Google Apps after 6 weeks: the why and the how

Google Apps after 6 weeks.mp4
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We launched our Google Apps for Education account 6 weeks ago. Staff and students have been using it increasingly over this time, although there’s still a long way to go. This video helps to explain what I think about VLEs in primary schools, why Google Apps is a good choice and some of the ways we are beginning to use it.

How Learning Platforms could become the new ‘worksheet’

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I was adding some maths games to my school’s Google Apps domain the other day when suddenly a warning bell went off in my mind. What if I was filling up the learning platform with so much stuff, it would detract from the relationships between the adult and the child?

 

Let me explain myself a little.

 

I’ve been doing some research on the use of social media in maths learning and what I’ve found is that social media can be used to promote ‘negotiated scaffolding’. Some people call this co-construction. It’s a pedagogy that fits within the realm of ‘social constructivism’. What I also found is that most primary (elementary) children are exposed to mainly ‘rigid scaffolding‘. Now I have to admit at this point that I’m not completely clued up as to where a pedagogy starts and a teaching strategy starts, but suffice it to say that in my own teaching I’m a social constructivist who’s good at making connections between ideas. I use two main strategies: negotiated and rigid scaffolding to take children into their zone of proximal development and onto ‘the edge of learning’ (Vygotsky).

 

Is that enough jargon yet? I’ll put it another way – essentially my lessons take 2 forms:

 

  • Lessons where I start from a point the children have specified, negotiate the learning goals and guide them to achieve them. (You can see why co-construction is a useful term for this, as the children work together with the adult to ‘constuct’ the scaffold).
  • Lessons where I define the learning goal, set the specified success criteria (or steps to success, learning ladder – whatever you want to call it) and teach the various stages until the children achieve the learning goal.
Or going back to the terminology, I use 2 types of scaffolding - negotiated and rigid.

 

So in my research I did a half-term of negotiated scaffolding, using blogging, Twitter, video sharing and Google Docs for the children to collaborate with each other and beyond to the wider world. One of the particular highlights was when a student, writing the date asked the question: “I wonder if there’s a birthday on every day of the year?” She posted the question to the blog, I put it out on Twitter and there were some great responses from maths teachers in different parts of the world by the next day. Excited, motivated, inspired – the children went on to solve the problem the next day.

 

I then did a half-term of ‘rigid scaffolding’. I mainly taught skills like written methods and simplification of fractions. Sounds pretty tedious.

 

What was interesting was that the children made progress in both periods, during both the rigid and the negotiated scaffolding. And not only that they made double the expected progress. There may be many different explanations for this, but I suspect that the ownership that the children were able to take from the negotiated scaffolding part carried over into the rigid scaffolding part – the children knew that they were in a learning relationship with myself, each other and also people beyond the classroom and it motivated them to really excel.

 

Sadly, much teaching in the UK primary sector (especially in maths), is dominated by the rigid scaffold. Alexander (2004) calls it ‘pedagogical prescription’ and Thompson (2008) says:
“at the deeper level of classroom discourse, pupil– teacher interaction was still dominated by closed questions, emphasizing recall rather than speculation and problem-solving”

And with the ‘rigid scaffold’ the worksheet is king. It enables a teacher to give a ‘learning ladder'; to leave the children to get on with it; to ask mainly closed questions

 

The fact is that social media had enabled me and the children to recapture the dialogue. It forced us to think ‘socially'; to talk about what we were doing; to ask questions that were more open-ended.

 

So why the warning bell?

 

Well it suddenly struck me that the learning platform – if I filled it up with stuff – would become just like a worksheet. I had talking the ‘blank sheet’ approach of Google Docs and was busy writing over the lovely blank spaces with content. I could continue fill it up with an activity for every piece of learning needed, forgetting that each child may have different starting points and forgetting that negotiating the way through the learning is an extra-ordinarily powerful method.

 

The lesson for me is that I need to be prepared to continue the dialogue with the children, finding ways in the learning platform to do it. I need to avoid the temptation of ‘closing off’ the learning platform, making everything rigid and I need to enable children to negotiate their own learning on the learning platform with me – to become creators of content themselves. A helpful progression for developing learning platforms can be found on this #edjournal article: ‘Implementing New Technological Tools in Schools.’

 

Conclusion

 

There’s still a place for the rigid scaffold, but it needs to be blended with the negotiated one. In the same way there’s still a place for the worksheet and the highly structured online course, but they need to be blended with negotiation and dialogue, both face-to-face and social media.

A growing argument for Google Apps in schools instead of LA-imposed VLEs.

At one point I thought there was only reason why Google Apps would make a better VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) in my school over the LA-imposed one.

 

It just worked.

 

The teachers got it straight away. Within half an hour of using it, they had produced something collectively of value in the school. The children got it straight away too. In my first lesson with Google Apps, the children learnt a knew skill, created something relevant to the curriculum and shared their work with me within the Google Apps domain. It took 45 minutes, without any painful file management, reminding children exactly where on the server they should save their work. Some of the children followed up at the weekend by continuing their work and sharing improvements with me. Google Apps was, in short, a great learning resource. It still is. As my friend Mark Allen (@edintheclouds) says, it is the iphone of the internet.

 

Since then, I have started to find that there are other arguments. For a start, most VLEs started in universities where they a repository for online learning and knowledge. They are designed to keep the knowledge secure for that university and for that course – that’s how universities make their money. State primary education is completely different. The knowledge should be shared. Children of course need to be kept safe (which Google Apps does as well as any other VLE), but we can’t withhold essential elementary skills and knowledge from our communities.

