards; technology bending to fit schools, in Heppell's phrase) due to the risk of innovation.

Being risk averse is no surprise if you are under constant psychological attack; from the students who are quick to label your teaching boring; the colleague whose lessons always sound disconcertingly fantastic through the wall; from parents who – having been to school themselves – are naturally experts in the field; and principally from an inspectorate which is ready at a moment’s notice (well, 2-5 days anyway) to grasp any teachers’ self respect and confidence and run it through with a demonic trident labelled ‘satisfactory’. Ok, that was a little over the top, but it’s only been three years and I'm still incensed by it.

Such are the internal and external attacks levelled against anything that challenges the orthodoxy in education, an abundance of confidence is needed to innovate, which is why innovators may occasionally come across as self-publicising and just a little bit pleased with themselves. The pressures of the education system do not breed self-deprecating innovators, so we shouldn't be surprised or (too) homicidal if they use Twitter to remind the world hourly of their total awesomeness. Back on point, however, I suspect that we won't see widespread innovation or even acceptance of change whilst the system retains top-down measures of effectiveness and a big stick approach to 'failing' schools.

This paragraph contains a series of massive generalisations and for any teachers reading, I exclude *you* from what follows, naturally, but it must be said... teachers are also one of the great conservative forces in education and it is the drag factor of the current workforce which holds back many innovations. Psychologically speaking, most teachers’ entire career has been a series of daily re-enforcements to the message that they are in charge. 4 years of university and many more in practice have served to underline their self-image of ‘the sage on the stage’. These are the bricks and mortar of the defensive walls we as teachers have gradually erected to protect ourselves from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (in case your Hamlet is rusty, that was Shakespeare describing Ofsted). Technology, particularly the social kind, is massively threatening to this world view. The resistance we often see in schools towards change is a powerful, ego-protecting mechanism which is neither easily or quickly overcome.

This superb short video ridiculing people's attitude to change may seem like a farcical extreme, but it echoes for me the fear-induced or ego-preserving comments made in hundreds of staff meetings I've attended. Its message is clearly Darwinian though - adapt or perish. I remember thinking on entering the profession that it was probably the most mechanisation-proof career in the world - after all, who'd entrust their child's education to a machine - but just look at 2035 in the frankly scary education futures timeline for a revised view on that!

So, in a landscape where the castle is under siege from without by a vicious collation of enemies and its defenders are too busy frantically pushing away scaling ladders to investigate the possibilities offered by gun powder, it would seem that the cause of change and innovation is hopelessly futile. Prior to my current role, I was a deputy headteacher for four years which involved an awful lot of the management of others and here's a quote from my favourite management book which articulates quite how risky being innovative is:

"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them."
Niccolo Machiavelli, 'The Prince', Chapter VI

Despair not, there is an answer, but as always in education, you're probably not going to like it; Change has to begin in the local context and requires gifted leadership by charismatic people willing to put in a great deal of hard work over a number of years, all of it in the face of opposition. Change Management is every bit as logistical and process-based a challenge as something like building a new school is, but it never seems to attract the same attention or even a fraction of the funding; there's something which can easily be addressed at a national level.

Dominic Norrish. Follow me on Twitter

Monday, 4 January 2010

A Managed Service metaphor

I often work with schools in the early stages of BSF and one of the important messages to get across is that the ICT Managed Service does not have to be a top-down imposition but, if schools engage fully in the process, can be shaped to suit their needs through a high quality Output Specification.

To paraphrase PfS' Steve Moss at a recent NAACE event, no matter what you think of ICT Managed Services in BSF, they aren't going away anytime soon, so let's focus on making the approach work really well for schools.

When talking to (understandably) sceptical heads and other school staff, I find it helpful to use an example from my 'real life' to illustrate how the MS can be defined and provide real benefits. This is because I have recently opted to take a Managed approach to my requirements for a car Service, and for the same reasons schools are encouraged to.

Rather than buying a car as a capital investment, I have (like many others these days) entered into what is effectively a Managed Service contract with the supplier, under which they provide the car, service it and fix it and give me a replacement if it breaks down; effectively it belongs to them, as does the all the risk. My responsibilities include not damaging it, keeping under an agreed mileage and paying a fixed, monthly fee, for which I get to drive it places.

Unsurprisingly, as the customer, I had a choice in the spec of the car I would receive rather than being given the same thing that the supplier gives to everyone, and it was the same level of choice that a cash-purchaser would have. Schools have exactly this agency in the BSF process, and the Managed Service needs to be understood as the outcome of the SfC and Output Specification documents, rather than being a generic and monolithic slab of inappropriate IT.

Prior to this experience, I've 'fully' owned cars and for various reasons, not done terribly well out of the deal, having to assume the entire risk for their management and maintenance. I cannot maintain my own car and I neither want to or see why I should have to. My interest in the automobile is limited to its affordances (it gets me places quickly and in relative comfort/ solitude) rather than how it works. My understanding of the internal combustion engine begins and ends with the fact that it makes petrol explode in some cleverly controlled fashion, which spins the spinny bit and makes the wheels move. But that's fine; I don't need to know any more than this, my expertise is directed entirely towards driving the thing without incident.

Such should also be the case with schools' ICT systems. I cannot think of many other medium sized businesses (say an hotel, for example) which are so intricately involved in the technical management of the ICT they use, with all the risk of failure that this carries. A Managed Service provides a system which is contractually guaranteed to work as requested, and should allow school leaders and teachers to focus all of their ICT-thinking on what to do with the technology, not how to get and keep it working.

The perception that a Managed Service ties the user's hands should also be challenged. True, if I decide I want to suddenly upgrade my VW Fox for an Alfa Romeo Spider, there may be a small implication for my monthly revenue cost but BSF Managed Service contracts are evolving to remove restraints and are much more flexible. For instance, it is now common for the contract to be structured in such a way that schools wishing to try something new and innovative (previously a big no-no for MSPs, who would be responsible for making it work) can agree with the ICT provider to effectively 'switch off' parts of the ICT contract while the trial takes place. The upshot of this is that schools aren't restricted to the technology specified at the start of the contract and MSPs aren't penalised for allowing this experimentation.

The elephant in the room of course is that even the most advantageous and appropriate Managed Service cannot itself transform how ICT is actually used by schools. The fact that I chose to drive my Managed Service car only between my house and Tescos is not the fault of the car but of the driver's vision. This issue is well understood by PfS and a greater (funded) emphasis on the (visioning) SfC stage and the (making it happen) Change Management aspect was recently recommended by the recent Beyond Buildings inquiry.

To sum up, Managed ICT Services can work for schools, the secret is to get in and drive the process. Here endeth the tenuous metaphor.

Dominic Norrish
Follow me on Twitter @domnorrish