Schools, colleges and university are just some of the places where learning takes place but school kids and students can spend a lot of their time in these spaces. There are other places where people learn, some through doing courses at work or online or even learning from others around them in all sorts of situations. The posts here are about learning spaces, writings about learning and technology and thoughts and ideas about all of these.

Technology alone cannot deliver outstanding schools, people do that. However, if you put technology in the hands of creative risk takers, whether they are teachers or the school leadership team then it can have a major impact on the delivery of the curriculum, the engagement of learners and parents and the effectiveness of a school.

It really is not about finding the killer application or the right bit of content, its about a blend of the different factors that come together to creating stimulating and challenging learning environments. 

In the years I have been supporting schools, too long to admit to, I have seen huge impact in situations where the teacher has limited resources but a creative spark that converts the mundane into a vibrant classroom. I have also seen thousands of UK pounds spent on a product or service that someone deems to be the ‘must have’ service or application only to find that after a while its use and impact withers and eventually is forgotten. 

All of this would suggest that the most significant factor in the adoption of technology in a school is the willingness of staff and pupils to make use of it. The strategy for change management is much more important that the technology itself as the latter is easily obtained and the former is often largely ignored or left to an individual in a school to deliver. 

So what do you need for successful ICT implementation across a school? 
Firstly a leadership team and headteacher who encourage innovation. This does not mean that they take their eye of the issue of standards but does mean that any idea must prove itself if is is to be sustained - the space for the teacher to generate the proof is what the school leadership can encourage and support. 
Second, the teacher needs to be supported in their endeavour and the measures of impact need to be a wider than simply acquisition of knowledge. In many instances the impact is actually more about how learners are encouraged to learn than the learning itself - clarity around what outcomes could be expected from any particular innovation or idea needs to come from the teacher. Doing something because ‘it might be interesting’ is not really good enough in the modern target driven school.
Third is the dissemination of the impact of the particular innovation and the support given to that dissemination by senior leaders and fourth would be the much greater level of support other staff will need to adopt the approach for themselves.

I visited a school in Quebec some years ago where the head teacher had established a ‘learning innovation fund’ which teachers could bid into for funding to support an project or approach which had a direct impact on learning. Bids were evaluated and projects from the very small to the whole school were considered. Each project was supported by a member of the leadership team and once the project had run its planned course the outcomes or impact were shared with the staff during an innovation day. Those that wished to follow up ideas were given time for training and were supported by the teacher who originated the idea. 

The impact could be felt as you went around the school. Teachers felt that they could contribute to the development of their school and their ideas would be given due consideration. Very few schools I know have adopted anything like this as an approach to staff development is such a systematic way as we always seem to want very short term returns. 

 "If you are not willing to risk the unusual 
you will have to settle for ordinary"

Jim Rohn

I was going to call this piece 'Teachers' - Gatekeepers or Keyholders?' the role of the teacher is critical in fostering learning and we all have had experiences of good and bad teachers in our school lives.

Some years ago I did some work for local schools to create a single sign-on system to allow schools to access a wide range of free and purchased e-learning content from a number of different suppliers.

The idea was to provide access to a wide range of learning resources for use at home and and at school which was always available. Interestingly some of the materials that schools bought were provided as content services covering a number of subjects.

Some months into the project I did some surveys of how the service was being used by speaking to students and teachers in some of our High schools. Pupils reported that they found some of the materials very helpful in clarifying or explaining things they had covered in class. Others said that they were able to look up other things they were interested in. Teachers were far less enthusiastic. Some said they hadn't promoted the content related to their subject as they didn't like it or it didn't explain topics in they way they wanted things explained. More worrying was the comment that they didn't want content made available for topics coming up in the future as it may 'spoil their lessons'!

What were were attempting to do was tap into the huge resource that is out on the net to support learning drawing on as many services as possible to increase the range and type of material available to young people.

The system we put together was based on the Shibboleth authentication and it worked very well - we ended up with more than 40 commercial services and some free content linked into the system but our real goal was to tap into the growing number of learning repositories around the world. Much of the work being done is focussed on university level students but a number of repositories also explore and index content for school age children.

One of the first we looked at was the Merlot repository which contains a large number of peer reviews materials including simulations, presentations, text materials and apps for mobile devices. Merlot allows integration with other search systems and the aim was to develop the search side of the system to allow pupils and teachers to access the materials they needed to support their learning or to use in their teaching. The potential is huge and the number of repositories has grown over the years, some specifically aimed at the younger students. A visit to any one of these repositories is well worth it - spend a little while there rather than dipping in - go to iTunes U and take a look at the awesome materials that are available there - again well worth an hour or two of your time.