 

But I’m not the only one who believes that ‘locked-down’ learning is dangerous for children in the long term. The Ofsted report, Safe use of new technologies says:

 

Although the 13 schools which used ‘locked down’ systems kept their pupils safe while in school, such systems were less effective in helping them to learn how to use 

new technologies safely. These pupils were therefore more vulnerable overall. This was a particular concern when pupils were educated away from their main school, for example, in work-based learning.”

 

Worryingly, it seems that  some LAs aren’t engaged in best practice in terms of developing VLEs in their schools. An old report from Becta states:

 

We consider that, if unchecked, such arrangements for interoperability have the potential to impede competition and choice not only in the provision of MIS solutions but also in the market for Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) and Managed Learning Environments (MLEs), and hinder the effective delivery of wider policy objectives in relation to personal learning spaces.

 

They have certainly been unchecked in some LAs.

 

Agent4Change.net has a link to the new MIS BECTA report (september 2010) with the conclusion: The new Becta MIS report, after all, concludes that the market for MIS now, compared with the position at time of the 2005 Report, remains just as uncompetitive.

 

So while it’s great to have all the defensive arguments about e-safety, it may also be valuable to have some counter-arguments about how ineffective LAs have been at educating children for the 21st century and how they have failed to prepare schools likewise.

 

I’m also struck by this 2009 report about school VLE use, which states (on page 8) that successful VLE use is characterised by:
  • Schools having developed a tradition of effective procurement and implementation of innovative use of ICT
  • Schools having underpinned the implementation of the learning platform with a coordinated, positive and enthusiastic strategic approach by senior leaders and managers.
Comparing this with the MIS report from BECTA (September 2009), it seems that LAs are tarred with a brush of ineffective procurement, yet Becta have found that schools with effective procurement have effective VLEs. In addition the second point would indicate that VLEs that are foisted upon schools by LAs don’t work, but schools that have ownership of their VLE through their senior leaders have VLEs that are making a difference for their learners.

 

Just like we’re finding with Google Apps.

 

Finally, while I’ve been writing this, someone tweeted a link to this warning about the dangers of not teaching about the world we actually live in.

 

Seems to me like schools need ownership of this stuff so that they can prepare their communities for the future. As a senior leader in my school, I have ownership of our Google Apps and know where I’m going with it. There may be better stuff out there but I don’t have ownership of it.

 

So if you lead a school or are part of the leadership, take ownership of the offline and the online. Google Apps might even help you.

Good Design or Misleading Iconography?

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A couple of months ago I read, or rather looked at, this on Doug Belshaw’s blog. A 4-set Venn diagram. I looked at the four areas described – Education, Technology, Productivity and Design and how the centre section where all four areas meet must surely be some ideal. The I realised I couldn’t meet the ideal – because I am rubbish at design. The other areas are fine, but not design.

 

Doug described the centre section as ‘User Experience’ and a kind of agree. All four areas have to combine positively to create a positive user experience. I saw this happen when I used Google Docs with my colleagues earlier this term. I had previously tried to foist Moodle on them – but to no avail.

 

It. Just. Didn’t. Work.

 

There was something missing from their user experience. But Google Docs made complete sense. We used a spreadsheet to plan how we would teach our 120 children maths for the term. Not only did the same teachers who didn’t get Moodle get Google Docs straight away, but we planned the maths groups in only half an hour – previously it had taken a couple of hours for me and then lots of follow up conversations and re-adjustments. It was a productive experience, the teachers learnt something using technology and it was clearly designed well enough for teachers with low IT confidence to get it straight away.

 

It. Just. Worked. 

So when, a month or so later I came to design a learning platform using Google Apps – I was excited that the technology was in place to create a productive online tool, but worried that my design skills wouldn’t be up to the task. Along came Mark Allen (@edinthclouds), fellow GCT with some wonderful help, advice and a great template – but still I wanted more. I didn’t want to solely use the icons that Mark was offering because I wanted them to belong to us at Paganel. So I asked some children to design some for me. Some were hand-drawn like what you can see on the front-end of our learning platform at lp.paganelschool.net, others were created in Google Drawings. They’re not brilliant – but they’re ours.

 

And this is I hit a really interesting problem. I had a go at creating some of the icons myself (I couldn’t take the children away from their curriculum every lesson to do my work for me – child labour was banned in this country in Victorian times). But obviously being a poor designer I was completely stuck for ideas. So a Google Image search revealed what the rest of the world was doing for icons and gave me some good ideas for my own. However, it was clear that whilst there are some excellent designers out there, and the icons look very pretty, they’re not all working in the centre zone of Doug;’s Venn diagram – they’re not actually working for a good user experience.

 

My best example is ‘training‘. I did an image search for training and came up with the picture I attached to the blog. 30 icons for training. However many of the images provide a very negative image for training – they’re all about ‘instruction’ not training. Images of chalkboards, lecturing and even mortar-board-wearing figures. That’s not training to me.

 

Training is about the practice and application of specific exercises to develop and hone a skill. It requires two people to help you – a coach who can draw out your motivation and a mentor who can guide you when you’re going wrong. Images of instruction give the wrong message to the user about what training actually is. They limit the message. Is this being pedantic? Maybe so – but I want the best user experience possible for the teachers who will be using my learning platform.

 

But I’m not a designer. I desperately want a good icon image for ‘training’ so I can use it on my website, but I can’t think what it should be. So any thought or reflections on other misleading icons will be most welcome – and if anyone can help me design a good ‘training’ one, do let me know.