So why is it that we are not all accessing learning where and when we need it? - why is it that these fabulous materials are not used across the world to support teaching and learning on a daily basis? How come that when you speak to almost any teacher they have never heard of them?

There are probably too many reasons to list but for me the main ones are:

1. Teachers are fixed in the way they work and teach - many do innovate but the critical mass of innovators in any particular school to change to way we learn and teach has not been reached. If something takes a bit more effort to do than their existing ways of doing things it tends not to be adopted.

2. Content is still difficult to locate and it means that teachers have to search for just the resource they regard as 'valuable' before they build it into their teaching. There is no common standard for indexing materials so you have to navigate each repository rather than being able aggregate many of them and carry out a single search.

3. Authentication into some of these services is not easy to automate so you end up registering with multiple sites and that involved too much fiddling about to get at the resources you need

4. Peer review is powerful, in that it establishes a 'value' placed on the resource by other practitioners. Trouble is there is no standard and no real match between the teaching you may do as a teacher and the reviewers

There are others but the potential is huge and the quality and range of resources is impressive and all given away free by educators. Once we have cracked the indexing, searching and access issues, the opportunities for personalised and independent learning would expand rapidly. Teachers would have access to a wealth of materials to promote the learning of their subject and students would have control of their learning. Institutions and formal learning would still be a key component of education systems around the world - I'm not a de-schooler, but the focus could become more individualised and to a degree paced for each learner.

It may be a vision for the future we never achieve but having a direction of travel is important and there are many that share the vision and are working hard to achieve it.

There has been a tremendous amount of discussion world wide about some of the potential risks for young people online and plenty of dreadful stories where vulnerable young people have committed suicide, engaged in terrorist related activity or have been targeted by paedophiles. There is also a tremendous amount about the potential of the internet to support learning or even raise educational attainment although the latter is the subject of much debate. (OECD Report 2015)

Whatever the positive and negatives there are about being online it is clear that the world is not suddenly going to change - young people spend a lot of time online; its not easy to find youngsters without a mobile phone in their hand even when they are not actually making a call or sending a text. We are in a 'just in case' scenario these days - having to have the phone handy 'just in case' some critical (or trivial) bit of information arrives.

Schools have largely led the way regarding internet safety education or information literacy and some have striven to support parents and families though training sessions, e-safety days or other information hosted on the school web site. Mobile phone companies in the UK now restrict access to certain types of sites unless you can prove you are over 18 by holding a credit card. There are also bills going through the UK parliament to try to address some of the issues arising from a largely uncontrolled and ungoverned internet. (UK Online Safety Bill 2015-16) 

All this activity along with all of the discussion that takes place does not stop the tide of abuse, exploitation or manipulation that can occur when the vulnerable are targeted online.

There are some enlightened schools that have tried a different tack. I once visited a school in Quebec, Canada and discovered that they did not filter internet traffic as many schools do. the approach was to create an online experience much the same as they had at home so there was the potential for all sorts of unsavoury material appearing on web browsers etc. The school worked with its parents on the policy and the behaviours that were encouraged at school where adopted int he home. This is an approach I have never seen anywhere else. Most UK schools filter content in a highly controlled way and as a result create a safe but unrealistic experience for young people.

Such school/parental partnerships as the school in Quebec are rare and in the majority of cases the unguarded spaces are in the home. There have been numerous reports of children online in their bedroom and parents have no idea what they are doing.

Some parents use free filtering products such as K9 Web Protection or other such filter products which allow control of access on a single computer - some also have reporting back to parents.

An alternative to filtering is monitoring. Here the idea is to allow things to be viewed or to allow interaction but to know what is going on. This takes more effort but is potentially much more rewarding as it allows for discussion and debate about appropriate behaviours, the risks and how to deal with them.

Many schools have monitoring systems in place although I get the feeling that it is used as an adjunct to filtering rather than as a educative tool.

Norton Family is a product that encourages discussion within the family about the use of the internet and it allows for those agreed policies to be monitored and reported on. Everyone should ideally be involved in setting up the house rules which then governs how the internet is monitored and what is reported. The great thing is that it also works on mobile devices and tablets. It also reports if the monitor has been disabled or switched off. Norman have summerized the functions in this video - well worth considering and the basic service is free to use with paid for add-ons if they are needed.

Note: I have no connection with Symantic or this service and gain no 
benefit in any way from mentioning it.

Whatever happens to the internet over the coming years it is clear that it will become more and more intertwined with our lives and educating our children on the risks and ways to stay safe are vital. That said we need families to become more net aware and parents to take more interest in what their children are doing online - its more about share not scare i.e. making the internet part of a balanced family life rather than trying to scare our kids away from it.

November Revisted -

Many years ago now I was fortunate to visit the Alan November conference in Boston and enjoyed a few days with like minded people who thought there was something still not quite right about the education systems on most Western Countries. It may well be that this view is more widely spread but those at the conference were predominantly from the USA, Europe and other western democracies.

The world has changed a lot since that visit but many education systems, certainly in the UK, appear to have gone backwards. A few years ago the UK was regarded as one of the leading countries exploring the potential of technology to transform learning,  that is certainly not the view now. Other countries are pushing ahead, exploring new approaches and recognising that young people are in a very different world from the one that saw the introduction of mass education. 

In 2007 I spoke to two university professors attending an event in the locality and my first question was whether we were turning out the sort of students that their research programmes required - the immediate answer was 'no'.

In this insightful video Alan revisits his main argument, that we need to radically rethink our approach to education in a technological age. He rightly comments on the fact that training a teacher to use technology is only the tip of the iceberg and that shifting the focus of control in the classroom  to become more learner centric is a much greater challenge. 

It is certainly true that for some students school is an ideal experience, but for many they do not flourish and develop their potential until they move out into college, university or work. We all know of children in Primary schools that suddenly lose their enthusiasm for learning when they move into the high school. Some schools do make major efforts to create the sort of learning environment in which individuals flourish but I have yet to see very many classrooms, let alone schools, where technology is used to stimulate, engage and aid collaboration and communication. There are bits of these in a lot of schools and usually where specific teachers have a vision for using technology ineffective and engaging ways.The trouble in many such schools is that once a creative and innovative teacher leaves then the innovation they brought in often withers and dies.

Alan might be fighting a cause that can never be won but it is a battle worth fighting.

Open Source - Why not!

I have had a lot of discussions with schools in my area over the years about the use of Open Source software (OSS) knowing that the range of software tools available continues to grow as communities of developers build and share their work. 

While it has been relatively easy to find schools that have used the odd open source software package such as Open Office or Seashore it has been far more difficult to find a school that has gone much further and are using OSS tools for admin, pupil management and within the curriculum.  

The old arguments always seem come up - 'its not industry standard' or 'it may be free but it is costly to support' or 'we have had a look at using open source but staff and parental pressure has made it impossible to change'.
Many of the arguments put forward for adopting OSS solutions are financial ones. The fact that the software is free to use could save a school or college significant sums of money which could be used for other things.
There have also been a number of reports generated by various education organisations and governments seeking to explore the use of Open Source Software for Education. In the UK an organisation called BECTa (British Educational Communication and Technology Agency - now closed down) undertook an in depth research study on the potential use of OSS software. Their report entitled:
'Open source software in schools: A study of the spectrum of use and related ICT infrastructure costs' 

set out to explore the cost benefit of using OSS and demonstrated that savings could be made but that there were issues about the lack of curriculum specific software (something that was prevalent at the time in the UK with software to help deliver the National Curriculum). The report indicated that the take up of OSS solutions were affected by the perceptions of staff and that training issues might mean that it would be timely and expensive to move staff from one approach to a more OSS rich set or resources. Administrative staff were reported to be lukewarm about the use of OSS due to its inability to integrate or inter operate with already existing systems. 
Looking elsewhere in the world a typical example of the type of research is the paper published in International Journal of Education and Development using Information and Communication Technology (IJEDICT), 2013, Vol. 9, Issue 2, pp. 64-84 which was written by researchers in South Africa looking at the potential of OSS in Western Cape Schools. In this report the same issues emerge, integration or compatibility with other systems is seen as a barrier as does training of staff.  
In both reports the pre-existing situation had a much greater impact than any the actual quality or effectiveness of OSS solutions. the barriers seem to be more about integrating with existing products or services or the effort needed to re-train or try a different approach.
In my search for a school that has gone further than most with open source software I discovered  Albany Senior High School in Auckland, New Zealand and their decision to explore the full potential for OS in schools was driven by an educational vision and not by a financial argument. Albany's WikiEducator pages make interesting reading and they set out five key educational arguments for their approach with Open Source Tools. The page also lists the tools they use, which includes some that have been put together by students for use within the school.
Hamish Chalmers is Deputy Principal at Albany Senior High School now responsible for the continued development of their OSS approach building on work done by a former colleague who has now moved on to another post. The fact that the use of OSS continues at Albany pays tribute to the fact that its use has now become embedded in the school and unlike many projects I have witnessed elsewhere disappears when the person who began it is no longer around.
Hamish kindly agreed to speak to me via Skype about their approach and some of the issues that have encountered along their developmental journey with OSS.